On 24 June 2012, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, located near the Epulu station in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri Forest, was attacked by a group of poachers known as Simba rebels. They were seeking revenge on the Institute in the Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN); whose headquarters base at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, for recently shutting down their illegal poaching and mining activities. The outcome of this attack was tragic leaving six people dead. Everything of value, from computers to vehicles were stolen or burned. All food and medical supplies were taken, leaving the village with nothing to eat. The 14 Okapis stationed at the reserve, serving as ambassadors for the country’s flagship species were killed. Over 30 villagers from Epulu were taken hostage to assist the poachers in transporting the stolen goods. Fortunately most of the Okapi Conservation Project’s (OCP) staff and locals were able to escape into the forest unharmed. Also, the villagers taken hostage were released and are beginning to return to the village.
In response to the crisis at OCP, Houston Zoo, Inc. with assistance from the Greater Houston Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (GHCAAZK) wanted to plan an emergency fundraiser. The Houston Zoo committed to assisting the OCP by any means necessary. Due to the urgent nature and time sensitivity of this crisis, it was dire to act as quickly as possible. The decision was made to plan and implement an Okapi Crisis Relief fundraiser to raise money to be sent as emergency aid to the project.
The goal of the Okapi Crisis Relief was to raise monetary support to be sent to the OCP. Additionally, the Houston Zoo wanted to increase community awareness and knowledge, not only about okapis but the true wildlife heroes that risk their lives on a daily basis to protect species and their habitats.
The Houston Zoo regularly supports a wide range of conservation efforts and organizations, but has not been faced with such an immense crisis with a short time frame for fundraising. Generally several months of planning would go into preparing for such events as the Okapi Crisis Relief, but due to the nature of this emergency, several months was not realistic to offer monetary aid.
The Houston Zoo is lucky enough to have a devoted conservation department that worked diligently alongside with hoofed stock and the marketing/graphics departments, with assistance from the rest of the zoo and GHCAAZK to make this event happen. From the initial planning meeting to organizing supplies, education, and promotional materials, the Okapi Crisis Relief was put together in three days.
The conservation department’s connections with the OCP initially sparked the idea to provide assistance to the project. A representative from the department organized a meeting with hoofed stock, special events, marketing, and graphics departments. The decision was made to host the conservation event on Sunday, 1 July 2012. A donation page was immediately set up on the zoo’s website; including information about the project and crisis updates from the Congo. The crisis and fundraising event was promoted via the internet using Facebook, Twitter, and an email campaign which included zoo members and donors. A painting done by one of our resident okapi’s was put on eBay to be auctioned off. Our marketing and graphics department quickly designed banners that were placed throughout the zoo with QR codes, bringing guests directly to the donation page. Local news papers ran a story about the zoo’s relief efforts and local news stations covered the event.
In preparation for the Okapi Crisis Relief event, the Greater Houston Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers donated time and supplies. The day before the event, members gathered to make okapi buttons to be sold. Okapi masks were cut out for kids to color and wear the day of the event.
To raise money, several different tables were stationed throughout the zoo, with the main table set-up in front of the zoo’s okapi exhibits. Merchandise included: I love okapis and Okapi Crisis Relief buttons, conservation bracelets, paintings done by some of the zoo’s animals, magnets, finger puppets, stuffed animals, Wildlife Heroes books, and conservation snare art, to name a few. Raffle tickets were sold for a chance to win a behind the scenes tour to meet one of the zoo’s resident okapis. The okapi table highlighted the conservation efforts of the OCP and the risks the staff and locals take every day to protect the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Volunteers set-up a biological facts table to allow guests a hands-on learning opportunity. Included on the table was an okapi skull and an animal pelt. To involve some of the younger guests, a crafts table was set-up for children to make okapi masks and decorate an okapi coloring page. Face painting was also offered at the main entrance.
Many staff and volunteers donated their time to work at one of the tables, educate the public about the situation in the Congo and the effort the Houston Zoo was putting forth to provide emergency relief. Though the day of the event was overcast and rainy, many guests came out to the zoo to show their support and take part in the day’s events. The public displayed a willingness to help however financially possible, whether it was $1 or $500. One very young man brought in his life savings to purchase an okapi painting.
Following the Okapi Crisis Relief event, donations continued to generate. Keepers were stopped by guests unable to attend the event, but who wanted to make a financial contribution. Online donations continued as well. The okapi painting placed on eBay raised a sizeable amount; more than was ever expected. In addition, the GHCAAZK held an all-staff bake sale with a percentage of the profits donated to support the okapi relief efforts.
We have raised $24,840 for the OCP to date. This relief fund could not have occurred without the help and teamwork from everyone at the zoo. Staff from animal keepers, grounds, and administration to marketing and conservation worked to make this event a success. All money raised will help the locals rebuild their lives, the reconstruction of the conservation station, and assist the ICCN to continue to protect the wildlife of the Ituri Forest. The OCP is a symbol for the livelihood of the local people. It provides stability for the locals for the long road instead of the fast money that could come from poaching animals instead of protecting them. Rebuilding the project and getting the community back on its feet shows the strength that comes from the project, outshining the will of illegal activity groups wanting to be free to do as they wish. Houston Zoo staff is very proud to work for an institution that cares so greatly about conservation and allows its staff to take part in conservation efforts like the Okapi Crisis Relief. Events like the Okapi Relief Fund truly define the work of zoos as they continue to work diligently to conserve the world’s species.