THE OKAPI WILDLIFE RESERVE
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is a World Heritage Site in the Ituri Forest in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the borders with South Sudan and Uganda. At approximately 14,000 km², it covers approximately one-fifth of the area of the forest.
The Nepoko, Ituri, and Epulu rivers flow through the reserve. The imposing Mbiya Mountain overlooks the Epulu village. The reserve is home to about 5,000 okapis, 4,000 elephants, 2,000 leopards, chimpanzees, and crocodiles. Other Ituri rain forest animals include forest buffalo and water chevrotain. The reserve has over 300 species of bird and is one of the most important sites for bird conservation in mainland Africa. Nomadic Mbuti pygmies and indigenous Bantu farmers also live within the reserve.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve was created with the help of the Okapi Conservation Project in 1992. The project continues to support the reserve by training and equipping wildlife guards and by providing assistance to improve the lives of neighboring communities. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in danger in 1997. The main threats to the reserve are deforestation, primarily caused by slash and burn agriculture, and commercial hunting for the sale of bushmeat. Gold mining has also been problematic to the Reserve. As of 2005, the fighting in the eastern part of the country moved within the boundaries of the Reserve, causing its staff to flee or be evacuated. While the native Mbuti and Bantu peoples traditionally respect the forest and its wildlife, immigrants into the area do not feel the same connection to the land. Lack of funding due to the poor political and economic conditions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has also been problematic. It is hoped that eco-tourism to the area can be developed, leading to both increased funding and improved public awareness.
As its name implies, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve is home to many okapis. As of 1996, the number was estimated at about 3900–6350, out of a global population of around 10,000–20,000. It is also the location of the Epulu Conservation and Research Center, on the Epulu River. This facility dates back to 1928 when the camp was founded by American anthropologist Patrick Putnam as a capture station, where wild okapis were captured and sent to American and European zoos. Until 2012 it still served that function, albeit with very different methodologies, as the okapis remained in Congo. In 2012 a rebel attack left the center’s captive okapis dead and it was decided to focus exclusively (at least as long as there were security concerns) on preserving the wild okapis in the reserve. The center also carries out much important research and conservation work.