Okapi Watching

Deep in the Democratic Republic of Congo lies one of the oldest and most distinctive mammals left on Earth – the okapi.

This elusive creature is uniquely endemic to the dense, lowland rainforests of the central and north-eastern DRC, where it is a national and cultural symbol. More commonly known as the ‘forest giraffe’, the okapi is entirely dependent on its forest sanctuary for survival, and deforestation – along with poaching and mining – has caused its decline.

The okapi  is a giraffid artiodactyl mammal native to the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. Although the okapi bears striped markings reminiscent of zebras, it is most closely related to the giraffe. The okapi and the giraffe are the only living members of the family Giraffidae. The okapi stands about 1.5 m (4.9 ft) tall at the shoulder and has an average body length of about 2.5 m (8.2 ft). Its weight ranges from 200 to 350 kg (440 to 770 lb). It has a long neck, and large, flexible ears. Its coat is a chocolate to reddish brown, much in contrast with the white horizontal stripes and rings on the legs and white ankles. Male okapis have short, hair-covered horns called ossicones, less than 15 cm (5.9 in) in length. Females possess hair whorls, and ossicones are absent.

The okapi is a medium-sized giraffid, standing 1.5 m (4.9 ft) tall at the shoulder. Its average body length is about 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and its weight ranges from 200 to 350 kg (440 to 770 lb).It has a long neck, and large and flexible ears. The coat is a chocolate to reddish brown, much in contrast with the white horizontal stripes and rings on the legs and white ankles. The striking stripes make it resemble a zebra.

Okapis are primarily diurnal but may be active for a few hours in darkness.  They are essentially solitary, coming together only to breed. They have overlapping home ranges and typically occur at densities of about 0.6 animals per square kilometer. Male home ranges average 13 km2 (5.0 sq mi) while female home ranges average 3–5 km2 (1.2–1.9 sq mi). Males migrate continuously, while females are sedentary.

The okapi occurs across central, northern and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and north and east of the Congo river. The species ranges from the Maiko forest  National Park northward to the Ituri forest, then through the river basins of the Rubi, Lake Tele and Ebola to the west and the Ubangi river further north. Smaller populations exist west and south of the Congo river. They are also common in the Wamba and Epulu areas.

Don’t be fooled by its striped bottom as the okapi is actually the only living relative of the giraffe. Enigmatic cousins, giraffe and okapi are the only living species in the Giraffidae family and share a number of common features, such as elongated necks and long, dark tongues. An okapi’s walk also closely resembles that of a giraffe – both animals simultaneously step with the same front and hind leg on each side rather than moving alternate legs like other ungulates. Male okapis, like giraffes, also have short horns on their forehead that are covered in skin and called ‘ossicones’, which develop between one and five years of age.

In case they’re yet to win your hearts, here are five more features that make the okapi so outstanding:

1. They’re a Pixar protagonist in the making. Shy and usually solitary, the okapi is nearly impossible to observe in the wild. For years, Europeans heard tales of the animal but only the native dwellers of the Congo rainforest had actually seen it. As a result, the okapi obtained almost mythical status and came to be known as the ‘African unicorn’. Explorers set out to confirm its existence but had no luck in spotting its stripes. It was only officially described in 1901 when Sir Harry Johnston acquired a complete skin and two skulls from grateful pygmies. Its scientific name became Okapia johnstoni in his honour.

2. They are great at Hide-and-Seek. Okapis have remarkable natural defences against predation, with leopards and humans being their main predators. They have large ears that help them to detect any disturbances, while the distinguishing brown and white marks on their rump act as camouflage in the forest. To avoid leopards, they will also stay in one place on a “nest” for the first six to nine weeks of their life, which is much longer than calves of other species are known to do.

3. They have infrasonic superpowers. Okapi mothers produce infrasonic calls at around 14HZ to communicate with their calves, which is useful in dense forest and cannot be heard by humans. 

4. They have stinky feet. Okapis have scent glands on each foot that leave behind a tar-like substance to communicate their territory.

5. They can lick their own ears! The okapi’s tongue measures between 14 and 18 inches long. They use it to wrap around leaves on which they feed, as well as to groom themselves and their calves. The tongue of an okapi is long enough for the animal to wash its eyelids!