- CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
- ORDER: Artiodactyla
- FAMILY: Giraffidae
- GENUS: Okapia
- SPECIES: johnstoni
It's related to giraffes?! The okapi (pronounced oh-COP-ee) is a beautiful and unusual animal. With its white-and-black striped hindquarters and front legs, it looks like it must be related to zebras! But take a look at an okapi’s head, and you’ll notice a resemblance to giraffes. 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.
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.
HABITAT AND DIET
Made for a rain forest: The okapi's home is in the tropical rain forest in the northeast region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Why does the okapi have zebra-like stripes? These markings, which seem very bold to us, give the animal great camouflage when hiding in the partial sunlight that filters through its dense rain forest habitat. The stripes may also help a young okapi follow its mother through the dark forest, and they may help adults find each other, too. The okapi’s dark purplish or reddish brown fur is dense and feels like velvet. It’s also oily, so water slides right off, 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.
If okapis are related to giraffes, why aren’t they as tall as giraffes? In a rain forest, there are trees with branches hanging down, as well as roots and tree trunks to dodge. 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!
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.
Both male and female okapis are most active during the afternoon through the evening. They are important forest browsers, eating 40 to 65 pounds (18 to 29 kilograms) of leaves, twigs, and fruits each day and leaving a “pruning line” in the foliage. Okapis use their prehensile tongue to get food by pulling leaves from trees and into their mouth. The tongue is also an important grooming tool, helping to keep the velvety soft, short coat in tip-top shape. Okapis have also been seen eating clay and burnt charcoal, probably for minerals. And just like giraffes, sheep, and goats, okapis are ruminants.
At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, okapis are fed alfalfa hay and pellets, leafy acacia branches, carrots, and yams.
I smell you: While okapis travel for the most part by themselves within their home ranges, they still have ways of communicating with others whose ranges overlap. A scent gland on each foot leaves behind a sticky, tar-like substance wherever they have walked, marking their territory. Okapis have a great sense of smell. By checking the ground, an okapi can tell if another okapi has been there. Males also mark their territory by urine spraying. Normally silent, female okapis vocalize only when they are ready to breed.
Okapi newborns can stand up within 30 minutes of birth and nurse for the first time within an hour of birth. They have the same coloring as an adult but have a short fringe of hair along the spine, which generally disappears by the time they are 12 to 14 months old. In the wild, mothers hide their newborn calves in one spot, returning regularly to allow the calf to nurse.
An okapi calf starts trying solid food at just three weeks old and defecates (poops) for the first time between four and eight weeks of age. This adaptation helps keep predators from sniffing out the hidden newborns until they have had a chance to grow and gain strength. Calves triple their size by the end of their second month but do not reach full adult size until three years of age.
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.
San Diego Zoo researchers discovered that okapis have a secret language. They watched okapis closely and recorded their sounds. The researchers heard coughs, bleats, and whistles quite often, but it wasn’t until they returned to the Sensory Ecology Lab to examine their recordings closely that they realized okapis also use other calls with very low frequencies. These calls are so low, in fact, that we humans cannot hear them at all! It’s only when we look at recordings via specialized computer software that these infrasonic mutterings become visible.
Our researchers then recorded our okapis around the clock to find out why they use these low-pitched calls. One explanation is that these calls have evolved for communication between Mom and her baby while she’s out foraging. In this situation, Mom can “check in” with her offspring without alerting potential predators of the fact that her baby is vulnerable. Predators remain unaware of these chats, as, like us, they cannot hear sounds so low in pitch. It’s the okapi version of students who text message each other in class so that the teacher is unaware that they are “talking.”
AT THE ZOO
Most people have never seen an okapi before. But they’re easy to find as your explore the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park! Okapis first came to the San Diego Zoo in 1956, and we celebrated our first okapi birth with the arrival of Baruti in 1962. Since then, we’ve had many more births of this species, and we’ve sent them to other zoos in the US, South Africa, and Japan.
At the Zoo, our first okapi, a male named Bayahu, was a gift to us from the government of the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The telegram notifying us of the gift offer came as a complete surprise, and at first we were uncertain that our translation of the message from French into English was correct. But by coincidence, Jean Delacour, director of the Los Angeles County Museum at the time and a native of France, walked into the Zoo director’s office shortly after the telegram arrived and quickly verified that this was an offer of a male okapi. We responded within the hour, and after just five months and many telegrams and phone calls, our okapi arrived by airplane to be greeted with much fanfare at the airport. In 1978, a male and female okapi were transferred from the Zoo to our fledgling sister facility, the Safari Park, to establish a breeding nucleus there.
Today, the Zoo’s okapis can be found along the Hippo Trail in Lost Forest. Their exhibit is designed to let guests enjoy a good look at these beautiful animals without disturbing them. Here they have sunny, grassy areas and shady spots for nibbling leaves, as well as nooks and crannies they can retreat to. At the Safari Park, a small herd of okapis can be viewed easily in their shady, luxurious habitat in African Woods. There have been four generations of okapis born at the Safari Park!
The changing politics of central Africa, hunting, and the continued loss of habitat threaten the beautiful okapi. Fortunately, in 1992, one-fifth of okapi habitat in Africa’s Ituri Forest was set aside as a wildlife reserve. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, with support from San Diego Zoo Global, other zoos and conservation organizations, and the local people, continues to protect and to support study of this rare and unusual forest dweller. As an “umbrella” species in conservation efforts, helping to save okapis also helps protect a large number of other species in the same area of Africa.
Until recently, to see an okapi in Africa you would need to spend days or even weeks in the Ituri Forest. And even then, you probably wouldn’t see one, as they are elusive and live in a difficult habitat for most humans to move around in. This is why most people in Africa have never seen an okapi, other than in a photo, and many zoos can’t afford to give them a home.
In 2007, San Diego Zoo Global sent two of our okapis to the Pretoria Zoo in South Africa. For the first time, people on that continent who visit that zoo can actually see these amazing animals. As they admire and learn about okapis, we believe they will want to help protect the animals and their forest home. We still work with the Pretoria Zoo on conservation projects and hope to send more okapis there to start a breeding program.