A close-up of an Okapi feeding on some bright green grass

The okapi: living unicorn

An elusive creature, and a species on the brink.

Rarely seen in the wild, a secretive forest creature exists that is the closest living relative of the giraffe. Additionally, these animals are so elusive that zero images of one in the wild existed until 2008. European colonists called it “the African unicorn”. Others referred to it as “the forest giraffe”. But, we now know it as — the Okapi.

A close-up of an Okapi feeding on some bright green grass
An okapi grazing on some grass. Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

This mysterious mammal has only been known to the western world since the early 1900s. Henry Morton Stanley has a travelogue about his journeys in the Congo. He noted the forest was home to a “kind of donkey” that the natives referred to as atti. Additional explorers only caught a fleeting view of the okapi’s backside — which resembles that of a zebra with black and white stripes. This led to further confusion on where exactly this animal lay taxonomically. It wasn’t until a group of indigenous Mbuti pygmies alongside Harry Johnston, a British explorer, acquired a complete specimen that scientists finally recognized this species formally.

The okapi habitat

Until recently, years of instability and war made it too dangerous for others to experience first hand the lush home of the okapi. With gradual stabilization, there is another opportunity to explore this magnificent ecosystem once again. The northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is home to The Ituri Rainforest. It is one of the most biologically diverse regions in Africa. Along with the okpai, the African Elephant, Hippopotamus, seventeen species of primates, and over 445 other known species of animals call it home.

Aerial shot of a green trees in a forest
Aerial shot of a forest, home to the okapis. Photo by Abel Kavanagh on Wikicommons

In many ways the Ituri rainforest is similar to many others throughout the world. The climate is incredibly humid with high temperatures and rainfall, that allow many plants to thrive. It is the rare species within, like the okapi, that sets it apart.

Coupled alongside their interesting coat pattern, okapi have many other strange adaptations up their sleeves. The prehensile tongues of okapi allow them to pluck food from trees with ease. It also makes them one of the only mammals capable of licking their own ears. Toxic leaves and fruit are no problem for them either. The okapi are known to source and consume clay to perform a self detox should these foods enter their systems. A black tar-like secretion from scent glands on each of their feet allow them to mark their territory. They also have another gland to produce oil to waterproof their fur.

Okapi in the forest with it's tongue sticking out
An okapi with it’s tongue sticking out.

Okapi conservation

Okapis are fully protected species under Congolese law but, the future of this striking mammal is still severely threatened. The okapi is dependent on the forest for its survival, and deforestation, along with poaching, have led to its decline. Additionally, an Okapi Conservation Strategy Workshop (2013) found that the population had plummeted over 50% in just fifteen years. For this reason, the okapi is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

John Lukas is a wildlife conservationist who founded the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) in 1987 to protect this shy animal. Today, the Okapi Conservation Project manages the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a 13,700-square-kilometer area of wilderness. This occupies one-fifth of the Ituri Forest. The reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the indigenous Mbuti pygmies. It is also home to the largest populations of forest elephants, okapi and chimpanzees in the DRC. Furthermore, the OCP relies heavily on zoos around the globe to educate the international public about this unique creature and the importance of its rainforest habitat. The San Antonio Zoo is one such place.

Two okapis standing next to each other at the San Antonio Zoo okapi habitat
Two okapis at the San Antonio Zoo, formerly streamed on Zoolife.tv

Okapis at the zoo

The Center for Conservation and Research at San Antonio Zoo seeks to fulfill the San Antonio Zoo’s Mission Statement. They do this through a variety of approaches. This includes fieldwork and captive husbandry of rare and threatened species — including the okapi. The zoo currently has two okapis it is attempting to mate — Epulu, a nine-year-old male, and Ludimi, a ten-year-old female.

Beside assisting population efforts through breeding, the San Antonio Zoo also plays an important role in educating the public about these amazing animals. As guests admire and learn about okapis, it is believed they will want to help protect okapis and their forest home — providing hope for their future.

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