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This article is about the animal. For other uses, see Okapi (disambiguation).
At Marwell Wildlife, England
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Giraffidae
Genus: Okapia
Lankester, 1901
Species: O. johnstoni
Binomial name
Okapia johnstoni
(P.L. Sclater, 1901)
Range map

The okapi /ˈkɑːp/, Okapia johnstoni, is a giraffid artiodactyl mammal native to the Ituri Rainforest, located in 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 animal was brought to prominent European attention by speculation on its existence found in popular press reports covering Henry Morton Stanley's journeys in 1887. Remains of a carcass were later sent to London by the English adventurer and colonial administrator Harry Johnston and became a media event in 1901.[2] Today, about 10,000–20,000 remain in the wild and as of 2011, 42 different institutions display them worldwide.[3][4]


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

The name "okapi" is a compound of two Lese words, oka, a verb meaning to cut, and kpi, 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 behaviour

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 possibly help young follow their mothers through the dense rain forest and may also serve as camouflage.[5][6]

The body shape is similar to that of the giraffe, except okapis have much shorter necks. Like the giraffe, the okapi has long legs and a robust body. Both species have very long (about 35-cm),[7] flexible tongues used to strip leaves and buds from trees.

The okapi's tongue is also long enough for the animal to wash its eyelids and clean its ears (inside and out). This sticky tongue is pointed and bluish-grey in colour like that of the giraffe. Male okapis have short, skin-covered horns called ossicones. Their large ears help them detect their predator, the leopard.

Okapis are 1.9 to 2.5 m (6.2 to 8.2 ft) long (from the head to the base of the tail) and stand 1.5 to 2.0 m (4.9 to 6.6 ft) high at the shoulder. They have 30- to 42-cm-long tails. Their weight ranges from 200 to 350 kg (440 to 770 lb).[8]

Okapis are primarily diurnal, although recent photo captures have challenged this long-held assumption. One photograph of an Okapi feeding in the Watalinga Forest of Virunga National Park, was taken at half-past two in the early morning, thus demonstrating that they also feed at night. Okapis are essentially solitary, coming together only to breed, with the exception of mothers and offspring. Breeding behaviours include sniffing, circling, and licking each other.[9]

Okapis forage along fixed, well-trodden paths through the forest. They have overlapping home ranges of several square km and typically occur at densities of about 0.6 animals per km2 (about 1.5 animals per mi2). 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 their habitats. This lack of territory is caused by human land development and other limiting social factors.

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


Okapis prefer altitudes of 500 to 1,000 m, but may venture above 1,000 m in the eastern montane rainforests. Because of a considerable amount of rain in these forests, okapis have oily, velvety fur coats that repel the water.[10]

The okapi's range is limited by high montane forests to the east, swamps to the southeast, swamp forests below 500 m to the west, savannas of the Sahel/Sudan to the north, and open woodlands to the south. They are most commonly found in the Wamba and Epulu areas.


Okapis are herbivores, feeding on tree leaves and buds, grasses, ferns, fruits and fungi. Many of the plant species okapis feed on are poisonous to humans.

Examination of okapi feces has revealed they consume charcoal from trees burnt by lightning. Field observations indicate their 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; an ancient carved image of the animal was discovered in Egypt.[11] Although the okapi was unknown to the Western world until the 20th century, it may have been depicted since the early fifth century BCE on the façade of the Apadana at Persepolis, a gift from the Ethiopian procession to the Achaemenid kingdom.[12]

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 showman for exhibition, 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 a 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.[13]

The okapi is sometimes referred to as an example of a living fossil.[14]

It was adopted as an emblem by the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology.

In captivity

As of 2011, 155 okapi specimens are in zoos on four continents, with the majority of them in North American zoos, 60 in European zoos,[15] and two specimens in South Africa and seven specimens in Japan.[4][16] Immediately after their discovery, zoos around the world attempted to get okapis from the wild. These initial attempts were accompanied by a high mortality rate due to the rigors and stress of traveling thousands of miles by boat and by train. In more recent years, shipment by airplane has proven more successful.

The first live specimen in Europe arrived in Antwerp in 1918. The first okapi to arrive in North America was at the Bronx Zoo, via Antwerp, in 1937. The first okapi born in captivity outside Congo was at the Antwerp Zoo, Belgium in 1953; the first born in North America was at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois in 1959.[17]

List of births in captivity

Zoo Number of births
White Oak Conservation 51
Antwerp Zoo 47
Diergaarde Blijdorp 43
International Rhino Foundation 39
San Diego Zoo Safari Park 38
Bristol Zoo 37
Dallas Zoo 34
Lincoln Park Zoo 30
Brookfield Zoo 27
Zoo Basel 26
San Diego Zoo 23
Wilhelma Stuttgart 12[18]
Zoo Berlin 4[19]
Zoo Miami 2
Chester Zoo 1[20]
Lowry Park Zoo 1

The Brookfield Zoo directs the Okapi Species Survival Plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) for the okapi is led by the Antwerp Zoo.

Wild status

Although okapis are not classified as endangered, they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. The world population is estimated at 10,000–35,000. Conservation work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the Okapi Conservation Project includes the continuing study of okapi behaviour and lifestyle, which led to the creation in 1992 of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The Congo Civil War threatened both the wildlife and the conservation workers in the reserve.

An important captive breeding centre at 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 evidence of surviving okapis in Congo's Virunga National Park. This had been the first official okapi sighting in that park since 1959, after nearly half a century.[23] In September 2008, the Wildlife Conservation Society reported one of their camera traps in Virunga National Park had snapped the first photo ever taken of an okapi in the wild.[24]


The well known German scientific picture agency Okapia was named after the elusive Okapi.[25]

See also

Africa portal


Further reading

  • Wolfram Bell (Nov. 2009): "Okapis - geheimnisvolle Urwaldgiraffen. Entdeckungsgeschichte, Biologie, Haltung und Medizin einer seltenen Tierart." Schüling Verlag Münster, Germany. ISBN 978-3-86523-144-4.

External links

  • BBC - Science & Nature - Wildfacts - Okapi
  • The okapi management site
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