3:01am UK, Thursday September 11, 2008

Sara Merchant, Sky News reporter

An African creature so rare and shy it was once believed to be a mythical beast associated with magic has been photographed in the wild for the first time.

The elusive okapi. Image (c) Zoological Society Of London

Okapi was caught in camera trap. Picture (c) Zoological Society of London

Europeans in Africa who came across okapi droppings or tracks thought they were evidence of unicorns - because they never saw the elusive creature that had left them.

But now conservationists in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have succeeding in catching the reclusive creature in specially-constructed camera traps.

Dr Noelle Kumpel, of the Zoological Society of London, said: "It is exciting to see them, and to have photographs of such a charismatic creature is amazing."

The animal looks like a cross between a giraffe and a zebra and is so shy it was only discovered around 100 years ago.

The team conducting the survey in the Virunga National Park had feared the species may not have survived years of economic instability and a decade of civil conflict in DRC.

And now conservationists are worried the creatures may not survive the threat from poachers and could be extinct within two or three years.

Dr Kumpel said: "Even though okapi are very shy, poachers are managing to hunt them in large numbers.

"The forest is very difficult to protect because it's where the rebels have been hiding and we don't have the funds for rangers."

Okapi are only found in DRC and the team is trying to develop cameras which can accurately count the population.

Survey team member Thierry Lusenge 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."