- Okapi Photo
- The okapi is the national symbol for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- Dennis DeMello ©WCS
The okapi seems to be a blend of various animals—part
zebra, part donkey, and part antelope—but its closest living relative is the
giraffe. Commonly called the
“forest giraffe,” the okapi occurs only in the rainforests of northern Democratic Republic of
Congo (formerly Zaire). Here the okapi is a national symbol and protected by law. This
odd-looking mammal once lived in Uganda’s Semliki Forest but is now believed
to be locally extinct there.
The most giraffe-like external features of the okapi are its
slightly lengthened neck and its long, black tongue. This tongue comes in handy
for plucking buds, leaves, and branches from trees and shrubs as well as for
grooming. Okapis are very wary animals. Their highly developed hearing—a useful
adaptation in forests—alerts them to flee when they hear humans in the
distance. The animals’ striped hindquarters help them blend into the forest
habitat and hide from predators. Okapis create and maintain trails through the
forest. Other animals also use these trails, spreading the seeds of the plants they
eat as they travel. In addition to eating fruit, leaves, grasses, and fungi, the
okapi gets its mineral requirements by eating charcoal and a sulfurous, red clay
found along riverbanks.
|Scientific Name||Okapia johnstoni|
- About the size of a horse, the
okapi stands more than six feet at the head and five feet at the shoulder. An
adult okapi weighs 500 to 700 pounds.
- Okapis often travel up to half a mile each day along
trails used for generations. A scent gland on each foot leaves behind a sticky,
tar-like substance wherever they walk, marking their range.
- They are generally solitary
animals, except when females have calves with them. To communicate with their
calves, okapi mothers use infrasonic communication—another important adaptation
in their dense forest habitat. Elephants also communicate through these
vibrations, which are below the range of human hearing. Okapi calves are born
with the same color patterns as the adults. To avoid leopards, they will hide
in one place on a “nest” for the first six to nine weeks of their life—much
longer than calves of other ungulate species are known to do.
- How an okapi walks closely resembles that of a giraffe.
Both animals simultaneously step with the front and hind leg on the same side
of the body rather than moving alternate legs on either side, as other
Social, economic, and political turmoil threaten the
wildlife and the conservation of eastern DRC's protected areas. In
the Ituri Forest region, the primary concerns for okapis and their habitat are slash
and burn agriculture, commercial hunting for bushmeat markets, poor land-use planning, and gold and
coltan mining (coltan is a mineral used in all cell phones). Overall, okapi populations
may be stable in the large protected areas, but ensuring that illegal hunting of
these animals does not escalate is critical to their survival.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve--a World Heritage site established
in 1992 with WCS help--occupies about one-fifth of DRC’s Ituri Forest
contains about 5,000 of the estimated 30,000 remaining okapis. This reserve, along
with Maiko National Park, support significant okapi populations. Unfortunately,
wildlife conservation can be a dangerous and challenging undertaking in this
politically unstable region. Inside the reserve, WCS established a conservation
research and training center for international and Congolese scientists to
study the country’s little-known biodiversity. Even in ongoing political
turmoil, WCS teams train and employ courageous conservation professionals to
ensure that the reserve remains intact.
Much needed good news came in 2008, when a survey team
including WCS conservationists discovered okapi in Virunga National Park. No
one had seen these elusive animals there in more than 50 years.
From the Newsroom
Bandits murdered 7 people and 14 okapis when they attacked the village of Epulu and Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Although okapis share physical
similarities to zebras, they are more closely related to giraffes.