The dust diffused in the afternoon sun as Congolese authorities lugged several containers of illegal cargo into the light. Each box contained the velvety brown, uniquely striped skins and body parts from okapi poached in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This seizure, which also resulted in an arrest, is indicative of an unsettling increase in illegal wildlife trafficking between eastern DRC and Uganda. Conserv Congo, a local NGO partnering with authorities, seeks to smother this emerging trend with support from the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP), who has helped conserve the Okapi Wildlife Reserve’s okapi for more than 35 years. Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has been a long-term partner of the Okapi Conservation Project and for the last 10 years has served as the US base of the Project.
Okapi are Endangered relatives of giraffes found only in the remote forests of DRC, so distinctive and rarely seen that they are sometimes called Africa’s unicorns. The Reserve is one of their only strongholds, housing approximately 3,200 okapi as of a 2018 census. Their ornate skins are sold as decorations, while okapi meat, bones, and fat are targeted for false medicinal value, with every part selling for thousands of dollars. In addition to okapi skins and body parts, authorities have also recovered leopard skins, forest elephant tusks, and pangolin scales and meat from intercepted shipments.
With OCP providing financial support and information, Conserv Congo is leading a thorough response to the trafficking of okapi and other wildlife. Their investigation revealed that 80% of the illegal wildlife products seized in Uganda originate from DRC.
Together with DRC and Ugandan authorities, Conserv Congo created a task force to pursue these wildlife criminals on both sides of the border. Their large informant network helps identify the sellers and buyers of okapi products. OCP’s close relationship with DRC communities and Reserve ecoguards plays a crucial role in this pursuit, helping Conserv Congo receive tips on poaching activity, develop a map of trade routes and collect intelligence that facilitates arrests. By exchanging data and launching joint patrols, this task force has successfully captured nine traffickers in possession of okapi products and is currently investigating another eight. OCP funding allows Conserv Congo to stay involved throughout the lengthy prosecution process to ensure each trafficker is appropriately sentenced.
OCP will continue supporting Conserv Congo to disrupt the international trade of okapi parts between DRC and Uganda. They intend to build upon what has worked so far to expand the area covered, further enlist community assistance, and help authorities bring more poachers and traffickers into custody. With so few okapi left in the wild, OCP and Conserv Congo will work with the DRC government to dampen this growing threat.
Learn more about our efforts to help the endangered species, Okapi, and consider making a donation to further our mission to connect communities to wildlife and wildplaces.