Okapi Giraffes – The Zebra Giraffe

okapi strange unique animals

The Okapi – A Strange & Unique, But Beautiful Animal

The Okapi, also identified as the forest giraffe, Congolese giraffe, or zebra giraffe, is an artiodactyl mammal (even-toed ungulates, which includes pigs, peccaries, camels, hippopotamuses, chevrotains, deer, giraffes, antelopes, pronghorn, goats, sheep, and cattle) and is indigenous to the northeast of the Democratic Republic Congo in Central Africa.

Although the Okapi has striped markings suggestive of zebras, it is most closely related to the giraffe. The Okapi and the giraffe are the sole living members of the family Giraffidae.

The Okapi reaches about 1.5 m (4.9 ft) tall at the shoulder and has a standard body length about 2.5 m (8.2 ft). Its weight varies from 200 to 350 kg (440 to 770 lb). It has a long neck, and big, flexible ears.

Its coat is a chocolate to reddish-brown, much in contrast with the white level stripes and rings on the legs, and white ankles.

Male okapis have short, well-defined horn-like bumps on their heads called ossicones (which share similar characteristics to the giraffe ossicones in terms of development, structure and function), and are less than 15 cm (5.9 in) in length.

Females own hair whorls (a spot of hair growing in a circular path around a visible centre point), and ossicones are absent.

okapi strange unique animals

Okapis are fundamentally daytime animals but may be active for a few hours in the nighttime. They are typically solitary, coming together only to reproduce. Okapis are herbivores, grazing on tree leaves and flowers, grasses, fruits, ferns, fungi and mushrooms.

An increase in testosterone & aggression in males and a recurring period of sexual receptivity and fertility in females does not depend on the season or time of year. In captivity, oestrous cycles (a set of periodic physiological changes induced by reproductive hormones in most mammal females) happen every 15 days.

The gestational period is about 440 to 450 days long, following which usually an individual calf is born. The young are kept in hiding, and nursing takes place intermittently. Juveniles start eating solid food from three months, and weaning takes place at 6 months.

Where Is the Okapi Found – its Habitat?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s tropical forests. Okapis occupy canopy forests at elevations of 500–1,500 m (1,600–4,900 ft). They are endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s tropical forests, where they occupy northern, central, and the eastern regions.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) classes the Okapi as endangered. Major threats incorporate habitat loss due to logging and human establishment.

Widespread hunting for bushmeat and skin and illegal mining have also led to a deterioration in populations. The Okapi Conservation Project was founded in 1987 to preserve okapi populations.

What Does The Word Okapi Mean and The Scientific Classification of These Unique Animals

Okapi Facts

Strips cut from the banded part of an Okapi’s skin, sent home by Sir Harry Johnston, were the first indication of the Okapi’s existence to reach Europe.

Although the Okapi was unfamiliar to the Western world until the 20th century, it may have been portrayed since the early fifth century BCE on the Apadana façade at Persepolis, a present from the Ethiopian procession to the Achaemenid empire.

For years, Europeans in Africa had learned of an animal that they came to call the African unicorn. The creature was brought to special European attention by theorising its existence in press reports comprising Henry Morton Stanley’s journeys in 1887.

In his travelogue of travelling the Congo, Stanley mentioned a variety of donkey that the locals called the atti, which scholars later classified as the Okapi.

okapi strange unique animals

Explorers may have seen a quick view of the striped backside as the animal retreated through the bushes, pointing to speculation that the Okapi was some kind of rainforest zebra.

When a British special commissioner in Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, found some Pygmy occupants of the Congo being kidnapped by a showman for exhibition, he saved them. He vowed to return them to their homes.

The Pygmies fed Johnston’s inquisitiveness about the animal mentioned in Stanley’s book. Johnston was baffled by the okapi tracks the natives showed him; while he had presumed to be on the trail of some sort of forest-dwelling horse, the tracks were that of a cloven-hoofed creature.

Illustration of Okapi from an original painting by Sir Harry Johnston, based on preserved skins (1901)

Even though Johnston did not observe an okapi himself, he did manage to collect pieces of striped skin and finally a skull.

From this skull, the Okapi was accurately classified as a giraffe’s relation; in 1901, the species was formally identified as Okapia johnstoni.

Okapia johnstoni was first defined as Equus johnstoni by English zoologist Philip Lutley Sclater in 1901. The generic name Okapia originates either from the Mbuba name okapi or the associated Lese Karo name o’api.

The specific name (johnstoni) is in recognition of Johnston, who first obtained an okapi specimen for science from the Ituri Forest. Remains of a corpse were later sent to London by Johnston and became a media event in the year 1901.

In 1901, Sclater presented a portrait and painting of the Okapi before the Zoological Society of London that portrayed its physical features with some accuracy. Much confusion arose concerning the taxonomical status of this newly found animal.

Sir Harry Johnston himself named it a Helladotherium or a relative of other extinct giraffids. Based on the Okapi’s account by Pygmies, who referred to it as a “horse”, Sclater called the species Equus johnstoni.

Consequently, zoologist Ray Lankester stated that the Okapi represented an obscure genus of the Giraffidae. He placed in its own genus, Okapia, and selected the name Okapia johnstoni to the species.

In the year 1902, Swiss zoologist Charles Immanuel Forsyth Major proposed the inclusion of O. johnstoni in the extinct giraffid subfamily Palaeotraginae.

Nevertheless, the species was set in its own subfamily Okapiinae, by Swedish palaeontologist Birger Bohlin in 1926, mostly due to the lack of a cingulum, an important feature of the palaeotragids.

In 1986, Okapia was finally confirmed as a sister genus of Giraffa based on cladistic analysis. The two genera, collectively with Palaeotragus compose the family Giraffini.

okapi strange unique animals

The Evolution of the Okapi

Despite the vast diversity in neck length, the Okapi (left) and the giraffe (right) both have seven cervical vertebrae (as do all mammals besides manatees and sloths).

The earliest Giraffidae members first emerged in the early Miocene in Africa, deviating from the externally deer-like climacoceratids. Giraffids expanded into Europe and Asia by the central Miocene in first radiation (a manner in which organisms diversify quickly from an ancestral species into many new forms).

Another radiation started in the Pliocene but was stopped by a decline in variety in the Pleistocene. Several major primitive giraffids lived more or less at the same time in the Miocene (23–10 million years ago), including the Giraffokeryx, Canthumeryx, Palaeotragus and the Samotherium.

According to palaeontologist and writer Kathleen Hunt, Samotherium split into Okapia (18 million years ago) and Giraffa (12 million years ago).

Nevertheless, J. D. Skinner claimed that Canthumeryx gave rise to the Okapi and giraffe through the latter three species. The Okapi is the current form of Palaeotragus. The Okapi is sometimes mentioned as a living fossil.

It has existed as a species over a long geological era, and morphologically resembles more primitive forms (e.g. Samotherium).

In 2016, a genetic investigation found that giraffe and Okapi’s common ancestor existed about 11.5 million years ago.

baby okapi

Okapi Characteristics

The Okapi is a medium-sized giraffid, reaching 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) tall at the shoulder. Its standard body length is about 2.5 m (8 ft 2 in), and its weight varies from 200 to 350 kg (440 to 770 lb). It has a long neck and large, adjustable ears.

The hair is chocolate to reddish-brown, much in opposition with the white horizontal stripes and rings on the legs and white anklebones. The striking lines make it match a zebra. These features serve as an efficient camouflage amidst thick vegetation. The face, chest and throat are greyish white.

Interdigital glands are present on all 4 feet and are somewhat more extensive on the front feet. Male okapis have abrupt, hair-covered horns named ossicones, less than 15 cm (5.9 in) in length. The Okapi shows sexual dimorphism (where a species has different physical characteristics based on their sex).

With females 4.2 cm (1.7 in) taller and higher on average, they are slightly redder. They lack obvious ossicones (horn or blunt protrusions on giraffes heads). Instead, they possess hair whorls.

The Okapi shows several adjustments to its tropical habitat. They have good night vision, and an efficient system of smell is present. The large ears allow a strong function of hearing.

okapi strange unique animals

Teeth are low-crowned and finely cusped, have multiple points for adequate chewing, and efficiently cut tender foliage. Its internal stomach and associated organs allow for good micro-digestion.

The Okapi can be easily identified from its nearest living relative, the giraffe. It is much smaller and shares more external similarities with the venison and bovids than with the giraffe. While both sexes own horns in the giraffe, only males have horns in the Okapi.

The Okapi has large palatine sinuses, which are unique among the giraffids. Morphological closeness experienced between the giraffe, and the Okapi carries a similar walk – both use a pacing walk, stepping together with the front and the hind leg on the same side of the body, unlike other mammals with hooves that walk by moving alternating legs on either side of the body.

They also have a long, black tongue (more extended in the Okapi) helpful in plucking buds and leaves and grooming.

Okapi Ecology and Behaviour

Okapis are primarily daytime animals but may be active for a few hours in the nighttime. They are typically solitary, coming collectively only to breed. They have overlaying home ranges and usually occur at quantities around 0.6 animals per square kilometre.

Male home areas average 13 km2 (5.0 sq mi), while female home areas average 3–5 km2 (1.2–1.9 sq mi). Males migrate continuously, while females are stationary. Males often mark territories and shrubs with their urine, while females use common excretion sites.

Grooming is a standard practice, focused at the earlobes and the neck. Okapis frequently rub their necks upon trees, leaving brown bodily pus-like excretion.

The male is guarding of his territory but permits females to pass through the area to forage. Males visit female home areas at breeding time. Although generally peaceful, the Okapi can kick and butt with its head to show hostility.

As the vocal cords are poorly grown, vocal communication is mainly limited to three sounds — “chuff” (meeting calls used by both sexes), “moan” (by females during courting) and “bleat” (by infants under duress).

Individuals may engage in the Flehmen response, a visual representation in which the creature curls back its upper lips, reveals the teeth and inhales into the mouth for a few seconds.

Okapi Predators

The leopard is the principal natural predator of the Okapi.

Okapi Diet and What They Eat

okapis tongue strange unique animals
The Okapis long tongue makes the unique animal well suited for foraging from higher branches and foliage

Okapis are herbivores, grazing on tree leaves and buds, grasses, ferns, fruits, fungi, and mushrooms. They are unique in the Ituri Forest. They are the only recognised mammal that feeds solely on understory vegetation & plants. They use their 18-inch tongues to selectively skim for suitable plants.

The long tongue is also used to groom their ears and eyes. They favour feeding in treefall gaps. The Okapi has been recognised to feed on over 100 kinds of plants, some identified as poisonous to humans and other animals.

The Okapis faecal examination shows that none of those 100 species governs the diet of the Okapi. Staple foods include shrubs and lianas. The main components of the diet are woody, dicotyledonous species; monocotyledonous plants are not eaten frequently.

Okapis Reproduction

Female Okapis grow sexually mature at around one-and-a-half years old, while males attain maturity and adulthood after 2 years. Rut in males and oestrous in females does not initiate depending on the period.

In captivity, oestrous cycles happen every 15 days. The male and the female begin courting by circling, sniffing, and licking each other. The male shows his attention by stretching his neck, tossing his head, and pointing one leg forward. This is followed by mounting and mating.

The gestational period is about 440 to 450 days long, following which normally a single calf is born, weighing 14–30 kg (31–66 lb). The pregnant female udder begins swelling 2 months before giving birth, and vulval secretions may occur.

Birth takes 3–4 hours, and the female stands during this period, though she may rest during brief periods. The mother eats the afterbirth and extensively grooms the infant. Her milk is extremely rich in proteins and low in fat.

okapi strange unique animals
Okapi (Okapia johnstoni) adult male, close-up of the head (captive)

As in other ruminants (herbivorous mammals that can obtain nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialised stomach before digestion, mainly through microbial actions.), the newborn can stand within 30 minutes of the time of birth. Although usually similar to adults, newborn calves have fake eyelashes, a deep dorsal mane, and long white hairs in the stripes.

These characteristics slowly disappear and give way to the general appearance inside a year. The juveniles are kept hidden, and nursing takes place intermittently. Calves are known not to defecate for the first few months of life.

This is theorised to help evade predator detection in their most helpless life phase. The calves’ growth speed is appreciably high in the first few months of birth, after which it slowly decreases.

Juveniles start accepting solid food from 3 months, and weaning takes place at 6 months. Horn growth in males takes 1 year after birth. The Okapi’s average lifespan is 20–30 years.

Okapis Distribution and Habitat

The Okapi is endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it lives north and east of the Congo River. It extends from the Maiko National Park northward to the Ituri rainforest, then into the river basins of the Rubi, Lake Tele, and Ebola to the west and the Ubangi River farther north.

Smaller populations survive west and south of the Congo River. It is also prevalent in the Wamba and Epulu areas. It is extinct in Uganda.

The Okapi occupies canopy forests at elevations of 500–1,500 m (1,600–4,900 ft). It infrequently uses seasonally flooded areas but does not live in gallery forests, swamp forests, and environments disturbed by human settlements.

In the wet season, it attends isolated rocky hills that offer forage rare elsewhere. Research conveyed in the late 1980s in a mixed Cynometra forest showed that the okapi population density has averaged 0.53 animals per square kilometre. In 2008, it was reported in Virunga National Park.

Okapis Threats and Conservation

baby okapi at disney s animal kingdom
A baby Okapi at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

The IUCN classes the Okapi as endangered. It is fully protected under the Congolese government. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve and Maiko National Park preserve significant populations of the Okapi.

However, a steady decline in estimates has transpired due to several threats. Other areas of appearance are the Rubi Tele Hunting Reserve and the Abumombanzi Reserve. Major threats involve habitat loss due to logging and human establishment. Expanded hunting for bushmeat and skin and illegal quarrying has also led to population declines.

A threat that has appeared relatively recently is unlawful armed groups about protected areas, inhibiting conservation and monitoring activities. A small population lives north of the Virunga National Park.

Still, it lacks protection due to the appearance of armed groups in the region. In June 2012, a gang of poachers raided the Okapi Wildlife Reserve headquarters, killing six guards and other workers and all 14 okapis at their breeding centre.

The Okapi Conservation Project, founded in 1987, works towards preserving the Okapi and the indigenous Mbuti people‘s growth. In November 2011, the White Oak Conservation centre and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens entertained a global meeting of the Okapi Species Survival Plan and the Okapi European Endangered Species Programme at Jacksonville, which was visited by representatives from zoos from the US, Europe, and Japan.

The aim was to consider the management of captive okapis and provide support for Okapi conservation & protection. Many zoos in North America and Europe hold okapis in captivity.

okapi strange unique animals

Okapis in Zoos

Around 100 Okapis are in certified Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoos. The okapi population is regulated in America by the AZA’s Species Survival Plan. This breeding plan works to ensure genetic diversity in the captive population of threatened animals.

In contrast, the EEP (European studbook) and ISB (Global studbook) are operated by Antwerp Zoo, which was the first zoo to keep an Okapi on exhibition (in 1919), as well as one of the most flourishing in breeding them.

The Bronx Zoo was the first zoo in North America to exhibit Okapi in 1937. They have had one of the most prosperous breeding programs, with 13 calves born since 1991.

The San Diego Zoo has shown okapis since 1956 and had their first birth of an okapi in 1962. Since then, over 60 births have happened between the zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The most current is Mosi, a male calf born in August 2017 at the San Diego Zoo.

The Brookfield Zoo in Chicago has also significantly committed to the captive population of okapis in certified zoos. The zoo has had 28 okapi births after 1959.

Other North American Zoos that exhibit and breed okapis in captivity include:

  • The Denver Zoo and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Colorado)
  • Dallas Zoo, Houston Zoo, and San Antonio Zoo (Texas)
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and Miami Zoo (Florida)
  • Los Angeles Zoo (California)
  • Saint Louis Zoo (Missouri)
  • Columbus Zoo and Cincinnati Zoo (Ohio)
  • Memphis Zoo (Tennessee)
  • Maryland Zoo (Maryland) and Tanganyika Wildlife Park and The Sedgwick County
  • Zoo(Kansas)
  • Roosevelt Park Zoo (South Dakota), Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (Nebraska)
  • Philadelphia Zoo (Philadelphia).

In Europe, zoos who exhibit and breed okapis in captivity include:

  • Madrid Zoo (Spain)
  • Chester Zoo, Yorkshire Wildlife Park, London Zoo, Marwell Zoo, and The Wild Place (United Kingdom)
  • Dublin Zoo (Ireland)
  • Berlin Zoo, Wilhelma Zoo, Frankfurt Zoo, Wuppertal Zoo, Cologne Zoo, Leipzig Zoo (Germany)
  • Antwerp Zoo (Belgium)
  • Zoo Basel (Switzerland)
  • Copenhagen Zoo (Denmark)
  • Rotterdam Zoo, Safaripark Beekse Bergen (Netherlands)
  • Dvůr Králové Zoo (Czech Republic)
  • Wrocław Zoo (Poland)
  • Bioparc Zoo de Doué, ZooParc de Beauval (France)
  • Lisbon Zoo (Portugal).
  • In the Asian region, only two zoos in Japan exhibit okapis are Zoorasia in Yokohama and Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.

okapi strange unique animals

People also ask

Is the Okapi related to the giraffe?

The Okapi (pronounced oh-COP-ee) is a beautiful, unique and unusual animal. With its white-and-black striped hindquarters and forward legs, it seems like it must be related to zebras! But take a peek at an Okapi’s head, and you’ll see a similarity to giraffes. The Okapi is undoubtedly the only living relation of the giraffe.

What two animals make an okapi?

What is the Okapi? Recognised as the “forest giraffe,” the Okapi resembles more like a cross between a deer and a zebra. Nonetheless, it’s the giraffe’s only living relation.

Are okapis dangerous?

Several of the plants that the Okapi feed on would be poisonous if eaten by humans. The Okapi has a red-brown coloured coat of fur with horizontal white striped markings located on the Okapi legs.

Can you have an Okapi as a pet?

okapi strange unique animals
Okapi Mother & Baby

In essence, no, an okapi would not be a good pet. Although they remain beautiful animals, they are not fit for captivity unless in a certified zoo or animal grounds.

Further reading

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