Wed Sep 10, 7:24 PM ET
LONDON (AFP) - The okapi, an African animal so elusive that it was once believed to be a mythical unicorn, has been photographed in the wild for the first time, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) said Thursday.
Camera traps set by the ZSL and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) captured pictures of the okapi in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The pictures have dispelled fears that the species had died out in more than a decade of civil war.
Dr Noelle Kumpel, ZSL's Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme Manager, said: "To have captured the first-ever photographs of such a charismatic creature is amazing, and particularly special for ZSL given that the species was originally described here over a century ago.
"Okapi are very shy and rare animals, which is why conventional surveys only tend to record droppings and other signs of their presence."
The okapi, which have a black, giraffe-like tongue and zebra-like stripes on their behind, were last spotted in the Virunga National Park nearly 50 years ago on the west bank of the Semliki River.
The new ZSL survey revealed a previously unknown okapi population on the east side of the river.
Thierry Lusenge, a member of ZSL's Democratic Republic of Congo survey team, said: "The photographs clearly show the stripes on their rear, which act like unique fingerprints.
"We have already identified three individuals, and further survey work will enable us to estimate population numbers and distribution in and around the park, which is a critical first step in targeting conservation efforts."
The exact status of the okapi is unknown as civil conflict and poor infrastructure makes access to the forests of DRC difficult.
But ZSL warned that even the newly-discovered okapi population was under threat from poachers.
Okapi meat, reportedly from the Virunga park, is now on sale in the nearby town of Beni and ZSL warned that if hunting continues at the current rate, okapi could become extinct in the park within a few years.