Bio Facts: Okapi
Ituri Rainforest located in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo
Altitudes of 1,600 – 3,281 ft (500 to 1,000 m), but may venture above 3,281 ft (1,000 m) in closed, high canopy forests, occurring in a wide range of primary and older secondary forest types.
Adult length (head to tail): 6.2 – 8.2 ft (1.9 – 2.5 m); adult height at the shoulder: 4.9 – 6.6 ft (1.5 – 2.0 m); tail length: 12 – 17 in (30 – 42 cm); adult weight: 440 – 660 lbs. (200 – 300 kg); appearance: body shape similar to the giraffe, except with a much shorter neck; coloration: reddish dark backs, with striking horizontal white stripes on the front and back legs; tongue is long (13.8 in or 35 cm), flexible, and blue-black in coloration; males have hair-covered horns called ossicones that grow to 6 in (15 cm).
Wild: unknown; in captivity: up to 30 years
2 – 3 years
In the wild, they eat tree leaves and buds, grass, ferns, fruit, and fungi; in the Zoo, they are fed a scientifically developed, commercially available wild herbivore pelleted diet, a variety of fruits, vegetables and greens and native browse.
IUCN – Near Threatened
Okapis are primarily diurnal, although recent photo captures have challenged this long held assumption. One photograph taken at 02:33 a.m. shows an okapi feeding in the Watalinga forest in the north of the Virunga National Park in eastern DRC, thus providing evidence that they do not only feed during the daytime.
Okapis forage along fixed, well-trodden paths through the forest. They have overlapping home ranges of several square kilometers and typically occur at densities of about 1.5 animals per square mile (0.6 animals per 1 sq km). They are not social animals and prefer to live in large, secluded areas. This has led to problems with the okapi population due to the shrinking size of the land they live on. This lack of territory is caused by human land development and other social reasons. However, okapis tolerate each other in the wild and may even feed in small groups for short periods of time.
Okapis have several methods of communicating their territory, including scent glands on each foot that produce a tar-like substance, as well as urine marking. Males are protective of their territory, but allow females to pass through their domain to forage.
Examination of okapi feces has revealed that the charcoal from trees burnt by lightning is consumed as well. Field observations indicate that the okapi’s mineral and salt requirements are filled primarily by sulfurous, slightly salty, reddish clay found near rivers and streams.
Okapis are essentially solitary, coming together only to breed, with the exception of mothers and offspring. Okapi courtship and mating rituals are known only from observations done in zoos. Partners begin courtship by circling, sniffing, and licking each other. Eventually, the male asserts his dominance by extending his neck, tossing his head, and thrusting one leg forward. This display is followed by mounting and copulation. After mating, the pair separates.
Gestation lasts about 440 days, and females retreat into dense forest vegetation to give birth to a single calf. A newborn weighs 30 – 66 lbs. (14 - 30 kg) at birth. It is precocial and may nurse after 21 minutes and stand after just 30 minutes. A calf spends the first day or two of life following the mother around and exploring the environment. After this, it finds a suitable hiding spot and makes a nest. For the next two months, it spends 80% of its time in the nest. Hiding behavior appears to promote rapid growth and provides protection from predators. A disturbed calf lies motionless in its nest, and a female okapi will rush to aggressively defend her calf from danger. During the hiding stage, young nurse relatively infrequently and do not defecate. These strategies help keep them undetected by predators. Okapi mothers use infrasonic communication to communicate with their calves. This is sound that is below the range of human hearing – also used by elephants. Weaning occurs at about 6 months, although young may continue to suckle for more than a year. Young males begin developing horns at one year of age, and both males and females reach adult size at about three years.
Okapis seem to exhibit several aggressive behaviors including kicking and head throwing. In captivity, dominant animals hold their necks straight and heads higher than subordinates, and the placing of the neck and head on the ground is a clear sign of submission. In addition, social grooming and play behavior seem to be common for both juveniles and adults.
Because there is a considerable amount of rain in their forest habitat, okapis have an oily, velvety coat of fur that repels the water. They develop this coat as juveniles and it also helps with camouflage.
The long black tongue is used for plucking buds, leaves, and branches from trees and shrubs as well as for grooming.
The okapi was known to the ancient Egyptians. Shortly after its discovery by Europeans, an ancient carved image of the animal was discovered in Egypt. Although the okapi was unknown to the Western world until the 20th century, it was possibly depicted 2,500 years ago on the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis, as a gift from the Ethiopian procession to the Achaemenid kingdom.
For years, Europeans in Africa had heard of an animal that they came to call the ‘African unicorn’. In his travelogue of exploring the Congo, Henry Morton Stanley mentioned a kind of donkey that the natives called the ‘Atti’, which scholars later identified as the okapi. Explorers may have seen the fleeting view of the striped backside as the animal fled through the bushes, leading to speculation that the okapi was some sort of rainforest zebra.
When the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, discovered some pygmy inhabitants of the Congo being abducted by a German showman for exhibition in Europe, he rescued them and promised to return them to their homes. The grateful pygmies fed Johnston’s curiosity about the animal mentioned in Stanley’s book. Johnston was puzzled by the okapi tracks the natives showed him; while he had expected to be on the trail of some sort of forest-dwelling horse, the tracks were of some cloven-hoofed beast.
Though Johnston did not see an okapi himself, he did manage to obtain pieces of striped skin and eventually a skull. From this skull, the okapi was correctly classified as a relative of the giraffe; in 1901, the species was formally recognized as Okapia johnstoni.
The genus name Okapia derives from the Lese Karo name “o’api”, while the species name johnstoni is in recognition of the explorer Sir Harry Johnston, who organized the expedition that first acquired an okapi specimen for science from the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The name “okapi” is a portmanteau of two Lese words, oka a verb meaning “to cut” and kpi which is a noun referring to the design made on Efé 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. Lese legend says the okapi decorates itself with these stripes, adding to the okapi’s great camouflage.
Many of the plant species eaten by the okapi are poisonous to humans.
The okapi is a totally protected species under Congolese law and the species is a national symbol, appearing on the insignia of the Congolese National Parks Institute, ICCN.
The classification of the okapi as a giraffe species has been challenged recently (Kurt Benirschke, 2006, in Zool. Garten NF 76, 197-198) and have been put forward suggesting that the okapi is a close relative of the nilghai antelope of India, which has the same number of chromosomes, the same chemical composition of the bile, and a similar placenta structure.
As of 2011, there are 154 okapi specimens in zoos on four continents, with the majority of them being located in North American and European zoos, as well as two specimens in South Africa and seven specimens in Japan. Immediately following their discovery, zoos around the world attempted to obtain 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 was at Zoo Basel, Switzerland in 1957. In North America, the first okapi was born at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois in 1959. Brookfield Zoo records 27 okapi births, followed by Zoo Basel’s 21 births.
The Brookfield Zoo directs the Okapi Species Survival Plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) for the okapi is led by the Antwerp Zoo.
Although okapis are not classified as endangered, they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. The world population is estimated at 10,000–20,000. Conservation work in the Congo 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.
There is an important captive breeding centre at Epulu, at the heart of the reserve, which is managed jointly by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and Gillman International Conservation, which in turn receives support from other organizations including UNESCO, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Wildlife Direct as well as from zoos around the world. The Wildlife Conservation Society is also active in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
On June 8, 2006, scientists reported that evidence of surviving okapis in Congo’s Virunga National Park had been discovered. 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 that one of their camera traps snapped the first photo ever taken of an okapi in Virunga National Park.
Given that the okapi can coexist with small-scale, low-level human occupation of the forest, but disappear in areas of active settlement or disturbance, the major threat to this species is habitat loss due to logging and human settlement. Approximately one-third of the okapi’s known area of occupancy is likely to be at risk by major incursions during the first quarter of this century. Areas at high risk include the south-eastern Ituri Forest, the Kisangani area, Rubi-Tele, and the western limits of the species’ range in the Ebola R basin.
Hunting (meat and skins) is also a threat to the species, and they decline rapidly in areas where there is persistent use of cable snares. The Mbuti hunter-gatherers in the Ituri Forest hold okapi in high esteem. While this has not prevented them from killing okapi, it has elevated this to a special event that requires post-hunt purification.
The total population is estimated in the order of 10,000-35,000 animals, and numbers are stable in the large protected areas. However, the okapi’s future is closely tied to attempts to develop and implement effective conservation and management of Okapi Faunal Reserve and Maiko National Park in DR Congo, as human populations, bushmeat hunting and economic development pressures expand in these regions. In the absence of these conservation measures, the species would probably quickly meet the thresholds for decline.
Jacksonville Zoo History:
This very rare and protected species first entered the Jacksonville Zoo and Garden’s animal collection in 2010.