Okapi discovery leads to creation of national park
Genetic mapping of the animal contributed to the establishment of Lomami National Park, an upgrade in IUCN status and the first comprehensive okapi conservation strategy
So little was known about okapis, from their population numbers in the wild to their genetic diversity (an indicator of species resilience), it was impossible to develop successful strategies for their protection.
Cardiff researchers created the first genomic database to measure okapi diversity, using samples from both captive and wild animals. Research Associate Dr David Stanton and a large team of okapi ecologists surveyed okapi in their native Democratic Republic of Congo, demonstrating that their range was much further than previously known. They also uncovered significant issues in European and US captive breeding populations.
Lomami national park created
Dr Stanton worked with the DR Congo TL2 project to survey an unexplored area of Congolese forest, thought to be far beyond the traditional range of okapis.
They collected dung samples for genetic analysis and were able to prove that the animals lived in a zone south of the Congo river for the first time.
This discovery contirbuted to the establishment of Lomami National Park in 2016 by the DR Congo Government - the first national park to be created in the area for over 40 years.
As well as bolstering the conservation of okapi, the Park also granted protection to other critical species, including forest elephants, bonobo, the recently discovered Congo peafowl (the only African representative of the peafowl) and a previously unknown primate, the lesula.
Significantly, the Lomami National Park is the first Congolese protected area to be set up in a participatory manner, facilitated by the TL2 project and Institut Congolaise pour la Conservation de la Nature. Conservationists and government work with local communities to protect the park and support sustainable livelihoods.
Improved captive breeding
Captive breeding programmes are vital to the survival of endangered species.
Research by Dr Stanton and Professor Mike Bruford showed that substantial genetic diversity had been lost from okapi breeding programmes, despite the management of inbreeding.
Through the use of genetic tools, they were able to help European and US programmes to make better breeding selections, maximising the long-term viability of the species.
The research transformed the captive breeding programme in Europe, in collaboration with Antwerp Zoo (home to the Okapi International Studbook Keeper with genetic records of every okapi that's ever lived in a zoo) and the European breeding programme (EAAP).
IUCN conservation status updated
As a result of the research, the IUCN changed the status of the okapi from Near threatened to Endangered in 2013, enabling vital access to funding for conservation. This was followed by the first ever global okapi conservation strategy, written by the IUCN Giraffe Specialist Group, involving Dr Stanton and Professor Bruford, calling for key Congolese conservation areas to be protected from militia and illegal activities.
- Okapis are a relative of the giraffe, and are shy, solitary creatures
- Local communities consider them to be sacred, and the IUCN designates them as a flagship species (a threatened species whose protection can benefit other species)
- However, they are under threat from industries such as mining and militia attacks
Meet the team
- Stanton, D. W. G. et al. 2016. Non-invasive genetic identification confirms the presence of the endangered okapi Okapia Johnstoni south-west of the Congo River. Oryx 50 (1), pp.134-137. (10.1017/S0030605314000593)
- Stanton, D. W. G. et al. 2015. Genetic structure of captive and free-ranging okapi (Okapia johnstoni) with implications for management. Conservation Genetics 16 (5), pp.1115-1126. (10.1007/s10592-015-0726-0)
- Stanton, D. W. G. et al. 2015. Enhancing knowledge of an endangered and elusive species, the okapi, using non-invasive genetic techniques. Journal of Zoology 295 (4), pp.233-242. (10.1111/jzo.12205)
- Stanton, D. W. G. et al. 2014. Distinct and diverse: range-wide phylogeography reveals ancient lineages and high genetic variation in the endangered okapi (Okapia johnstoni). PLoS ONE 9 (7) e101081. (10.1371/journal.pone.0101081)
- Stanton, D. W. G. et al. 2010. Microsatellite loci for the okapi (Okapia johnstoni). Conservation Genetics Resources 2 (Supp 1), pp.337-339. (10.1007/s12686-010-9235-0)