The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest wildlife conservation areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is found in the north eastern part of DR Congo close to the borders of Uganda and South Sudan. Covering an area of 13,700 square kilometers which is only one-fifth of the great Ituri forest. Among the prominent features in the park include Mount Mbiya, rivers like Ituri, Epulu and Nepoko.
Okapi Wildlife Reserve was created in 1992 to protect the endangered Okapi. It is the only park where one can see Okapi in their natural environment. It’s not only the okapi the Okapi, the reserve is home to 13 species of primates, 101 of mammals and 377 species of birds. Among them include the rare bongo antelopes, 2,000 leopards, forest buffaloes, 8,000 forest elephants, birds, butterflies and other insects.
The Ituri forest is home to the last true forest people on earth – The Efe and Mbuti pygmies. Like the Batwa, the pygmies in Ituri forest have lived as forest hunters and gatherers for thousands of years. The presence of the Mbuti pygmies in the forest, makes the Okapi Wildlife Reserve an excellent place to go for guided walks and experience the lives of a true indigenous African tribe. While on a safari in Congo and the reserve in particular, prepare for a true jungle experience including hunting with the pygmies.
The Democratic Republic of Congo boasts unparalleled biodiversity in Africa, with rare species like the Okapi, bonobos, and mountain and Eastern lowland gorillas. The Okapi, known as a forest giraffe or Okapia Johnston, possesses distinctive zebra-like markings on its legs. Remarkably, it is more closely related to giraffes and was only discovered in 1901 within Virunga National Park. This peculiar creature is exclusive to the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically the Ituri forest and Virunga National Park, with an estimated 5,000 residing in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, primarily in the Ituri forest.
Despite being officially protected since 1933, Okapis are now classified as endangered by the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) due to their dwindling numbers over the past two decades. Recognized by the Congolese government as a national symbol of wildlife conservation, the Okapi features prominently in many national emblems.
To ensure the thriving of Okapis and other wildlife in the reserve, they require expansive and dense forests. The most pressing threats to the Okapi and the reserve are forest encroachment by migrants from overpopulated areas of Eastern Congo, as well as poaching for bush meat, illegal logging, and illicit gold and Coltan mining.
The continual influx of people from other regions into the reserve area arguably constitutes the most substantial threat to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. While indigenous pygmy tribes have learned to coexist harmoniously with nature, taking only what they need, immigrants are responsible for deforestation and excessive poaching.
Between 1996 and 1998, rebel activity in the reserve led to a reduction in the overall population of forest elephants. During this period, the ivory trade was highly profitable in Congo (and remains so, albeit with increased risks). The plight of the elephants garnered global attention from wildlife conservation organizations. Funds were allocated, leading to the initiation of Operation Tango, which successfully halted the destruction of elephants and protected areas beyond the reach of Congolese authorities. This operation not only established enduring stability in the reserve but also underscored the critical role of international partnerships in securing the reserve’s future.
Okapi Wildlife Reserve was created by the Okapi Conservation Project in collaboration with the government of Congo. Currently headed by John Lukas, the Okapi Conservation Project assists and sustains the work of ICCN to protect, secure and manage most of the affairs of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The project was created in 1987 (earlier than the Okapi Wildlife Reserve itself) and has worked to protect indigenous pygmies and endangered Okapi at reserve. Although the Okapi is the main focus of the project, other species like chimpanzees and the forest elephants have benefited from the conservation efforts in the reserve. The project started a research and breeding station with about 14 Okapis called the Epulu Conservation and Research Centre.
The work of the Okapi Conservation Project depends on outreach activities, wildlife educational programmes and assistance to the community. The project also helps educate communities living within and outside the reserve to have an understanding of the importance of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
In order to curb poaching, illegal logging and mining, the project has also helped set up a well-organized intelligence network involving the pygmies and communities living close to the reserve. They have managed to convince the pygmies and nearby communities that they are on their said hence gaining their trust. Because of the good working relationship with the local communities, the project has helped set up hospital (including ambulances), schools and water sources in the region. They also help local farmers in using advanced agricultural methods to improve their annual yields. A fund has been set up by the project to take care of families of deceased rangers.
It is important to note that despite the above achievements by the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, sustainability depends on good and strong leadership in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With the conclusion of the recent presidential elections, there is high hope that a new chapter has started in the country and massive political reforms will start a clear roadmap to peace and prosperity in all parts of the country.
As already noted earlier, Okapi Wildlife Reserve is not all about the Okapi’s. It has a variety of other wildlife which makes for truly fascinating wildlife encounters for those who are lucky to visit it. The reserve is home to Chimpanzees, leopards, giant forest hogs, elephants, water chevrotain, forest buffaloes, giant pangolins, golden cats, pygmy antelopes, forest genet, Anubis baboons, several other antelope species and the African dwarf crocodiles among many other species.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is one of the best birding spots in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reserve is home to 370 recorded species. The prominent species are the vultures and herons.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve offers a unique cultural experience with the Mbuti Pygmies, providing insight into their traditional way of life. These indigenous people, shorter in stature than their Bantu counterparts, have maintained a primitive existence relatively untouched by modern civilization. Residing in the Ituri forest for millennia, they engage in hunting and gathering, gathering honey, insects, seeds, fungi, and plants when not hunting. Proficient in identifying medicinal wild plants, they coexist harmoniously with the forest and its creatures. Unlike some other tribes, the pygmies in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve continue their undisturbed existence in the Ituri forest. They hold great reverence for their environment, allowing them to preserve their ancient way of life. Additionally, they maintain a symbiotic relationship with their Bantu neighbors, exchanging game meat for cereals and other staples to achieve a balanced diet.
With the park’s authorization, the pygmies offer the opportunity to join them on a forest expedition for bird and mammal hunting, with a preference for antelopes and primates. Using traditional methods like bows and arrows, as well as fiber nets or arrows for fishing, they demonstrate their adeptness at hunting and survival. Accompanying the pygmies increases the chances of spotting the elusive Okapi, as they possess specialized knowledge for locating them. By closely observing signs left behind, they exhibit an impressive ability to identify various plants and animals. After interacting with the pygmies, a visit to their Bantu neighbors provides a fascinating contrast in lifestyles.
Arrangements can be made for guided nature walks to explore some of the pristine locations within the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Similar to numerous national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this reserve boasts untouched wilderness that remains undiscovered and unexplored by most. The remoteness and poor road networks has helped keep some of the reserves and national parks in Congo isolated and hence well preserved. While at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, you can climb to the top of Mount Mbeya or visit the beautiful rivers of Nepoko. The Ituri forest has some of the most beautiful waterfalls you will ever see.
Visiting the remote parts of Congo and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in particular is for those who are very adventurous and wish to experience something out of the ordinary. Something truly unique that they can tell those friends of yours who are more comfortable with the more known African safari destinations. Camping in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve will give you that rare filling of being out in true African wilderness. The best camping sites are at the shores of river Epulu.
Very adventurous tourists currently visit the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, recognizing that taking risks is essential to experiencing something special. And by risk, I mean deciding to travel to Congo even when there is a lot of bad press about the country out there. Deciding to go or it even when there is an Ebola outbreak or even when news comes out of rebel activity or a kidnapping.
These intrepid travelers understand that these countries have thriving populations, and they will encounter many fellow international travelers who, like them, are willing to take the risk. Indeed, the chances of contracting Ebola or becoming entangled in rebel conflict are so marginal that it prompts one to question why we should refrain from taking the risk. Are you willing to take the same risk like many other are doing?
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is technically open to visitors year-round, but the ideal time for a visit is during the dry seasons between June and August. It’s crucial to exercise caution before planning a trip and to obtain an update on the security situation from the Okapi Conservation Project or your tour company prior to traveling to the reserve.
As mentioned earlier, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve is situated in the northeastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, near the border between Uganda and Congo. The closest town to the reserve is Isiro. If you are visiting the Centre, you need to leave from Isiro (nearest town), Kisangani or Beni and stop at the town of Epulu. If you are leaving from Beni or Kisangani by road, you need to reserve a full day of traveling and another for returning. You will need a good four-wheel drive which is in good mechanical condition (with spare tires) especially during the rainy season.
Entrance to the park is free but accommodation isn’t. You would need to arrange your own accommodation while visiting the reserve. The best place to stay is at the reserve headquarters in Epulu. They have their own accommodation facilities but with few rooms during certain periods of the year. Other hotels close to the Reserve are plaza hotel, Immo Baje, Hotel Kisangani, Vuvuke guest house and plaza hotel.
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