A MOST CURIOUS ANIMAL, A CULTURAL SYMBOL, A SPECIES ON THE BRINK
The okapi — Okapia johnstoni; the “forest giraffe”; one of the oldest mammals on Earth — has only been known to scientists since the early 20th century, though it was well-known and part of the culture of the indigenous people that live throughout the animal’s range. Shy and elusive as it is serene and gentle, with remarkable natural defenses against predation (not least of which, its extraordinary markings), the okapi is nearly impossible to observe in the wild. To the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is endemic, it is a national and cultural symbol and has been nationally protected since 1933.
The okapi’s existence is under grave threat from the impact of human activities. The okapi is entirely dependent on an intact forest for its survival, and deforestation, along with poaching and mining, has led to its precipitous and perilous decline. An Okapi Conservation Strategy Workshop (2013) found that the population had plummeted over 50% in just three generations (about 15 years). Based on the findings of the workshop, the okapi were officially classified ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species — up sharply from its original Red List classification of ‘Near Threatened’.
Okapi Conservation Project works with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and communities throughout the Okapi Wildlife Reserve — a 13,700-sq-km swathe of the Ituri Forest in northeastern DRC — to ensure the protection of the okapi and many other species that call this rainforest home. Key to this is conservation initiatives that benefit the livelihoods and environment of the people that live in and around the forest.
Get to know the okapi:
- Okapi were originally (and incorrectly) thought to be close relatives of the zebra, due to their striped coat. It was later discovered they are the only living relatives of the giraffe.
- Okapi live in the dense rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, characterized by high precipitation and a closed canopy. Their striped coat allows them to blend in with the light shafts produced by the canopy, and their oily, velvety fur repels water.
- They have long (up to 18in/46cm!), dark blue prehensile tongues that help them strip leaves from plants and groom themselves.
- Okapi can live up to 30 years.
- A sexually dimorphic species – females are typically larger than males, while males have ossicones (small horns covered in skin and fur), and females do not.
- Okapi are a diurnal species, feeding in the mornings and evenings.
- Okapi must splay their legs in order to drink, just like giraffes.
- Okapi are generally solitary, only usually only found together when mating or in a mother/calf pair.
- Rarely do okapi produce more than one offspring, but twin okapi calves have been recorded.
- Calves will stay in a “nest” for the first six to nine weeks of their life and can go up to 60 days before defecating, as to not warn predators with their scent.
- Okapi can eat toxic leaves, fruits, and fungi, but they consume charcoal and clay which absorb the toxins and provide them with needed minerals.
- Okapi’s large ears can move independently of one another, so they can stay alert from all angles. Their incredible hearing is imperative for tracking predators and listening for low-frequency calls from other okapi that are undetectable to leopards and humans.
- Much like our own fingerprints, each okapi has a unique stripe pattern. Calves are believed to identify and follow their mother using her stripes.
- Okapi derives from the name given to it by the Lese tribes local to the area of its discovery. They called it ‘o’api’, which is a compound of two Lese words, oka, a verb meaning to cut, and kpi, a noun referring to the design made on arrows by wrapping the arrow with bark so as to leave stripes when scorched by fire. The stripes on the legs of the okapi resemble these stripes on the arrow shafts.
- Okapi have scent glands on each foot that leave a sticky tar-like residue wherever they walk to mark their territory. Female okapi have relatively small territories, up to .8 square kilometers (.5 miles), while males will patrol up to 4 square kilometers (2.5 miles).
- Due to their elusive nature, the okapi population is difficult to measure. It is estimated that 3,000-3,5000 okapi live on the OWR, with their total population a loose (and old) estimate of 10-15,000 animals. Due to the insecurity throughout its range, no extensive population counts have been conducted since 2013.