It was the 15th of December 2016. Junior Amboko was in the Mpechi forest between the Lualaba and the Lomami Rivers. He was downloading videos from camera traps:
Junior: “When I opened the video and saw the okapi, I could not believe it was real. I watched it twice. Went to my field guide to check…just to be sure it was really okapi. It is such a beautiful animal.”
The video that Junior downloaded December 15th 2016.
We knew Okapi were in the Lomami National Park. We knew it because we found dung, prints and feeding sign, but only on the west bank of the Lomami River. This was confirmed by David Stanton. He did genetic sequence analysis using Okapi and Bongo dung which are often confused in the field.
He confirmed Bongo in the park on both sides of the river; Okapi, he could confirm only on the West Side of the River from the samples that he had.
Okapi occurs only in DR Congo where its range includes three national parks (Virunga, Maiko, and Lomami) and the Okapi Reserve. The Lomami National Park protects the Okapi in its isolated southwestern range, where the Lomami River is a biogeographic barrier for a number of other taxa including red colobus and the lesula.
We wanted evidence beyond feces. A greater number of Congo’s unique, flagship species are in the Lomami National Park than any other Congolese protected area. We wanted photos of all of them. Arboreal primates we have mainly gotten on our point-and-shoot cameras (including dryas and two endemic red colobus), others we have gotten on camera traps: Congo Peacock, Lesula, Dryas, forest elephant, Bonobo … but not Okapi.
Bonobos captured on camera trap in the same area where the okapi video was recorded.
Congo peacock in the Lomami National Park.
On the west bank, in the known Okapi range, we used camera traps to survey three forest areas, covering 4 to 15 km2. Each grid was comprised of 20 cameras and was active for two to three months. BUT in more than 3500 “camera days” on the west bank where we expected it, not a single okapi was recorded.
We used camera traps, same method to record other animals on the east bank. Four grids have been surveyed, accumulating a total of 4200 camera trap days. It was at the last grid, at the end of the session in Mpechi, that Junior found the okapi video.
A beautiful, healthy young female okapi. The key question: Did we just discover an isolated elusive population, or is she a one-off migration event? And if so HOW did she cross the Lomami River? According to David Stanton, Okapi’s very high genetic variability suggests multiple events of separation and remixing . So ancient dispersals, in perhaps different forest geographies, led to repeat interbreeding over okapis approximately 2 million year history as a species.
Certainly the Pleistocene periods of wet and dry were pertinent. During the periods of spreading forest Okapi migrated into expanding appropriate forest …but when did they cross the Lomami a river whose head waters are deep in the Katanga savannas, or even more formidably, the Congo/Lualaba River itself?
Our 1980s radio collar study of Okapi in the Ituri Forest (link) revealed that okapi spend their first months on their mother’s territory; as sub-adults they migrate out, sometimes moving many kilometers. But the Okapi, giraffe-gaited, have never been reported to swim and could probably only do so poorly. The Lomami has a deep channel and a strong current.
Were we the only ones that did not know about this cryptic population? Junior undertook a survey of local Ngengele and Langa hunters in the buffer zone closest to the Mpechi forest.
“ I did not tell them I had found the animal” Junior wrote in describing his methods, “they were just sharing their knowledge” None of the hunters interviewed had ever encountered okapi in their forests. “I talked with one old hunter, at least 70 years old. He assured me okapi were never in the Bangengele forest.”
This bongo was recorded on a camera trap in the Lomami National Park buffer zone which is open for local hunting.
When Junior showed the hunters the okapi videos and field guide drawings. They were surprised. The only large stripped ungulates they recognized were the bongo, bushbuck and sitatunga. All occur in their area.
After seeing the video one hunter told Junior. “You are just making this up so you can put more of our forest into the park.”
But pride and recognition of value were the most frequent responses. The news spread. Last week in Kindu Sony Kangese , a Mungengele with a construction business, told John Hart “We now know how important it is to protect the new park.” He had heard about the discovery from a family member.
We now have a challenge: Is this a cryptic population or a lone migration event? We plan to collaborate again with Dave Stanton and this time to do a more thorough combing of east bank forests for Okapi and Bongo dung.