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Last Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006, 23:54 GMT 00:54 UK
Rare giraffe-like animal spotted
Okapi Okapia johnstoni Ituri, Okapi Wildlife Reserve, Ituri Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo. Image courtesy WWF-Canon/PJ Stephenson)
Some okapis are kept in captivity (image courtesy WWF-Canon/PJ Stephenson)
Conservationists say they have found conclusive proof of the existence of a rare giraffe-like creature in the wild in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Experts from the conservation group WWF say they came across 17 okapi tracks in the Virunga National Park.

Despite its zebra-like markings, the okapi is related to the giraffe.

The region in the eastern DRC has been battered by years of conflict. The last time the shy forest-dwelling creature was spotted in the park was in 1959.

"We rely completely on tracks, on footprints, on dung, on signs of browsing to identify where the animals have been," WWF's Peter Stephenson said.

"But we did find 17 different tracks of okapis which suggest there are a few animals there - we can't put precise numbers on it. For us, the exciting thing is that they're there at all," Mr Stephenson said.

War and poaching

This discovery has prompted much excitement, says the BBC's east Africa correspondent Karen Allen.

Congolese conservationists have been working hard to try to preserve the dense forests which are the okapis' home, but a bloody civil war has made this hard. Many wildlife species have seen a dramatic fall in numbers as a result of poaching.

The rediscovery of the Okapi ahead of elections in DRC next month signals fresh hope that - against the odds - sustainable development to preserve forests and local communities is paying off, says our correspondent.

The okapi usually grows to about 2.5m (8 ft 2 in) in length and is about 2m (6ft 6in) high at the shoulder.

The animal's last redoubt until now was thought to be in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the eastern DR Congo.

A few okapis are kept at zoos around the world.

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