Unknown to the outside world until only a century ago, the Okapi is one of Africa’s most graceful and elusive animals. Endangered by hunting and habitat loss, Rainforest Trust’s partners have pioneered ground-breaking research on these mysterious creatures for over three decades in the remote rainforests of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
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Once thought to be a mythical beast, Okapis are shy forest cousins of giraffes found only in the eastern Congo Basin. Looking a little like a cross between a zebra, donkey and giraffe, the Okapi’s discovery in 1901 was one of the most incredible taxonomic finds of the 20th century. But barely a century later, the future of these enigmatic animals hangs in the balance.
Rainforest Trust’s field partners, John and Terese Hart from the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation (LWRF) have studied Okapis and fought to protect their Congolese rainforest habitat for over 30 years. They have made startling discoveries about the natural history of Okapis and many other wildlife species in the area, including Bonobos and forest elephants. Relying on the support of local people, they have developed extensive community backing for their research and collaborated closely with the Mbuti pygmies, one of the last hunter-gatherer societies in the world.
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The Harts met in DRC, formerly Zaire, in the 1970s while John was studying the Mbuti and Terese was a volunteer in the Peace Corps. In the 1980s, they returned together to continue research, married and started a family.
In the late ‘80s, John and Terese conducted one of the first ever radio collar studies of Okapis deep in the Ituri rainforest. They set up their camp at the confluence of two streams, the Afarama and Edoro.
Their first Okapi, a young female, was radio tagged on Easter day of 1986. Tagging rates steadily increased after that, eventually expanding the study area to over 30 miles and numerous individuals.
After tagging, radio antennas and hand-held receivers enabled an understanding of movement and ranges over time. Their study found that female Okapis (which are larger than males) had exclusive ranges between 3 – 4 miles. Males, however, ranged further afield, encompassing territories of 9 – 12 miles, overlapping female territories.
In addition to range and distribution patterns, their study illuminated feeding behaviors never documented. Using their long, muscular tongues, Okapis easily strip leaves from shrubs and bushes in the understory. The Harts identified well over 100 species of plants that are part of an Okapi’s diet.
Their Okapi research has become a classic field study and has even been featured in the 1992 National Geographic Video, “Heart of Brightness”, a play on the title of Joseph Conrad’s brooding “Heart of Darkness,” set in the same Congo Basin, and the family’s surname.
The Harts have since pursued many other ground breaking studies of Congo’s incredible wildlife while working closely with local communities to conserve forests. Despite civil conflict and dramatic social upheaval since they first arrived decades ago, John and Terese have stayed incredibly committed to the region’s wildlife and people. DRC has become their home.
While many parts of the Congo have suffered from decades of disastrous civil war, the Hart’s study area in the Lomami Basin has been spared much of this destruction due to its remote location.
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Rainforest Trust is partnering with LWRF to establish the new Lomami National Park, while simultaneously working to create the 1,194,507-acre Balanga Forest Reserve. The new protected areas will strategically expand protection for wildlife in and around Lomami while establishing highly-trained and well-equipped anti-poaching patrols across the region to protect one of the most important surviving populations of Okapis, forest elephants and threatened primates.
Learn how you can help create a new refuge for Congo’s rainforest wildlife.