(CNN)A nudge above the equator in one of the most biodiverse places in Africa lives an almost-mythical mammal that few people have ever seen.
The striped okapi is often described as half-zebra, half-giraffe, as if it were a hybrid creature from a Greek legend. So rare is the okapi, that it was unknown to the western world until the turn of the 20th century.
While the okapi is virtually unheard of in the West, its image pervades life in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- the only country in the world where it is found living in the wild -- gracing cigarette packets, plastic water bottles, and even the back of rumpled Congolese Francs. The okapi is to the Congo what the giant panda is to China or the kangaroo to Australia.
But decades of misrule under a succession of dictators has seen much of the Congo's natural resources spin out of the government's control, and okapi numbers fall by 50% since 1995.
Today, only 10,000 remain.
Three decades ago, an American scientist made it his life mission to protect this rare mammal by co-managing the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in eastern Congo. The reserve is roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park, in the United States, but that's where the similarities end.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is among the most dangerous places on earth to visit.
Armed militia stalk the dirt roads, illegal gold and diamond mines operate with near impunity and ivory poachers are rife. Compounding matters, the region is currently battling the country's worst Ebola outbreak to date.
This week, as the country accepts opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi as winner of a disputed landmark election, the nation stands on a precipice.
The okapi's fate, once again, rides on the country's next move.
Welcome to Zaire
When 37-year-old John Lukas touched down in the capital of Kinshasa aboard a rickety cargo plane in the late 1980s, the Congo was a very different place to the one he navigates today.
This vast nation that spans two time zones had not a single road joining east to west. But under military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant leader famed for his leopard-print hats, life was relatively stable, says Lukas. After independence from Belgium in 1960, hope was in the air.
"Under Mobutu, any person in the Congo could go anywhere safely," he says. "You never felt threatened."