A MOST CURIOUS ANIMAL, A CULTURAL SYMBOL, A SPECIES ON THE BRINK
The okapi — Okapia johnstoni; the “forest giraffe”; one of the oldest mammals left on Earth — is known to the western world only since the early 20th century. 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, to which it is uniquely endemic, it is a national and cultural symbol, and has been protected since 1933.
Okapi’s existence is under grave threat from the impact of human activities. The okapi is entirely dependent on the forest sanctuary for its survival, and deforestation, along with poaching and mining, have 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 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 in this equatorial rainforest. Key to this are conservation initiatives that benefit the livelihoods and environment of the okapi’s human cohabitants. The OCP relies heavily on zoos around the globe to educate the international public about this unique, captivating creature and the importance of its rainforest habitat.
Get to know the okapi:
- Okapi were originally thought to be 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 rainforest of the DRC, characterized by high precipitation and little light due to the dense tree 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 by around 100 pounds, while males have ossicones (small horns covered in skin and fur).
- Okapi are a diurnal species, feeding in the mornings and evenings.
- Just like giraffes, okapi must splay their legs in order to reach water.
- Okapi are typically solitary, 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 one place on a “nest” for the first six to nine weeks of their life. They can go up to 60 days before defecating, as to not warn predators with their scent.
- Okapi eat toxic leaves, fruits, and fungi. They consume charcoal and clay which acts as a detoxifier and provides 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 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 pygmy 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 leaves 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 3-4,000 Okapi live on the OWR, with their total population being between 10-15,000.