This is the first sign of okapi presence in Virunga National Park - where the species was first discovered - since August 1959 according to official records.
The discovery happened during a recent survey led by the global conservation organization and its governmental Congolese partner ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature).
Still rare and threatened, the okapi lives nowhere else than in tall primary forests of eastern DRC, mainly in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, centered around the village of Epulu. But the species was originally discovered further east in the forests along the Semliki valley, now in the Virunga National Park - created in 1925 and today a World Heritage site protected by international and national laws.
The survey team also included trackers from the local Bambabuti and Twa communities, who know how to spot signs of okapi. The team was studying the status of the forests and threatened species such as elephants and chimpanzees when they recorded 17 okapi tracks including prints in the mud and evidence of browsing and dung. They also noted the presence of the bongo, a rare large forest antelope which has not been recorded in the area for 50 years either.
The lowland sector of Virunga National Park has been the hideout for different rebel groups over the past 20 years. This has prevented ICCN from patrolling the areas. The difficult terrain has also prevented logging and farming there, which explains why the rare species has survived unnoticed.
"The rediscovery of okapis in Virunga National Park after almost half a century is a positive sign. As the country is returning to peace, it shows that the protected areas in this troubled region are now havens for rare wildlife once more," said Marc Languy, of WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Programme. "Key species have survived a critical period but a lot remains to be done to preserve them."
WWF and ICCN have been working together with local communities in the Virunga National Park since 1987 despite recurrent unrest in the area. Conservation activities include the participatory demarcation of the parks boundaries, peaceful relocation of illegal settlers, community agroforestry projects, and environmental education.
However, WWF is still very concerned by massive human activity within the protected area and calls by local political leaders inviting farmers to farm inside the national park.
"As the okapi is the national symbol of ICCN, to see it back in Virunga is very encouraging for our rangers who went through difficult times during the past few years and is a reward to their legendary commitment," said Norbert Mushenzi, the ICCN senior warden in charge of the area where the rediscovery took place. "But ICCN needs continued support from its partners and local people to stop illegal activity in the park and conserve the forest and wildlife for future generations"
WWF urges the DRC government to take appropriate measures to ensure the long-term protection and conservation of the Virunga National Park. Otherwise, the okapi's return to the area may be short-lived.
"The rediscovery of okapis in Virunga National Park after almost half a century is a positive sign."
Marc Languy, WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Programme