John Lukas has been active in international conservation for over twenty-five years. He founded the Okapi Conservation Project in 1987. He is also a co-founder and serves as a Board Member of the Wildlife Conservation Network. His expansive experience with wildlife includes directorship of the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, Florida, a world premier facility for wildlife breeding and research on endangered species.
At White Oak, John leads professional efforts to improve veterinary care, develop holistic animal management techniques and better understand the biology of critically endangered species. He also directs Gilman International Conservation, which links the staff and managed animal programs of White Oak with international partners to conserve flagship species. John has served on the Boards of the International Rhino Foundation, Cheetah Conservation Fund, Conservation Action Trust based in Kenya, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund.
Found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the okapi is a shy and elusive forest dweller and the only living relative of the giraffe. Its unusual coloration and markings, including stripes resembling a zebra, provide camouflage in the dense rainforest. It is vulnerable to pressures from natural resource extraction and over a decade of civil unrest.
The okapi is the flagship species of the Ituri Forest in the DRC, one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Its flagship status signifies that the okapi’s survival is inextricably linked to and emblematic of the fate of all fauna and flora in its ecosystem. The Ituri Forest is also home to chimpanzees, elephants, hornbills and thirteen species of monkeys.
Threats to the okapi include poaching and habitat encroachment. These threats are exacerbated by the socio-political situation in the DRC. Political instability has resulted in lack of infrastructure and inadequacy of governance which make progress in conservation challenging. The Okapi Project's headquarters have twice been occupied and looted by rebels. There are insufficient resources for good forest management or prosecution of poachers and illegal miners.
At the same time, the Okapi Conservation Project has served as a source of hope for the local people. Its programs teach, engage and empower the inhabitants of the region to adopt sustainable lifestyles that are respectful of the natural heritage of the Ituri Forest.
In 1992, the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) created the Okapi Wildlife Reserve to provide shelter to the species in its native habitat, the Ituri Forest. To support the Okapi's long-term survival, OCP trains and equips wildlife guards and provides assistance to improve the lives of neighboring communities. It raises awareness of threats to the okapi and teaches alternative agricultural practices to preserve the ecosystem.
The Okapi Conservation Project strives to help both the forest and the surrounding communities. Through Gilman International Conservation, OCP administers programs that provide:
- training in agricultural practices compatible with ecosystem preservation
- education in biodiversity conservation and sustainable use
- community assistance, such as secure water sources, infrastructure development, school supplies and food production
- air surveillance and wildlife guard response to illegal mining, poaching, and logging
The Agro-Forestry Program provides local farmers with seeds and seedlings of plants that improve soil fertility when grown with crops, allowing the land to be used longer and rested for shorter periods before it can be re-cultivated. By improving soil fertility, nutrition levels, and crop yields, farmland becomes more productive. The increased yield per acre results in less forest lost to slash and burn agricultural practices. The program also works with the local populace and a timber company to replant trees on abandoned land, protect primary tracts of primary forest and promote certified selective logging practices.
OCP’s Education Team travels throughout the Okapi Wildlife Reserve to remote villages giving environmental workshops, lectures and audio-visual presentations on the importance of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of forest resources. The team’s work has expanded to include the development of a new conservation curriculum course for all primary school students. As part of its conservation outreach, the Education Team has also produced radio broadcasts and town murals expressing the ethic of wildlife protection. Its conservation-themed plays and videos, using local actors, are performed in villages throughout the Reserve.
In addition to distributing conservation education materials, OCP’s Education Team provides school supplies to all twenty-three schools in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and assists with school construction. The primary school in the village of Bandesende was completely refurbished with a new roof, doors, windows, cement floors, painting and blackboards. In 2007, four clean, fresh water sources were completed in Reserve villages and an aging building in the town of Koki was renovated into a medical dispensary. These community assistance projects complement OCP’s programs which build conservation awareness and support for the objectives of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The positive economic and health benefits which accrue from these projects help communities adapt to changes in livelihood when new protected areas are initiated.
Alternatives to Bushmeat
To reduce hunting pressure on the wildlife of the Ituri Forest, OCP has helped citizens of Epulu, the village serving as OCP’s base of operations, excavate a pond and develop a fish farming program. The local people are now farming tilapia, a fish that eats vegetable matter, grows quickly and is very tasty.
Another major alternative protein source is being developed through the Cane Rat Domestication Program, which began when OCP’s Alternatives to Bushmeat team captured twenty individual cane rats to start an experimental breeding operation. Cane rats, rodents growing up to two feet long, are valued as a food source in Western and Central Africa. Their meat is of a higher protein but lower fat content than domesticated farm meat and it is also appreciated for its tenderness and taste. Cane rat production and tilapia farming enable villagers to become less reliant on hunting wildlife for subsistence.
Air Surveillance and Wildlife Guard Response
Gilman International Conservation, OCP’s parent organization, participated in an aerial survey of Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which identified illegal activities in and around the Reserve, such as poacher camps, gold, diamond, and other mineral mining camps and the expansion of slash-and-burn agriculture plots. Ground-based ranger teams were subsequently deployed to principal problem areas.
Considering the vastness of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and the relative inaccessibility of most areas except by foot, the operation was particularly successful. Many large mining operations were shut down. Longer-term guard occupancy of some high priority sites is being employed to ensure that illegal activities do not resume.