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Episode 18: The Elusive Okapi

Deep in the heart of Africa lies the last great mammal to be discovered by humans, the Okapi. This large herbivore was often called the ‘African Unicorn’ due to its almost mythical status. Western societies searched and searched, never catching even a glimpse of this majestic animal. It was not until the early 20th Century until finally the Okapi was discovered and ever since has been capturing the hearts of any that work and observe them.

Okapi History

The Okapi (Okapia johnstoni) belongs to the family of Giraffidae. Many who view this animal often confuse them for being a type of zebra due to the white striping along its hind end and front legs. This is not the case, as their closest relative is the giraffe.

Giraffids, modern-day giraffes and okapi, split from other even-toed ungulates over 25 million years ago. The giraffe and okapi have many common physical traits:

  • Seven vertebrae in the neck
  • Black tongues
  • Males have ossicones on top of their heads (skin covered protrusions)
  • Similar body structure, though giraffes much taller

As mentioned above the Okapi was not discovered by western explorers until the year 1901. Sir Harry Johnson, who names the Okapi, was given the hide and skeleton of an Okapi, which he brought back to Europe. Yet, he still had not set eyes on a live Okapi due to their elusiveness, and ability to avoid detection. The first live Okapis were captured later in the decade in 1909 when explorers caught calves.  It was not unto 1919 when the first Okapi were brought into captivity at the Antwerp Zoo.

Okapi Habitat

Today the Okapi still range in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a highly contentious area of Africa. They exist in the deepest parts of the Central African rain forest, their preferred habitat.  However, due to poaching, habitat loss, and frequent human conflict, the Okapi have suffered and are now classified as endangered.

Living in the rain forest the Okapi are highly adapted to their environment. They are selective browsers and are known to each over 100 species of plants exclusive to the region. They eat ferns, fungi, leaves, fruits and even clay to meet their dietary requirements.

 Okapi Physiology

The Okapi are considered one of the most charismatic megafauna on the planet, and often called ‘beautiful’ by man.

  • Tall mammal that stand 5 feet (1.5 m) at the shoulder
  • Dark brown coats along topline, neck, and head. Have white and black striping up front legs and around their hind ends.
  • Enormous ears that help them catch soundwaves. This is a major reason they are so difficult to stop as the animal evacuates an area before a human can catch site of them. They hear you way before you can see them.
  • Can live up to 30 years in captivity. In the wild it is unknown since they are rarely seen.
  • Solitary animals and diurnal.
  • Extremely long tongues (10 inches or 25 cm past mouth) to reach their food and can clean their ears and eyes with it.
  • Skin is oily that is believed to help them be waterproof.

Conservation Efforts

There are only approximately as low as 10,000 and upwards of 35,000 animals left in the world. There are only about 100 Okapi in captivity throughout the world. Due to human-caused pressures, the population and more importantly habitat of the Okapi has been decreasing each year.

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Congo is listed as a UN World Heritage Site and it is believed it protects approximately 5,000 Okapi within its borders.

Organizations to Support

Okapi Conservation Project

White Oak Conservation Center

March 13, 2018

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