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Zoologists capture first photos of okapi in wild
Britain Okapi Snapp 5022717
This undated image provided by the Zoological Society of London, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008, shows an okapi in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo proving that the species is still surviving there despite over a decade of civil conflict. The Zoological Society of London says cameras set up in Congo have snapped the first photos of the rare okapi roaming wild. Okapi have characteristics like a deer and a giraffe but is most notable for its zebra-like leg stripes. Zoologists found evidence of an okapi population in the park through tracks a few years ago. Experts say the photos indicate a second group also exists there. The animal previously had only been glimpsed only in passing in the wild, but captive okapis are found in many zoos. - photo by Associated Press
    LONDON — Zoologists have captured the first photos of the okapi in the wild, saying Thursday they offered evidence that the animal once mistaken for a unicorn has managed to survive war and poaching in a park in a lawless swath of Congo.
    The doe-eyed animal, which can be found in zoos worldwide, is a relative of the giraffe but has zebra-like stripes on its legs and rear.
    The species was unknown to European scientists until a century ago. It is thought to have inspired claims of unicorn sightings by Victorian-era explorers, said Noelle Kumpel, a conservationist with the Zoological Society of London, which released the photos.
    The male has two horns on its forehead, but they can look like one horn if glimpsed from the side. ‘‘Stories came back of this mythical creature and the fact that it might be a unicorn,’’ Kumpel said.
    The photos were taken by cameras set up in the Virunga National Park by the zoological society and conservationists in Congo after okapi tracks were spotted there a few years ago.
    The animal’s stripes are sometimes called ‘‘come follow me stripes,’’ because their bold pattern is believed to help young ones follow their mothers through the forest. Each animal’s stripes are unique, like fingerprints.
    The okapi is only known to exist in Congo, primarily further north in Ituri provinces’s Okapi Wildlife Reserve. There, they are difficult to spot because they are shy and usually only move around in couples. Virunga officials say before the okapi was captured on camera, it was not known whether it still roamed Virunga.
    ‘‘We are encouraged by the evidence that okapis have survived in Virunga, despite the years of conflict,’’ Virunga National Park Director Emmanuel de Merode said in an e-mailed statement to The Associated Press. ‘‘Park rangers have only recently regained control of this area that was formerly occupied by armed militias. But while it is positive that the okapi population remains, we are aware of their vulnerability to intense levels of poaching.’’
    The photos also indicate the animals are more widely distributed in the park than was previously believed.
    ‘‘We’ve managed to get pictures of three separate individuals, and we’ve also got a picture of one roaming around at nighttime and actually foraging, which is the first evidence of this behavior,’’ said Kumpel. Scientists previously believed okapi fed only during the day, she said.
    Virunga, near the Rwanda and Uganda borders, is also home to some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Part of the reserve is still occupied by Congolese and Rwandan rebels, who have hidden in its dense forests for more than a decade and used parts of it as bases to launch attacks.
    The reserve is located in a lawless swath of Congo adjacent to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda that the government has struggled to control for years.
    Kumpel said the one other photograph of an okapi in the wild that scientists previously knew about showed only a leg.
    The okapi is threatened by poachers who kill it to sell ‘‘bush meat,’’ Kumpel say. The okapi could become extinct in the park soon because of poaching and the effects of the fighting between rebels and government forces on conservation efforts, she added.
    Earlier this year, the Zoological Society photographed another shy mammal, a pygmy hippopotamus, in Liberia. That animal had not previously been photographed there, scientists said.
    Associated Press Writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.

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