The okapi (Okapia johnstoni), also known as the forest giraffe or zebra giraffe, is a giraffid artiodactyl mammal native to the Ituri Rainforest, located in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Central Africa. Although the okapi bears striped markings reminiscent of zebras, it is most closely related to the giraffe.
The okapi is indeed the only living relative of the giraffe. Like a giraffe, the okapi has very large, upright ears, which catch even slight sounds, helping the animal avoid trouble. The okapi also has a long, dark, prehensile tongue, just like a giraffe’s, to help it strip the buds and young leaves from the understory brush of its rain forest home.
The animal was brought to prominent European attention by speculation on its existence found in popular press reports covering Henry Morton Stanley’s journeys in 1887. Remains of a carcass were later sent to London by the English adventurer and colonial administrator Harry Johnston and became a media event in 1901.Today, about 10,000–20,000 remain in the wild and as of 2011, 42 different institutions display them worldwide.
Okapis have reddish dark backs, with striking horizontal white stripes on the front and back legs, making them resemble zebras from a distance. These markings possibly help young follow their mothers through the dense rain forest and may also serve as camouflage.
The body shape is similar to that of the giraffe, except okapis have much shorter necks. Like the giraffe, the okapi has long legs and a robust body. Both species have very long (about 35-cm), flexible tongues used to strip leaves and buds from trees.
The okapi’s tongue is also long enough for the animal to wash its eyelids and clean its ears (inside and out). This sticky tongue is pointed and bluish-grey in colour like that of the giraffe. Male okapis have short, skin-covered horns called ossicones. Their large ears help them detect their predator, the leopard.
Call them Bashful
Okapis are hard to find in the wild. Their natural habitat is the Ituri Forest, a dense rain forest in central Africa. Okapis are very wary, and their highly developed hearing alerts them to run when they hear humans in the distance. In fact, while natives of the Ituri Forest knew of okapis and would occasionally catch one in their pit traps, scientists did not know of the animal until 1900. The secretive nature of okapis and the difficulty most humans have of traveling in their habitat have made okapis hard to observe in the wild. Therefore, researchers can only estimate how many okapis live there. It is believed that there are currently about 25,000 okapis in the wild.
Okapis prefer altitudes of 500 to 1,000 m, but may venture above 1,000 m in the eastern montane rainforests. Because of a considerable amount of rain in these forests, okapis have oily, velvety fur coats that repel the water, keeping the okapi dry on rainy days. Only the males have horns, which are covered by skin and are short and slant backwards so they won’t get tangled in forest branches. Okapis need to have shorter legs and necks to help them swerve around these obstacles. Being really tall is not a good idea in a forest! In a rain forest, there are trees with branches hanging down, as well as roots and tree trunks to dodge.
The okapi’s range is limited by high montane forests to the east, swamps to the southeast, swamp forests below 500 m to the west, savannas of the Sahel/Sudan to the north, and open woodlands to the south. They are most commonly found in the Wamba and Epulu areas.
Hide and Seek
Okapis often travel up to 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) a day in search of food, usually along trails worn down by generations of okapis. They are generally solitary animals, unless an adult female has a calf with her. Adult males have home ranges that cover more area, and they can travel up to 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) a day. The males try to keep other males out of their territories but allow females to travel through in search of food.
Okapis are very shy animals. Their reddish brown-black coat camouflages them in the deep forest. In the thick trees and underbrush, okapis rely on their hearing to warn them of danger. Their huge ears pick up even the softest sounds coming from any direction. They listen for leopards, which hunt adult okapis, as well as smaller wild cats, which can attack a young calf.
Okapis are herbivores, feeding on tree leaves and buds, grasses, ferns, fruits, and fungi. Many of the plant species on which okapis feed are poisonous to humans.
Examination of okapi feces has revealed they consume charcoal from trees burnt by lightning. Field observations indicate their mineral and salt requirements are filled primarily by a sulfurous, slightly salty, reddish clay found near rivers and streams.
As of 2011, 155 okapi specimens are in zoos on four continents, with the majority of them in North American zoos, 60 in European zoos, two specimens in South Africa, and seven specimens in Japan. Immediately after their discovery, zoos around the world attempted to get okapis from the wild. These initial attempts were accompanied by a high mortality rate due to the rigors and stress of traveling thousands of miles by boat and by train. In more recent years, shipment by airplane has proven more successful.
The first live specimen in Europe arrived in Antwerp in 1918. The first okapi to arrive in North America was at the Bronx Zoo, via Antwerp, in 1937. The first okapi born in captivity outside the Congo was at the Antwerp Zoo, Belgium, in 1953; the first born in North America was at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois in 1959.
Conservation wild status
Okapis are classified as endangered since 2013; they are endangered by habitat destruction and poaching. The world population is estimated at 10,000–35,000. Conservation work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the Okapi Conservation Project includes the continuing study of okapi behavior and lifestyle, which led to the creation in 1992 of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The Congo Civil War threatened both the wildlife and the conservation workers in the reserve.
An important captive-breeding centre at Epulu, at the heart of the reserve, is managed jointly by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and Gilman International Conservation, which in turn receives support from other organisations including UNESCO, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and WildlifeDirect as well as from zoos around the world. The Wildlife Conservation Society is also active in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
On 8 June 2006, scientists reported evidence of surviving okapis in Congo’s Virunga National Park. This had been the first official okapi sighting in that park since 1959, after nearly half a century. In September 2008, the Wildlife Conservation Society reported one of their camera traps in Virunga National Park had snapped the first photo ever taken of an okapi in the wild.
The Okapi distribution map world wide.