Okapi

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.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameOkapia 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 ungulates do.

Challenges

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.

WCS Responds

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve--a World Heritage site established in 1992 with WCS help--occupies about one-fifth of DRC’s Ituri Forest and 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

Senseless Killings in a Congolese Wildlife ReserveJune 29, 2012

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.

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