Okapi: What is it & why is it cool?

Hide & seek skills

In a global game of hide and seek, the okapi has some huge advantages. Apart from its captive members, this species is only found in one place in the world: the forests of northeast Democratic Republic of Congo. They are incredibly secretive and despite being around 1.5m tall and 2.5m long managed to remain undiscovered and unidentified by Western zoologists until 1901, when the okapi was officially defined and named Okapia johnstoni, after the word the native people used for it (‘o’api’) and the explorer Sir Harry Johnston, a key figure in its discovery

Okapis are mostly solitary, and yet individuals are very rarely seen because of their elusive behaviour and the dispersed nature of their distribution. This combination means that their numbers are difficult to analyse. They have been recorded at altitudes of 1,000m and even above. When female okapis are due to give birth after an average of 430-435 days of gestation (14 months!), they disappear into the dense forest. The baby okapi spends most of its time in this safe place until it is around 2 months old – even as newborns, their hiding skills are being honed. 

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The velvety coat of the okapi is key to its obscurity. Most of its fur is rich red-brown, sometimes with a purple hue, but there are bold white stripes on the okapi’s legs, which calves use to help them find and follow their mother. Whilst this might sound like a flashy set-up, these stripes provide the okapi with camouflage in the dappled sunlight of the rainforest, helping them to hide from predators. Other features of the okapi’s appearance include short horns (in males only), a long head and large ears.

These ears are another very important tool; their huge size and ability to rotate independently allow them to detect even very soft sounds, such as those that might be made by a hungry predator. Because of this, leopards (the main predator of the okapi) only really have a fighting chance if they attack from the trees above. Scarpering at the slightest noise is yet another reason why okapis manage to hide from humans so effectively. Even their vocalisations are mostly undetectable to the normal human ear, as they communicate with very low-pitched sounds so as to avoid informing predators of their presence or the whereabouts of their ‘parked’ calves. One of the very few occasions on which an okapi actually aims to be noticed is when marking its territory, which is achieved using urine and sticky secretions from a scent gland on each foot.

Flexible eaters in more ways that one

The diet of the okapi is a far cry from the picky panda’s bamboo-only menu. Okapis, which are herbivorous ruminants just like giraffes, cows and various others, will munch their way through over 100 species of rainforest plants and fungi, including some that would poison us. They also lick a certain type of clay in order to meet their mineral and salt requirements, like we might take vitamin C tablets to avoid getting scurvy.

Okapis have 14-18 inches of prehensile, black tongue, which they use to strip buds and leaves from the lower rainforest foliage instead of from tall trees like their giraffe cousins. Their daily search for food can take them up to 0.8km through the forest and mostly takes place throughout the afternoon.

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Conservation

Okapis are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with the rate of decline exceeding 50% over about 24 years following deforestation, mining and poaching. Researching the okapi is difficult for various reasons, including the aforementioned hide-and-seek skills and the inaccessibility of most of their habitat, as well as political instability in the DRC. Today, 13,700 square kilometres of the Ituri Forest in northeastern DRC make up the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which is a World Heritage Site. DRC is the most biodiverse country in Africa and so conservation of ‘umbrella’ species such as the okapi is vital as it protects other species native to the area, from insects to birds to leopards to elephants.