Okapi: The Giraffe’s Elusive Forest Cousin

Also known as the forest, Congolese, or zebra giraffe, okapi are even toed ungulates endemic to northeast part of Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. While these mammals look like a cross between a zebra, horse, and deer, they’re actually related to giraffes and those two species are the only living members of the Giraffidae family.

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Like their much taller cousins, okapi are herbivores and their diet consists of fruit, buds, leaves, twigs, and other types of vegetation. They also have long, dark tongues that can strip leaves from branches that help them consume 45-60 pounds of food every day and these long tongues make them one of the only mammals that’s able to lick their own ears! But unlike their relatives that primarily live on the savannah, okapi are found in the dense Ituri Forest of the DRC and because of their dark colorings, they easily blend into their surroundings. In fact, the brown and white stripes on their rump and back legs mimic the appearance of sunshine streaks coming through the trees.

While okapi are elusive and solitary animals, they’ve been known to occasionally congregate in small groups to eat, groom, or even play! But because they were so shy, only the native/indigenous peoples from the Congo rainforest had seen an okapi until the late 19th century. And it wasn’t until 1901 that a British zoologist named Ray Lankester was able to write the first description of the animal by a Western scientist.

Okapi often stand roughly 5-5.5 feet tall and weigh 440-770 pounds. While they’re significantly shorter than their giraffe cousins, okapi also have to spread their long legs to get a drink of water and the males also have short, skin covered horns (also known as ossicones). Female okapi usually only have one calf at a time and their pregnancies last 14-16 months before the calves are born in a nest on the ground. Baby okapi can walk within half an hour of being born but don’t defecate until they’re 4-8 weeks old. That is a defensive adaption that makes it harder for predators to track vulnerable newborns, as okapi will spend those first two months hidden in a nest of foliage.

These animals are incredibly elusive in the wild but current theories suggest that their populations are on the decline and were reclassified as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2013. Threats to this species are primarily human in origin, as urban and agricultural development, energy production, and mining all threaten the species’ habitat. Additionally, logging, hunting, and trapping have also inadvertently hurt okapi while local civil unrest has also made a negative impact. Habitat protection, education, and regional stability can all help the wild okapi population thrive again.

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