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The Okapi (Okapia johnstoni; ) is a giraffid artiodactyl mammal native to the Ituri Rainforest, located in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congomarker, in central Africa. Although the Okapi bears striped markings reminiscent of the zebra, it is most closely related to the giraffe. Unknown to Europeans until 1901, today there are approximately 10,000 - 20,000 in the wild and only 40 different worldwide institutions display them.


The genus name Okapia derives from the Lese Karo name o'api , while the species' epithet (johnstoni) is in recognition of the explorer Sir Harry Johnston, who organized the expedition that first acquired an okapi specimen for science from the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congomarker.

The name "Okapi" is a portmanteau of two Lese words, oka a verb meaning to cut and kpi which is a noun referring to the design made on Efé arrows by wrapping the arrow with bark so as to leave stripes when scorched by fire. The stripes on the legs of the Okapi resemble these stripes on the arrow shafts. Lese legend says the okapi decorates itself with these stripes, adding to the okapi's great camouflage.

Characteristics and behavior

Okapis have reddish dark backs, with striking horizontal white stripes on the front and back legs, making them resemble zebras from a distance. These markings are thought to help young follow their mothers through the dense rain forest; they also serve as camouflage in the wild.

The body shape is similar to that of the giraffe, except that okapis have much shorter necks. Both species have very long (approx. 30 cm or 12 inch), flexible, blue tongues that they use to strip leaves and buds from trees.
The tongue of the okapi is long enough for the animal to wash its eyelids and clean its ears (inside and out): it is the only mammal that can lick its own ears. Fourteen to eighteen inches (36-46 cm) in length, the sticky tongue is pointed and bluish gray in color like the giraffe's. Male okapis have short, skin-covered horns called "ossicones". They have large ears, which help them detect their predator, the leopard.

Okapis are 1.9 to 2.5 m (8.1 ft) long and stand 1.5 to 2.0 m (6.5 ft) high at the shoulder. They have a 30 to 42 cm (12 to 17 in) long tail. Their weight ranges from 200 to 300 kg (440 to 660 lb).Okapis are primarily diurnal, although recent photo captures have challenged this long held assumption. A photograph taken in the early hours of the morning around 02:33 shows an okapi feeding in the Watalinga forest in the north of the Virunga National Parkmarker in eastern DRC, thus providing evidence that they don't only feed during the daytime. Okapis are essentially solitary, coming together only to breed, with the exception of mother-offspring pairs. Breeding behaviors include sniffing, circling and licking each other.

Okapis forage along fixed, well-trodden paths through the forest. They have overlapping home ranges of several square kilometers and typically occur at densities of about 0.6 animals per square kilometer.

The home ranges of males are generally slightly larger than those of females. They are not social animals and prefer to live in large, secluded areas. This has led to problems with the okapi population due to the shrinking size of the land they live on. This lack of territory is caused by development and other social reasons. However, okapis tolerate each other in the wild and may even feed in small groups for short periods of time.

Okapis have several methods of communicating their territory, including scent glands on each foot that leave behind a tar-like substance which signals their passage, as well as urine marking. Males are protective of their territory, but allow females to pass through their domain to forage.

Okapi young are not imprinted to their mothers. Several lactating females will raise their calves together.


Two okapis grazing in the rainforest, habitat recreated at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.
Okapis prefer altitudes of 500 to 1,000 m, but may venture above 1,000 m in the eastern montane rainforests. Because there is a considerable amount of rain in these forests, okapis have an oily, velvety coat of fur that repels the water. They develop this coat early in childhood also as a technique of camouflage.

The range of the okapi is limited by high montane forests to the east, swamp forests below 500 m to the west, savannas of the Sahel/Sudan to the north, and open woodlands to the south. Okapis are most common in the Wamba and Epulu areas.


Okapis are herbivores, eating tree leaves and buds, grass, ferns, fruit, and fungi. Many of the plant species fed upon by the okapi are poisonous to humans.

Examination of okapi feces has revealed that the charcoal from trees burnt by lightning is consumed as well. Field observations indicate that the okapi's mineral and salt requirements are filled primarily by a sulfurous, slightly salty, reddish clay found near rivers and streams.


The okapi was known to the ancient Egyptians; shortly after its discovery by Europeans, an ancient carved image of the animal was discovered in Egyptmarker. For years, Europeans in Africa had heard of an animal that they came to call the 'African unicorn'.

In his travelogue of exploring the Congo, Henry Morton Stanley mentioned a kind of donkey that the natives called the 'Atti', which scholars later identified as the okapi. Explorers may have seen the fleeting view of the striped backside as the animal fled through the bushes, leading to speculation that the okapi was some sort of rainforest zebra.

When the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, discovered some pygmy inhabitants of the Congo being abducted by a German showman for exhibition in Europe, he rescued them and promised to return them to their homes. The grateful pygmies fed Johnston's curiosity about the animal mentioned in Stanley's book. Johnston was puzzled by the okapi tracks the natives showed him; while he had expected to be on the trail of some sort of forest-dwelling horse, the tracks were of some cloven-hoofed beast.

Though Johnston did not see an okapi himself, he did manage to obtain pieces of striped skin and eventually a skull. From this skull, the okapi was correctly classified as a relative of the giraffe; in 1901, the species was formally recognized as Okapia johnstoni.

The first live specimen in Europe arrived in Antwerpmarker in 1918. The first okapi to arrive in North America was at the Bronx Zoomarker, via Antwerp, in 1937. The first okapi born in captivity was at Brookfield Zoomarker in Illinois, which directs the Okapi Species Survival Plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

are now reasonably common in zoos around North America and Europe. Immediately following their discovery, zoos around the world attempted to obtain okapis from the wild. These initial attempts were accompanied by a high mortality rate due to the rigors of traveling thousands of miles by boat and by train. In more recent years, shipment by airplane has proven more successful.

Although the okapi was unknown to the Western world until the 20th century, it was possibly depicted 2,500 years ago on the facade of the Apadanamarker, at Persepolismarker, as a gift from the Ethiopian procession to the Achaemenid kingdom.

The Okapi was adopted as an emblem by the now defunct International Society of Cryptozoology.


An okapi reaches for some leaves.
Although okapis are not classified as endangered, they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. The world population is estimated at 10,000–20,000. Conservation work in the Congo includes the continuing study of okapi behaviour and lifestyle, which led to the creation in 1992 of the Okapi Wildlife Reservemarker. The Congo Civil War threatened both the wildlife and the conservation workers in the reserve.

There is an important captive breeding centre at Epulu, at the heart of the reserve, which is managed jointly by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation ( ICCN) and Gillman International Conservation ( GIC), which in turn receives support from other organisations including UNESCO, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and WildlifeDirect as well as from zoos around the world. The Wildlife Conservation Society is also active in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

On June 8, 2006, scientists reported that evidence of surviving okapis in Congo's Virunga National Parkmarker had been discovered. This had been the first official okapi sighting in that park since 1959, after nearly half a century. In September 2008, the Wildlife Conservation Society reported that one of their camera traps snapped the first photo ever taken of an okapi in Virunga National Park.

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