JOHANNESBURG — An animal that looks like a cross between a horse, zebra and giraffe has been rediscovered where the species was first found a century ago, conservationists announced Friday.
Delighted conservationists said they had found conclusive proof of the existence of the okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park — defying the odds of survival in a region battered by savage conflict.
Discovered in what is now Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 1901, the shy forest-dwelling okapi has not been seen in the park since 1959.
It was known to be present elsewhere in the Congo and several zoos around the world have okapis in captivity, but there were concerns it had gone extinct in the place of its discovery because of violence and lawlessness.
But a recent survey of the area by the World Wildlife Fund and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation found 17 okapi tracks and other evidence of its presence.
No sightings of the elusive animal were made but its tracks were taken as absolute proof of the creature’s recent activity in the park.
Giraffe's closest living kin
It is only found in the secluded forests of eastern Congo and is considered the giraffe’s closest living relative.
“The rediscovery of okapis in Virunga National Park is a positive sign,” said Marc Languy, of WWF’s Eastern Africa Regional Program. “As the country is returning to peace, it shows that the protected areas in this troubled region are now havens for rare wildlife once more.”
Okapi have large ears, a relatively long neck, and a long black tongue. Males have hairy horns, while females are sometimes have a reddish tone and usually slightly taller than males.
A solitary animal, the okapi only joins peers for mating. They feed on more than 100 different species of forest plants, some which are poisonous to humans, as well as grasses, fruits, ferns and fungi. They also eat a type of clay that provides minerals and salt.
The animal’s eastern Congo home has been the scene of incessant conflict including a brutal civil war that erupted in 1998 and then escalated to engulf several other African states at a cost of millions of lives.
The Congo hopes to put the bloodshed and chaos behind when it holds its first free elections in four decades next month, but marauding rebels and militia continue to fight on in the remote east.
Poaching, deforestation a problem
Virunga National Park, located on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, stretches some 200 miles between Lake Kivu and Lake Albert.
Besides the threats from armed conflict, wildlife has suffered from poaching and deforestation by the more than 60,000 squatters inside the park.
“Except for mountain gorillas, which have shown an increase in population due to important conservation efforts, most wildlife in the park have heavily suffered from poaching,” WWF said in a statement. “The population of hippopotamus, for example, has dropped from 29,000 in the mid-1970s to less than 1,000 today.”
Reuters contributed to this report.