Northeast region of Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) in Africa


Tropical rain forest

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.

Call me 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.

Female okapis are slightly taller than male okapis, but weigh 55 to 110 pounds (25 to 50 kilograms) more.
The okapi’s dark tongue is long enough to reach its eyes and ears.
Onions are the okapis’ favorite treat at the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park. They are fed onions once a week.
The ears of an okapi can rotate independently, so the animal can listen for sounds both in front and behind.
Okapi stripes are sometimes called “follow me” stripes, as the bold pattern makes it easy for a calf to follow its mother through the dark rain forest.
Like the giraffe, the okapi must splay its legs to reach the ground when drinking.

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 58 births of this species, including our newest calf, born on September 4, 2011, at the Safari Park, and we’ve sent them to other zoos in the U.S., 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 1952, 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.