Okapi Calf Born at WCS’s Bronx Zoo

Leadership in animal husbandry sciences is key to success of Bronx Zoo okapi program

Listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, okapis number fewer than 35,000 in the wild

View the video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfCOCs86m9c

Bronx, NY – Nov. 8, 2011 – An okapi has been born at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo following more than a year of careful animal husbandry science by the zoo’s mammal curators. 

Okapis are closely related to giraffes and native to the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They live in a large range on both sides of the Congo River. They are listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, and although populations are relatively stable in protected areas, they are susceptible to habitat loss and human encroachment. 

The Bronx Zoo has a long tradition of excellence in animal husbandry sciences and the arrival of the most recent okapi calf is a testament to the success of that leadership. Curators at the Bronx Zoo have a long history working with okapis with the first one arriving at the zoo in 1937. A series of breeding was initiated in 1992 resulting in the birth of 12 calves in the last 20 years.  Few zoos have achieved comparable success with this species. There are approximately 146 okapi in zoos around the world, and the IUCN estimates there are between 10,000 and 35,000 in the wild. 

Animal husbandry is the science of breeding, raising, and caring for animals. Bronx Zoo animal curators carefully apply practical husbandry techniques that begin with matchmaking and continue well after the calf is born. 

“The Bronx Zoo’s okapi program has been a tremendous success and has helped the zoo community better understand the reproductive biology of these beautiful creatures,” said Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President and Director of the Bronx Zoo. “Every species has different care requirements and the Bronx Zoo has been a leader in advancing husbandry practices for a number of species including the okapi. The arrival of this okapi calf is the culmination of more than a year’s work by Bronx Zoo mammal curators.” 

Prospective okapi pairs are chosen for mating by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Okapi Species Survival Plan (SSP).  Pairs are chosen to ensure that genetic diversity in the North American zoo population remains healthy.   

Potential new pairs of okapi are housed in adjoining enclosures so curators can judge compatibility. Once comfortable with each other, the male and female are slowly introduced and monitored carefully for signs of breeding behavior. Four to eight weeks after the pair has mated, the female is given an ultrasound examination to determine if she is pregnant. The ability to ultrasound an okapi is a culmination of patience and diligence from the zoo’s Mammalogy Department animal care staff. To prepare for this, keepers train the female okapi for the procedure as part of a regular routine to familiarize the animal with the sensation of a probe against its abdomen.  This raises the animal’s comfort level and eliminates stress during the actual examination and allows veterinarians to complete the procedure quickly and safely with no discomfort for the okapi. Keepers also train the pregnant female to stand quietly on a large scale so that her weight can be monitored throughout the pregnancy. 

The average gestation for an okapi is 14.5 months. During pregnancy, vets, curators and keepers carefully monitor the development of the fetus through continued examinations. Once the expected due date nears, the female’s stall is prepared with additional bedding. Conditions are kept calm and quiet in anticipation of the birth. Closed-circuit video cameras send images to a computer in another building allowing keepers to remotely monitor the birth, maternal and calf behavior, and the frequency and duration of nursing bouts.  

Upon birth, the mother and the calf are allowed time to bond. Unlike what would be normal practice for other ungulate species, a neonatal exam is not performed and the calf is not weighed because the species is very susceptible to stress.  

Okapi calves are unique in that they do not defecate for four to eight weeks after they are born. In the wild, this a natural defense that limits the amount of scent that could attract predators while the mother leaves the calf to feed.  Zoo-born okapis exhibit the same behavior; and early defecation can be an indicator of health complications.  

Curators give the mother and calf plenty of room to encourage natural behaviors. In the wild, okapi females will leave their calves for long periods of time to feed and return only for short periods to nurse them.  The female and calf spend relatively little time together.  For the first two months of its life the calf will spend about 80 percent of its time in its “nest” area. Okapi calves start sampling solid foods by three weeks of age and are usually weaned by the time they are six months old. At the Bronx Zoo, this new calf will slowly transition to a diet of leaves, alfalfa hay, specially formulated pelleted grain, and produce.  

The most recent okapi calf was born at the Bronx Zoo on June 2, 2011 and has made its public debut in the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Okapi Jungle and Ituri Field Camp in the Congo Gorilla Forest. The calf will be on exhibit intermittently for the first several weeks as it adjusts to its new surroundings. Exhibit times will vary and are weather dependent. 

The Wildlife Conservation Society works around the globe to save wildlife and wild places and is working to protect okapi and other wildlife in the Okapi Faunal Reserve and Maiko National Park, both in the Democratic Republic of Congo.   

Max Pulsinelli: (718) 220-5182; mpulsinelli@wcs.org
Steve Fairchild: (718) 220-5189; sfairchild@wcs.org

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. weekdays, 5:30 p.m. weekends from April to October; 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m November to March. Adult admission is $16, children (3-12 years old) $12, children under 3 are free, seniors (65+) are $14. Parking is $13 for cars and $16 for buses. The Bronx Zoo is conveniently located off the Bronx River Parkway at Exit 6; by train via the #2 or #5 or by bus via the #9, #12, #19, #22, MetroNorth, or BxM11 Express Bus service (from Manhattan that stops just outside the gate.) To plan your trip, visit bronxzoo.com or call 718-367-1010.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world’s largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth.

Note to the Media: If you would like to guide your readers or viewers to a Web link where they can make donations in support of helping save wildlife and wild places, please direct them to www.wcs.org.

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