Okapi Faunal Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo


Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (1°00’-2°42’N and 28°02’- 29°08’E), the vast Okapi Wildlife Reserve occupies about one fifth of the Ituri Forest within the Congo river basin in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the great rainforest wildernesses of the world. The Congo has one of the largest drainage systems in Africa which has yielded a large number of major evolutionary discoveries. The Reserve contains threatened species of primates and birds, an immense flora, more than 4,000 of the estimated 30,000 okapi surviving in the wild and dramatic scenery including waterfalls on the Ituri and Epulu rivers. It is also of special interest as the homeland of traditional nomadic Mbuti and Efe pygmy hunter-gatherers.

Threats to the site

The Committee placed the Okapi Wildlife Reserve on the list of World Heritage in Danger in 1998, one year after giving it World Heritage status, because armed conflict in early 1997, had led to the looting of facilities and of equipment donated by international conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the killing of elephants, incursions by thousands of gold and coltan miners and by bushmeat hunters and cultivators. Most of the staff were evacuated. By 2001, exploitation of the Reserve by armed militias, miners and hunters had decimated the animal population around all camps and the park was too dangerous to visit. That year IUCN, the UN and UNEP responded to pleas from staff and NGOs for international pressure to stop the destruction and help to restore funds, morale and order.

Geographical location

caption Okapi at St. Louis Zoo. (Source: Missouri Government Homepage)

In the Ituri Forest of the Congo basin in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It lies between the towns of Mambasa and Wamba and the rivers Nepoko and Ituri, 100 kilometers (km) northwest of the Virunga National Park and 300 km east-northeast of Kisingani,between 1°00’-2°42’N and 28°02’- 29°08’E.

Date and history of establishment

  • 1952: A captive breeding center was established at Epulu to supply okapi to zoos around the world;
  • 1992: The reserve created by Ministerial Decree 045-CM-ECN: the first new protected area in the Congo basin for 22 years. Its governing policy and legislation includes the Nature Conservation Ordinance No. 69-041 of 1969, Ordinance 78-190 of 1978 and National Law 82-002 of 1982
  • 1998: Placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger because of large-scale invasion and destruction by miners, militias and refugees.


1,372,625 hectares (ha).

Land tenure

Government, in Orientale province. Administered by the Institut Congolais (formerly Zairois) pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). Temporarily under Rwandan army control.


Varies between 500 meters (m) in the west to 1,000 m in the east.

Physical features

The Reserve is comprised of two geomorphic regions: the gently rolling upland plateau of the Ituri forest in the Congo river basin, and savanna foothills behind the Western Rift mountains. To the southwest the plateau drops to the Congo basin, to the northeast the forest rises 500 m, changing abruptly (due to clearing) to savanna near the hills. The soils of the forest are acidic, often deeper than 2 m although thin patches occur, particularly on hills. Low inselberg hills in the north and east are of granite. Underlying the region is Archaean granite, gneiss and mica-schist formations typical of the Congo basin. The Reserve lies between the Nepoko, Takona and Agamba rivers in the north and the Ituri and Lenda rivers in the south, including parts of the Epilu, Nduye and Ngoyu rivers. There are deposits of gold, cassiterite (a tin ore) and coltan (columbite-tantalite) ore of a high grade which in 2000 fetched very high prices as a metal used in computer and mobile phone microchips.


The mean annual rainfall between 1987 and 1994 was 1,680 millimeters (mm), but rainfall at the local scale is highly variable. The rainy seasons last from March through May and August through November with a relatively dry period from mid-December to February, but no months are without at least 50 mm of rainfall. Dry season fogs encourage epiphytes, lichens and mosses. The mean daily temperature is 24°C with 2°C variability. The region receives on average 2,000 hours of sunshine per annum. A small weather station was established at Epulu.


Most of the forest is floristically intact. Diversity is very high: in 9.1 ha of mixed forest, 302 species of trees, including understory trees, and 130 species of lianas were recorded; and in 40 ha area of forest, 670 woody plant species were identified.

There are four main forest types: swamp forest, mixed forest, Mbau forest, and secondary forest. Swamp forest occurs in narrow strips along drainage channels throughout the reserve. Mixed forest typically is tall with a crown height of 30-40 m, a heterogeneous canopy with frequent emergent trees with an open understory and dense sub-canopy. 111 tree species and 32 lianas have been recorded. Typical canopy tree species include Julbernardia seretii, Cynometra alexandri, Cleistanthus michelsonii, and Klainedoxa gabonensis. Large emergent trees include Irvingia excelsa, I. robur, I. grandiflora, Klainedoxa gabonensis, Cannarium schweinfurthii, Pachylesma tessmannii, Entandrophragma spp., Alstonia boonei, Celtis adolphi-friderici, Pterocarpus soyauxii, Parinari congensis and Piptadeniastrum africanum. Mbau forest is 90% dominated by Gilbertiodendron dewevrei, which often occurs in pure stands. Tree height is typically 30-40m with an dense even canopy; the understory is open but a sub-canopy layer is absent; 74 tree species are recorded. Emergents are rarer than in mixed forest but include Irvingia excelsa and Tessmannis anomela. Subdominants are similar to those in mixed forest: Uapaca guineesis, Cannarium schweinfurthii and Entandrophragma spp. occur, and, being shade intolerant species, are good indicators of past disturbance. Secondary forest generally occurs in areas that have been deforested. There are two threatened endemic cycads Encephalartos marunguensis and E.schmitzii.


caption Bambuti pygmy in ituri Forest, after capturing what appears to be an African Dwarf crocodile in 1954. (Source: Florida Museum of Natural History)

There are 52 mammal species including okapi Okapia johnstoni, endemic to the DRC with a wide but localized distribution. Of perhaps 30,000 okapi remaining in the wild, the Ituri Forest had more than 4,000 in 1986.

The number of elephants Loxodonta africana cyclotis (V) in the forest was estimated in 1998 at 7,375 but they have been heavily poached for ivory since then. Other species include the endemic water chevrotain Hyemoschus aquaticus, African golden cat Felis aurata (K), giant forest genet Genetta victoriae, the endemic aquatic genet Osbornictis piscivora, leopard Panthera pardus, giant ground pangolin Manis gigantea, aardvark orycteropus afer, pygmy antelope Neotragus batesii, forest buffalo Syncerus caffer nanus, bush pig Potamochoerus porcus and giant forest hog Hylochoerus meinertzhageni (V) and great cane rat Thryonomys swinderianus.

The Ituri Forest has one of the highest numbers of duiker species in Africa including blue duiker Cephalophus monticola, black-fronted duiker C. nigrifrons (E), white-bellied duiker C. leucogaster, Peter's duiker C. callipygus, Bay duiker C. dorsalis, and yellow-backed duiker C. sylvicultor. Thirteen primate species have been observed, the largest number known for an African forest, including red colobus Colobus badius, Angolan black and white colobus C. angolensis, Abyssinian black and white colobus C. guereza, red-tailed guenon Cercopithecus ascanius, blue monkey C. mitis, L'Hoest's guenon C. lhoesti, Dent's guenon C. pogonias denti, De Brazza's monkey C. neglectus, the rare owl-faced guenon C. hamlyni, greycheeked monkey Cercocebus albigena, crested mangabey C. galeritus, l'Houest's monkey C. l'houesti, anubis baboon Papio anubis and over 7,500 chimpanzee Pan troglodytes. Also present are Zaire clawless otter Aonyx congica, brush-tailed porcupines Atherurus africanus, bongo antelope Tragelaphus euryceros, Sitatunga antelope T. spekei, black-legged mongoose Bdeogale nigripes, black mongoose Crossarchus alexandri, and marsh mongoose Atilax paludinosus.

Two crocodiles are found: the African slender-snouted crocodile Crocodylus cataphactus, and the African dwarf crocodile Osteolaemus tetraspis.

Among uncommon butterfly species, the largest African butterfly, the African giant swallowtail Papillo antimachus, is known to occur.

Ituri has 376 bird species including spot-breasted ibis Lampribis rara, olive ibis L. olivacea, long-tailed hawk Urotriorchis macrourus, Nahan's francolin Francolinus nahani, black guineafowl Agelastes niger, guineafowl Guttera plumifera, sandy scops owl Otus icterorhynchus, Nkulengu rail Himantornis haematopus, whitenaped pigeon Columba albinucha, Eremomela turneri, Bate's nightjar Caprimulgus batesi, forest ground thrush Turdus oberlaenderi, black spinetail Telacanthura melanopygia, barecheeked trogon Apaloderma aequatoriale, black-collared lovebird Agapornis swinderniana and lyretailed honey- guide Melichneutes robustus. Endemic to the Ituri, are yellow-legged weaver Ploceus flavipes and golden-naped weaver P.aureonucha; endemic to the region are Sassi's olive greenbul Phyllastrephus lorenzi, Bedford's paradise flycatcher Terpsiphone bedfordi and Ituri flycatcher Batis ituriensis. .

Cultural heritage

caption Mbuti Net Hunter. Their nets can be over 1 km in length, and women and children often take part in the hunt. (Source: Ituri Forest People's Fund)

Hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators have occupied the margins of the Ituri Forest for centuries. The present populations go back to Nilotic and Bantu migrations as well as the indigenous pygmies. The present pygmy groups in the Ituri forest are the Efe and Mbuti. They follow a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, depending on wild game and fish caught with traditional fiber nets or archery.

Their main game species are small ungulates and primates. When not hunting, they gather insects, fungi, fruits, seeds, plants and honey and they excel in the use and identification of wild plants. Most of the cultivators in the region are Bantu, the dominant ethnic group that includes Lese, Mamvu, Bira, Ndaka, and Budu. Long-standing economic and cultural ties exist between the pygmies and traditional forest farmers, with the pygmies exchanging game for cultivated starch foods to balance their diet.

Local human population

Until 2000 the human population in the forest was relatively low, with few permanent settlements, mostly along the roads, with some gold-mining in the interior: estimated in 1990 at 15,600 people and decreasing owing to the decay of the road system. But since the disturbances in Kivu to the south, Nande and urban Bantu immigrant cultivators are increasingly encroaching on the forest from the southeast. In 2000-1, due to a brief ten-fold increase in the world price of coltan, there was an inrush of 4,000 coltan miners needing meat. With the accompanying Rwandan Interahamwe and Congolese Mayi-Mayi armed militias these wiped out the animals around their camps, threatening the Mbutu pygmy way of life. The miners earn little, often under military coercion.

Visitor and visitor facilities

In the past the Epulu Okapi station was a major regional tourist destination with good access from the trans-African highway, but at present the Reserve is too dangerous to visit. There were plans to improve tourist information and establish a visitor registration and monitoring system. It is hoped that the hotels, hiking trails, picnic sites, and guided tours of the Okapi Captive Breeding Centre will be reinstated with perhaps the chance to participate in traditional hunting with pygmies.

Scientific research and facilities

caption Children mining coltan. (Source: University of Michigan)

Most of the research in the area has been on the okapi, on inventories of flora and fauna, and studies of pygmy populations in their natural environment. The Wildlife Conservation Society (New York Zoological Society and Wildlife Conservation International) have funded the research scientists T.and J.Hart since 1985. They have made a long-term botanical study of the composition of the natural forest and its pharmacological potentials, of the okapi and of the dynamics of the socio-economic impact of human migration. The development of a Landsat map was funded by WWF, WCS, the Eppley and LSB Leakey Foundations, NSF and the Swan Fund. The University of Kisangani carried out research, as did the Université National du Zaire, for Institut Zairois pour la conservation de la nature (IZCN), IUCN, and WWF, funded by WCS with help from USAID, World Bank, Tabazaire (DRC's largest tobacco company) and the Gilman Investment Company (GIC). A research and management center, the Centre de Formation et de Recherche en Conservation Forestière is located at Epulu (CEFRECOF). In 2001, a re-census of large mammals showed that elephant numbers had not suffered.

Conservation value

The Ituri is a Pleistocene refuge of exceptional species richness with a greater variety of mammals than any park in Africa. Its endemicity of 15% is one of the highest in the world, preserved until recently by its inaccessibility. It has the highest known density of okapis at approximately 2.5 animals per square kilometers (km2) and is listed as one of the five most important forest sites in Africa for bird conservation. The unbroken traditional relationship of the pygmies to their environment is of unusual interest.

Conservation management

Four management zones were proposed in collaboration with local people: one or two protected core zones (of 500,000 ha); a large traditional hunting/gathering zone; enclaves of a radius of 5 km around existing villages for hunting gathering, farming and construction and a 50 km buffer zone all round the reserve.Global Environment Fund (GEF) funding may eventually establish this zoning and a permanent ICCN presence around the reserve. The management of the reserve is the responsibility of the GIC. A management plan was prepared by IZCN with technical contributions and funding from WWF, the World Bank, IUCN and Tabazaire. Wildlife safeguard regulations included authorized hunting methods, zoned hunting areas, a ban on commercial hunting and identification of protected species.

Management constraints

caption 11 month old baby cutting fruit with a machete in the Ituri Forest. (Source: University of Delaware)

The 1994 war in Rwanda began to increase the pressure of invasion from densely populated Kivu province to the south. Refugees and urbanized migrants entered the forest in search of new farmland, often practicing unsustainable levels of shifting cultivation. The forest was also threatened by increased commercial logging concessions near the Reserve boundaries, by gold-mining, by commercial hunting and elephant poaching for ivory. After the 1997 and 1998 rebellions, the Reserve guards were disarmed by the Rwandan army and forbidden to patrol. Facilities and equipment were looted, the staff was evacuated, surveillance stopped and the Reserve passed out of the control of the ICCN into that of a splinter RCD (Rwandan militant) group allied with the Ugandan army. Then in 2000-1, following a major though temporary rise in the price of coltan, a huge influx of some 4,000 miners in 50 camps with bushmeat hunters to supply their food drastically altered and degraded the traditional ecological balance. Continuous hunting for both food and for animals for sale decimated animal populations around mines and villages, threatening many species with maiming as well as death and menacing the Mbutu pygmy people. The effects of the invasion included forest clearing for fuel, charcoal, construction and cultivation, logging, erosion, siltation and stream pollution, overhunting for meat and sale, killing elephants for ivory, maiming and disruption of wildlife. The trade in mineral ores however, is legal and supported by foreign governments and large corporations, and most of the profits go abroad. By mid 2000 the DRC Emergency Relief Mission of international NGOs was supplying equipment and creating public awareness of the damage to the eastern D.R.C. In March 2001, the IUCN called for an embargo on buying coltan mined in protected areas in the DRC, source of 70% of the world's reserves. In April, the UN Security Council released a report damning the trade from protected areas, its role in financing the Rwandan occupation, citing the World Bank and Citibank as passive participants and naming the officials in Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi profiting from it. The development of the mining was funded, according to a 1999 report by P. Baracyetse, by North American interests. But as mining will continue to be of great economic importance in eastern DRC, a lobbying campaign by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF) aimed at saving the eastern lowland gorillas therefore proposed not to ban mining but to re-establish controls over the industry along with providing alternative sources of work so that the Congolese people and state benefit could more from their own resources.

In 2000 for some months the Reserve came under the control of the Ugandan-backed President of the Front for the Liberation of Congo (FLC) which exploits the forests but ordered the miners to start leaving. This enabled the staff of the Reserve to begin to disarm poaching gangs and to improve the prospects for conservation. However, miners banned from the park may begin to mine the forest outside it, degrading the homeland of the Efe pygmies instead. After funding from the UNESCO/DRC/UNF Project, a new guard post was built, guards trained, plants inventoried and a zoning plan undertaken. Two-thirds of the Park are now accessible to the guards, elephant poaching had slowed, the local Governor was very cooperative and the short to mid term potential for recovery of the Park was the best among the five threatened parks in the Congo.


The Director of Conservation and of the Reserve, Assistant Director, a team of 41 park guards, and 12 general laborers were based at Epulu.


US$45,000 annually, mostly through NGO projects. In 1999 the United Nations Fund promised US$ 4,186,600, two-thirds of it outright, to compensate staff and pay salaries and allowances for all five D.R.C. World Heritage Sites from 2000 to 2004. US$20,000 was pledged to the Reserve via the Gilman Co. for uniforms and new patrolling equipment. In 2000 the Belgian government also promised US$500,000 for the five D.R.C. parks from 2001-2004.

IUCN management category

  • II National Park
  • Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1996. Natural Criterion iv.
  • Listed as World Heritage in Danger in 1998 due to devastation by civil war, invasion by miners and militants and destruction of wildlife by hunting for bushmeat and ivory.

Further reading

  • Anon. (1985). Rapport d'une Mission au Zaire et Rwanda. Report to IUCN/WWF, 20pp.
  • Baracyetse, P.(1999). The Geopolitical Stakes of the International Mining Companies in the D.R.Congo. SOS Rwanda-Burundi, Buzet, Belgium.
  • Bergorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe Archives (BRD) (2000). Gorilla Journal, June, 2000.
  • Bodmer, R.& Gubista, K.(1990). A note on the social structure of free-ranging okapi.Nature et Faune International Journal on Nature Conservation in Africa. Vol 6(4): 24-28.
  • Caldecott, J.,Jenkins, M.,Johnson,T.,& Groombridge, B. (1994). Priorities for Conserving Global Species Richness and Endemism WCMC / IUCN. World Conservation Press, UK. 36pp.
  • Chapin,J. (1932). The birds of the Belgian Congo. Part I. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol.65, New York.
  • Chapin,J. (1932). The birds of the Belgian Congo. Part 2. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol.65, New York.
  • Dejaifve, J (1990). Esquisse sur l'Avifaune de la Forêt de l'Ituri, Report, 47pp.
  • Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (2001). Coltan in Congo. Can Grauer's Gorilla Survive? Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, London.
  • Draulens ,D. & van Krunkelsven, E. (2002). The impact of war on forest areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Oryx. 36 (1): 35-40.
  • Foldvary,F. (2001). Editorial update on pygmies and tantalum. The Progress Report, Philadephia, U.S.A.
  • Foose, T. (1978). Demographic and genetic models and management for the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) in captivity. Zoologica et Pathologica, Antwerpen, Belgium, pp 119-195.
  • Hart, J. & Hart, T., (1984). The Current Status of the Ituri Forest of Zaire: an Overview. Report to the U.S. Man & Biosphere Program.
  • Hart, T. & Hart, J., (1985). The ecological basis of hunter-gatherer subsistence in the African rain forest: The Mbuti of eastern Zaire. Human Ecology,14(1):29-55.
  • Hart, J. & Hart, T., (1986). L'éco-éthologie de l'Okapi dans les forêts du Nord-est du Zaire. 19pp.
  • Hart, J. & Hall, J. (1996) Status of eastern Zaire's forest parks and reserves. Conservation Biology. 10(2).
  • Hart, J. & Hart, T., (1990). A summary report on the behaviour, ecology and conservation of the okapi Okapia johnstoni in Zaire. Nature et Faune, International Journal on Nature Conservation in Africa. Vol 6 (3):21-28.
  • Hart,T.& Mwinyihali R.(2001). Armed Conflict and Biodiversity in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Biodiversity Support Program / WWF, Washington, D.C.
  • IPIS (International Peace Information Service (2002). Supporting the War Economy in the DRC: European Companies and the Coltran Trade. Antwerp, Belgium.
  • IZCN/GTZ (1995). Kahuzi-Biéga National Park. Tourist brochure. IZCN, Kinshasa, D.R.C.
  • Mbaelele, M., Mandango,M. & Mushenzi-Lusenge (1994). Rapport de Recueil des Données Ecologiques sur la Reserve de Faune à Okapis (RFO) En Vue de la Formulation du Dossier de Demand d'Inscription de ce Bien Naturel sur la Liste du Patrimoine Mondial. IZCN, Kinshasa, Zaire. 39pp.
  • Mwinyihali,R. & Tshombe,R. (2001). The Zoning of Okapi Faunal Reserve in a Time of Crisis: Opportunities and Constraints. Report, CEFRECOF, Epulu, DRC.
  • Lippens, L.& Wille, H. (1976). Les Oiseaux du Zaire, Lannoo, Tielt, Belgium.
  • Mertens, H., Hall, J., Hart J., Hart, T. & Mbieme, L. (1989). Conservation de la Forêt de l'Ituri au Zaire, Revue Panda, WWF-Belgium N° spécial sur le Zaire, pp 19-22.
  • Peterson, R. (2000). Conservation and Change: Community, Culture and Values in Congo's Rainforests. Univ.of Nairobi, Kenya / Antioch College,Ohio,U.S.A.
  • Redmond, I.(2001).Coltan Boom, Gorilla Bust. The Impact of Coltan Mining on Gorillas and Other Wildlife in Eastern D.R. Congo. Report for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe & the Born Free Foundation.
  • Sayer, J., Harcourt, C.,& Collins, N. (1992). The Conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests - Africa. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. 288pp. ISBN: 0131753320
  • Sidle, J.,& Lawson, D., (1986). Proposal for the Establishment of the Okapi National Park in the Haut-Zaire Region, Zaire. Submitted to the IZCN by WWF. 41pp.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Committee (2000) Report on the 23rd Session of the World Heritage Committee,1999. Paris.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Committee (2001) Report on the 24th Session of the World Heritage Committee, 2000. Paris.
  • United Nations (2001). Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo. U.N.Security Council, New York.
  • United Nations (2001). Addendum to the Report of the UN Expert Panel on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the D.R.C. U.N.Security Council, New York.
  • Van den berg, W. (1977). Proceedings of the International Okapi Symposium, Antwerpen in Zoologica et Pathologica, Antwerpen, Belgium, Vol. 71, pp 5-131.
  • WCMC (1988). Zaire - Conservation of Biological Diversity. A draft briefing document prepared for IUCN Tropical Forest Programme. 25pp.
  • WCPA (World Commission on Protected Areas) (2001). Coltran mining in World Heritage sites in the D.R.C. News Digest, April.
  • Wilkie,D.,Curran,B.,Tshombe,R.& Morelli,G.(1998). Managing bushmeat hunting in Okapi Wildlife Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo. Oryx 32(2):131-44.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2008). Okapi Faunal Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155015


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