There are several charismatic large mammal species that make the "must see" list of typical zoo patrons and then there are those species on the "must see" list of zoologists, zoo professionals and serious zoo aficionados. There is not always as much overlap on these lists as you might think. Zoos are working hard to overcome this discrepancy as it influences the fate of some animals, which are truly noteworthy flagship species, but not necessarily on everyone's radar the way the African elephant and polar bear may be. Okapi are a great example of a species, which is popular and deemed iconic among professional zoologists, but may disappear before the general public becomes well acquainted with them. And public exposure is key to raising awareness for the plight of imperiled wildlife, which is a primary objective of the global zoo and aquarium community.
Zoos play an increasingly important role in educating the public, but they also contribute to conservation efforts on the ground as is the case for the okapi. They also serve as a safety net by establishing and managing captive populations, which essentially serve as back-up reserves for dwindling wild populations.
Okapi rarely make the average zoogoer's itinerary, but they are huge draw for my zoo colleagues when they travel on business or pleasure to other zoological institutions.
Unfortunately, these forest dwelling giraffids, which look more like a zebra than the tallest terrestrial ungulates in the world, are under great threat in politically unstable regions of Central Africa, and primarily the Ituri and Maiko forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which serve as strongholds for the existing wild population.
Recently, the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group announced a 10-year strategy to combat threats to the endangered tropical rainforest ungulate, which is as elusive as it is beautiful. The conservation strategy guidelines were developed by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which operates the London Zoo and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). The strategy focuses on protecting okapi in core habitat, namely the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which occupies one fifth of the Ituri forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The reserve has come under threat in recent years and continues to be plagued by political instability in the region.
Dr. Noelle Kumpel a Co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and lead author of the conservation strategy said, "The okapi is an iconic species for DRC and the wider world. There are still enormous gaps in our knowledge of these creatures, in large part because security concerns across their range have prevented survey teams from getting on the ground. But what is clear is the unprecedented pressure and range of threats now facing these rare and amazing animals. This global strategy provides a clear roadmap for joint action to bring them back from the brink of extinction, tackling these wider threats so we can focus on specific actions to better manage and monitor okapi, such as implementing SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) technology."
As far as zoo populations go, okapi are cared for at some of the finest zoological institutions in the world where they are the subjects of concerted breeding programs administered by zoo associations, including North America's Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA). Both these organizations manage cooperative conservation breeding efforts through their member facilities to not only ensure that a threatened species survives as a sustainable population in captivity, but that they contribute to field conservation initiatives, which directly influence animal populations in the wild in the immediate future.
The Saint Louis Zoo, noted for its hooved mammal collection, is proud to exhibit okapi among its hooved mammal exhibits, which also includes displays for the likes of other interesting species such as the Sichuan takin and Transcaspian urial. The Zoo participates in the AZA's Species Survival Plan for okapi, which is the North American analogue of the European Endangered Species Program (EEP). Both of these programs manage established breeding populations of okapi in their respective regions of the world both as security populations and as animal ambassadors for zoo exhibition and education purposes.
Both the Okapi SSP and EEP teams, which are comprised of staff from different zoos, work closely together with the Okapi Conservation Project, which helps safeguard wild populations of this endemic species, which is also the national conservation symbol of the DRC.
The Saint Louis Zoo, along with many other zoos, financially supports the Okapi Conservation Project and has supported field initiatives for this species for nearly 25 years. The Zoo remains committed to helping conserve the okapi, and other imperiled species in the Congo. "It is great to see so much attention given to this incredibly important species--one that we at the Saint Louis Zoo care deeply about," said Martha Fischer, Curator of Mammals, Ungulates and Elephants and WildCare Institute Director of the Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa. Fischer is also the Chair of the AZA Antelope and Giraffe Taxon Advisory Group for the AZA, which oversees the Okapi SSP.