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Okapi (Okapia johnstoni). (Image Credit: nachbarnebenan / Creative Commons)

Okapi (Okapia johnstoni). (Image Credit: nachbarnebenan / Creative Commons)

Research published today in a special giraffe and okapi issue of the African Journal of Ecology reveals new information on these surprisingly enigmatic African cousins. Researchers warn that immediate action must be taken to secure the future of both giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and okapi (Okapia johnstoni) before it is too late.

Giraffe numbers have plummeted from 140,000 in the late 1990s to less than 80,000 today. In the past 30 years, giraffe have become extinct in at least 7 African countries and okapi numbers are thought to have halved.  This dramatic loss has gone largely unnoticed. The main threats to both species are habitat loss and, increasingly, illegal hunting/poaching.

The newly-formed IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group with support from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) is currently conducting the first-ever detailed assessment of giraffe as a species as well as all its 9 subspecies and it is expected that by early 2016 most, if not all, will end up in one of the IUCN Red List threatened categories. The okapi was recently listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List following a IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group workshop, supported by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Congolese nature conservation institute (ICCN), bringing together okapi experts from across the species’ range for the first time.

Dr Noëlle Kümpel, okapi expert from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and co-chair for okapi of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, comments, “The giraffe is loved and known across the world, but very few people are aware that we are losing both this iconic species and its only close living relative, the okapi, at an unprecedented and alarming rate. We have both species at ZSL London Zoo and they are some of the most popular animals on display. I hope that these new insights will help raise awareness of the plight of both species and trigger efforts to conserve the shy and mysterious okapi.”

Reticulated giraffe in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. (Image Credit: Dan Lundberg)

Reticulated giraffe in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. (Image Credit: Dan Lundberg)

Dr Julian Fennessy, Executive Director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and co-chair for giraffe of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group, adds, “The giraffe is an African icon and the drop in numbers surprises even the most seasoned conservationists, as giraffe appear to be everywhere. The research that has been done so far is only starting to paint the bleak picture facing these gentle giants. It is time for the international community to stick their necks out to save giraffe before it is too late.”

Despite being one of the most iconic and recognisable animals in the world, giraffe are probably the least researched large mammals in Africa. This special issue provides important new information on the ecology, population and distribution of giraffe and okapi, shedding light on poorly-understood behaviours such as the function of all-male giraffe herds and the leadership role taken by older females in the group. It also highlights how little we still know about these animals and calls for more research on and improved monitoring of both species.

Giraffe and okapi are the only living species in the Giraffidae family and share a number of common features, such as elongated necks and long, dark-coloured tongues (both adaptations for feeding on tree leaves). The giraffe is found in savannah regions of 21 countries across sub-Saharan Africa while okapi are restricted to the dense, lowland rainforests of central and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

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