With the body of a horse and legs of a zebra but belonging to the giraffe’s family, the okapi sure knows how to create confusion when studied. Scientifically named Okapia johnstoni, the forest giraffe, also known as the zebra giraffe or Congolese giraffe, is an artiodactyl mammal that is endemic to the northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.
Who Am I?
The okapi is around 1.5m tall and can weigh from 200-350kgs. The okapi and the giraffe are the only living members of the family Giraffidae. And like its relative, the okapi has a long neck, dark tongues, and large, flexible ears. The tongue of an okapi is long enough for the animal to wash its eyelids and clean its ears. Both animals simultaneously step with the same front and hind leg on each side rather than moving alternate legs. The coat of an okapi is of chocolate to reddish-brown color, but it has white horizontal stripes and rings on the legs, and white ankles. The male okapis have short horn-like structures covered with hair on their heads called ossicones almost 15 cm in length that develops between 1-5 years. . The females have hair whorls, and ossicones are absent.
From Africa to Europe
Though the okapi was unknown to the Western world until the 20th century, for years the Europeans in Africa kept hearing of a creature they called the “African Unicorn”, through the travel notes of Henry Morton Stanley. In them, he talked of a type of donkey that the natives called atti. The foreigners had only heard about the animal, but only the natives had seen it. Strips cut from the striped part of the skin of an okapi, sent home by Sir Harry Johnston, were the first evidence of the okapi’s existence to reach Europe. The skin and skull were obtained by him, though he didn’t see the animal itself, and it is from this skull the okapi was correctly classified as a relative of the giraffe. In 1910, the species were formally recognized and named after him, as Okapia Johnstoni (The generic name Okapia derives either from the Mbuba name okapi or the related Lese Karo name o’api).
Okapis are herbivores. They feed on tree leaves and buds, grasses, ferns, fruits, and fungi. And so, they live in canopy forests with altitudes of 500–1,500 m. Many of the plant species fed upon by the okapi are known to be poisonous to humans. Leopards and humans are their main predators. Examination of okapi feces has revealed that the charcoal from trees burnt by lightning is also consumed. Upon observation, it was found that okapi’s mineral and salt requirements are filled primarily by sulfurous, slightly salty, reddish clay found near rivers and streams.
Okapis are mainly active during the day as they are diurnal, but they are also up for a few hours in the dark. They usually travel alone and prefer to live in large secluded areas, coming together only to breed. A single calf is born after 14- 15 months of pregnancy, between August to October. The young ones are kept hidden, and mothers nurse them during irregular periods. Solid food can be eaten after they turn three months old, and weaning takes place at 6 months.
Hide and Seek
To avoid leopards, they don’t leave their “nest” during the first 6-9 weeks of their lives, something other animals don’t usually follow. Okapi mothers use infrasonic calls at around 14HZ to communicate with their calves, which is useful in dense forests and cannot be heard by humans. Their distinguishing brown and white marks on their rump act as camouflage in the forest.
Save our Homes
Already the land they live on is less, and the increasing threats of habitat reduction due to logging, illegal mining, and increasing human settlements, besides extensive hunting for its meat and skin has led to a huge decrease in population. It’s present number is said to be around 10,000 – 20,000. Thus, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classifies the okapi as endangered and the Okapi Conservation Project was established in 1987 to protect okapi populations. Conservation work in the Congo includes the study of okapi behavior and lifestyles, which led to the creation in 1992 of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Okapis are now reasonably common in zoos around North America and Europe.