Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 01:10 UK

Rare African okapi seen in wild

By James Morgan
Science reporter, BBC News

Okapi (ZSL)
These are the first photographs of wild okapi in Virunga National Park

An African animal so secretive it was once believed to be a mythical unicorn has been caught on camera in the wild.

Camera traps set by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have captured rare pictures of wild okapi.

The giraffe-like mammals, which have zebra-like stripes on their rear, are under threat from the bush meat trade.

The sightings in Virunga National Park prove the species is surviving in the jungle despite years of civil conflict.

Dr Noelle Kumpel, ZSL's bush meat and forests conservation programme manager, said: "To have captured photographs of such a charismatic creature is amazing.

"Okapi are very shy and rare animals - which is why conventional surveys only tend to record droppings and other signs of their presence."

Okapis, which have a black tongue designed for grasping and holding, along with distinctive stripes on their behind, are the closest living relative of the giraffe.

Okapi (ZSL)
The rare mammals, related to giraffes, have distinctive striped coats

They were unknown to the western world until the early 20th Century, but are now known to inhabit three protected areas, of which Virunga National Park is one.

Their abundance in the park is unknown as access to the forests of DRC is limited by civil conflict and poor infrastructure, making survey work difficult.

Poaching

The last official sighting in the area was nearly 50 years ago. But a survey in 2006 by conservation group WWF found their tracks on the west bank of the Semliki River, in the park's northern sector.

The latest pictures were taken by traps set by ZSL in conjunction with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN).

Thierry Lusenge, a member of ZSL's DRC survey team, added: "We have already identified three individuals, and further survey work will enable us to estimate population numbers and distribution in and around the Virunga Park, which is a critical first step in targeting conservation efforts."

In addition to the ongoing civil war, the species is under threat from poaching. Okapi meat, reportedly from the park, is now regularly on sale in the nearby town of Beni.

The ZSL survey team has warned that if hunting continues at this rate, okapi could become extinct in the park within a few years.


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