Mbuti Pygmies Assist with Monitoring Okapi

During the most recent trip to Epulu, John Lukas of Okapi Wildlife Project spoke about the importance of involving the Mbuti pygmies in monitoring activities around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The Mbuti have a special relationship with okapi and have a very important role to play in the protection, management and understanding of the Reserve ecosystem. One item in particular we are excited to explore is when wild okapi calves leave their mother. Typically, okapi calves in human care are separated around 10 months of age based on behaviors exhibited between mother and calf, but it is not known when they separate from their mother in the wild.

Original 1901 Illustration by Sir Harry Johnston. He provided a remarkably accurate representation of the okapi despite never observing a living specimen.

We are excited to see the Mbuti take the initiative on this project and after we introduced them to the idea, they almost immediately discovered a mother and calf pair just four kilometers from Epulu!

The Mbuti pygmies and the okapi have a relationship that extends back over 40,000 years, sharing the Ituri Forest as their home, living in harmony with each other. In Mbuti culture, it is taboo to harm okapi and chimpanzees as they embody important spirits of the forest, adding to their important to contributing to their protection. Without the aid of the Mbuti’s understanding of the forest and their impeccable tracking skills, Sir Harry Johnston would have never been able to collect skull and hide specimens to confirm the existence of the okapi to the western world in 1901. Before these specimens were found, okapi were still believed to be the “African unicorn” and possible relatives of the zebra or donkey. Thanks to help from the Mbuti who provided skins and descriptions of okapi, the world learned okapi are a real animal and not a unicorn at all.

There are approximately 5,000 Mbuti pygmies living inside the Reserve, making it critical that their interests are represented in the Reserve’s management. Mbuti pygmies participated in World Okapi Day, incorporating their traditional dances into the celebration; chieftains speak at groundbreaking ceremonies for new buildings around the Reserve; their settlements provide assistance to patrolling ICCN rangers; and recently the Okapi Dispensary has been expanded to include beds for pygmies with open fire pits present, an important aspect of pygmy culture. One of OCP’s top priorities now is including the Mbuti in conservation efforts. Their understanding of the ecosystem and their incredible ability to navigate the forest not only serves as an invaluable asset to the conservation of okapi, but their knowledge and perspective also contributes to science and a better understanding of the wildlife within the Reserve.  Already the Mbuti are playing an ever-increasing role in the Reserves protection with three pygmies becoming ICCN rangers in 2018. Following the sighting of the okapi mother and calf by Chieftain Musa, the Mbuti have been hard at working tracking the pair; collecting stool and diet samples, as well as hoof measurements for both mother and calf:

Mother’s hoofprint traced in grass.
Calf’s hoofprint traced in grass.

Ingeniously, they used tough grass to outline the okapi’s hoof prints, providing a remarkably accurate representation. The information the Mbuti can provide will prove invaluable to the study of the okapi. There is still so much we do not know about the species in the wild. Having the opportunity to observe a mother and calf pair will help us better understand their unique relationship. We plan to set up camera traps in the area and teach the pygmies how to check them periodically, hoping to collect data on the calf’s growth. We also intend to set-up the pygmies with the ability to plaster-cast hoofprints for more accurate hoof measurements as the okapi grows. More updates will soon follow, sign-up for our newsletter at okapiconservation.org to stay updated on all the news coming out of the Reserve!

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