Okapi, Okapia johnstoni

The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is a species within the Giraffidae family that can be found in Central Africa. Its native range includes the Ituri Rainforest, which can be found to the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This species is most closely related to the giraffe, despite its resemblances to the zebra. Its habitat varies slightly depending on the area of its range. It occurs in swamps in the southeast, montane forests in the east, savannahs in the north, and woodlands in the south. In eastern montane forests, it occurs at altitudes between 1,640 feet and 3,280 feet. The okapi appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Near Threatened.”

The okapi received its common name from o’api, the Lese Karo name for this creature. Its scientific name honors Harry Johnston, the man who led the expedition that captured the first okapi specimen from the Ituri Forest. The okapi was first brought to European attention by the media reports of Henry Morton Stanley’s 1887 journeys. Harry Johnston sent the first specimen to London in 1901. This promoted its popularity around the world, and now over 42 zoos display them. It is sometimes used as an example of a living fossil.

The okapi can reach an average body length between 6.2 and 8.2 feet and a height of up to 6.6 feet at the shoulder. It can weigh between 440 to 770 pounds, and has an average tail length of up to seventeen inches long. The fur color of this species varies across its body, with dark reddish fur occurring on the back, and bright white stripes occurring on the legs and chest. It is thought that these markings may help mothers recognize their young from far distances. The body of the okapi resembles a giraffe, excluding the neck, in that it has long legs and stout build. It also has a long, blue tongue. This tongue helps the okapi to strip branches of leaves and buds. It uses its tongue to clean its face and ears as well. Males grow short horns that are covered with skin, called ossicones, and these help it detect predators like leopards.

Although primarily active during the day, one photograph taken in the Watalinga forest, located in the eastern part of Virunga National Park. This photo was captured at 2:33 AM, showing the individual feeding and proving that the species may not be exclusively diurnal. The okapi is typically solitary, only living in groups of two when breeding or raising young. When mating, the okapi may groom, circle, or sniff its mate.  The typical home range of one individual usually overlaps that of another and an average of 1.5 individuals occurs in one square mile. These territories are marked by males with urine and secretions from the bottom of each foot.

The okapi forages for food along forest edges, using well defined paths to locate vegetation including the buds and leaves of trees, fungi, fruits, grasses, and ferns. It will eat many types of plants that are poisonous to humans, as well as charcoal from burnt trees that have been struck by lightning. Red clay found near rivers and streams comprise a large part of this species’ diet, giving it salt and other mineral nutrients it requires.

Although the okapi was not known in the Western parts of the world until the 20th century, one depiction found at Persepolis, on the façade of the Apadana, a gift from the Ethiopian procession which traveled to Achaemenid kingdom. It was known by the ancient Egyptians, and a carved image of the animal was found in Egypt support this. While exploring the Congo, Henry Morton Stanley noted an animal that resembled a donkey, which the natives called the “Atti.” This creature was later identified by the okapi, but was also seen slipping into the forest, leading some Europeans to consider it to be a forest zebra. The British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, once encountered a group of pygmy people that were being captured. After rescuing them, they told him stories of the same creature found in Stanely’s book. Johnston followed tracks of the okapi, expecting to see something similar to the horse, but he was confused when he saw the tracks were made from cloven hooves. He never saw an okapi, but he did acquire some pieces of its striped skin and a skull. This skull was used to describe the species, and helped those who classified it as Okapia johnstoni.

The okapi occurs in many zoos, and in 2011, the number of individuals in zoos reached 154 on four continents. Most of these appear in European and North American zoos, while seven appear in Japan and two in Africa. When okapis were first discovered, many zoos attempted to capture and transport individuals, but these attempts resulted in high mortality rates caused by the stress of transport. Today, air travel has proven to be a successful means of transporting the okapi. In 1918, the first okapi in in Europe was taken to Antwerp, and the first okapi in North America was placed in the Bronx Zoo in 1937. There have been many okapi births in captivity, including 47 at Antwerp Zoo, where the first captive birth occurred. The Antwerp Zoo runs the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP), and at the Brookfield Zoo leads the Okapi Species Survival Plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

The population number of the okapi is estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000 worldwide. Okapis in the wild are threatened by poaching and habitat loss, although these threats are not enough to classify them as Endangered. There are conservation efforts in effect for the okapi, including the Okapi Conservation Project, which operates in Democratic Republic of the Congo by the okapi’s lifestyle and behaviors. This led to the creation of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in 1992. At the Epulu reserve, there is a vital breeding center for the okapi that is directed by the Gilman International Conservation and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation. Both groups are funded by groups like UNESCO and WildlifeDirect, and zoos from different areas of the world. In 2006, there were reports of the okapi appearing in Congo’s Virunga National Park. The last okapis in this area were seen in 1959. These sighting were proven true in 2008, when Wildlife Conservation Society camera traps snapped the first photos of the okapi in this park.

Image Caption: An okapi at Marwell Wildlife, Hampshire, England. Credit: Charles Miller/Wikipedia  (CC BY 2.0)