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 zebralike 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 okapi is only known to exist in Congo, primarily further north in Ituri province'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 the park.
“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. “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.”