Okapi: Discover the Forest ‘Giraffe’

The Okapi, often referred to as the ‘forest giraffe,’ is a rare hoofed mammal native to the dense rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. With striking striped patterns reminiscent of zebras, this solitary and elusive creature is the giraffe’s only living relative. In this article, discover the Okapi’s remarkable adaptations, diet, social behaviors, threats to its survival, and ongoing efforts to conserve this unique species.

Key Takeaways

  • The Okapi, indigenous to the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a solitary and predominantly herbivorous forest dweller. It is recognized for its distinctive stripes and similarity to giraffes.

  • Okapis are facing critical threats due to poaching, bushmeat trade, habitat destruction, and illegal mining, leading to a decline in their population.

  • Ongoing conservation efforts, including those by the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, captive breeding programs, and international organizations, aim to preserve and protect Okapi populations in the wild and captivity.

Unveiling the Okapi: Nature’s Unique Creation

okapi, forest giraffe, congolese giraffe

The Okapi, also known as the forest giraffe or zebra giraffe, is a unique species that stands out in the animal kingdom. Its long, prehensile tongue effortlessly strips leaves from branches, cleans its eyelids, and swats away pesky insects. Its large ears greatly enhance its auditory capabilities, essential for predator detection in its densely wooded environment.

Flaunting distinctive chocolate to reddish-brown fur with vivid white stripes and rings on their legs, the Okapi captivates the eye and masters the art of camouflage. This elusive creature’s fur is coated with an oil that repels rain and moisture, aiding in its survival in the humid conditions of the rainforest. Their unique features include:

  • Distinctive coloring and striping patterns

  • Effective camouflage, blending seamlessly with the rainforest underbrush

  • Protection from predators like leopards and humans

These features safeguard them in their natural habitat.

The male Okapi, a relative of the giraffe, shares close ties with its cousin, as both male okapi okapis and giraffes exhibit skin-covered horns known as ossicones.

Deer-Zebra Hybrid

okapi, africa, angola

The Okapi’s appearance is as enchanting as its habitat. With distinctive zebra-like stripes, particularly on the legs and rear, combined with large sensitive ears, the Okapi presents an unexpected blend of deer and zebra features. The Okapi’s reddish-brown color and white stripes in the dense rainforest provide effective camouflage among the vegetation and sunlight patterns. Such adaptations are crucial for their survival and concealment from predators.

However, deforestation compromises Okapi’s natural camouflage by reducing the dappled light patterns essential for blending into the rainforest surroundings.

Relation to the Giraffe

While their striped markings might suggest a relation to the zebra, okapis are the only living relatives of the giraffe. Okapis and giraffes belong to the same family, Giraffidae, tracing their common ancestor back about 11.5 million years ago. They share a similar pacing gait and possess long tongues, a testament to their shared lineage.

This connection is reflected in the Okapi’s scientific name, Okapia johnstoni, highlighting its close relation to the giraffe.

Okapi Behavior and Social Structure

The Okapi’s intriguing appearance is matched by its equally compelling behavior. Okapis are solitary creatures, preferring to live alone or occasionally in mother-offspring pairs, maintaining individually maintained home ranges. Male Okapis establish territories, sometimes clashing with other males over territory by head bashing and kicking. They mark their territories using various methods, from spraying urine and secreting a tar-like substance from their foot scent glands to rubbing their necks against trees.

Okapis communicate dominance by raising their heads above one another, while submission is shown by laying the head and neck on the ground. They are primarily active during the day, with some activity persisting briefly in darkness. Although typically solitary, okapis sometimes congregate in small groups for short periods for grazing, grooming, and play.

Solitary Animals

An okapi’s preference for solitude is a defining part of its behavior. Individuals rarely spend time together, even when their home ranges are adjacent. Male okapis are territorial, defending their space from other males using head postures to assert dominance or submission while allowing females to traverse their territories.

Although primarily solitary, okapis may sometimes feed alongside one another briefly due to grazing needs or engage in social grooming encounters.

Communication Methods

Being solitary doesn’t mean being silent. Okapis produce a range of vocal signals, such as the ‘chuff’ – a contact call, the ‘moan’—associated with courtship, and a quiet ‘cough’ that mothers use to communicate with calves. Mother okapis use infrasound, which is below the range of human hearing, to communicate with their calves.

When it comes to marking their territories, okapis use urine, tar-like secretion from glands on their feet, and neck-rubbing behaviors on trees.

The Okapi’s Rainforest Home

The Okapi’s home is as unique as the creature itself. This species is native and endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Wild okapis reside in the Ituri Rainforest in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with no current population found in previously inhabited areas like Uganda.

They strongly prefer very dense tropical rainforests as their primary habitat. The Okapi inhabit canopy forests, typically at altitudes ranging from 500 to 1,500 meters above sea level.

Dense Vegetation and Adaptations

okapi, forest giraffe, animal

Adapting to the dense, tropical rainforest environment, okapis have evolved fascinating survival strategies. Some of these strategies include:

  • Their dark coat blends into the shadows of the rainforest

  • Their distinctive striped hindquarters disrupt their outline, aiding in camouflage from predators

  • They have large ears for improved auditory sensing

  • They have a protective third eyelid that helps retract their eyeballs

These adaptations enhance their survival in the dense rainforest habitat vegetation.

The Okapi’s thick and oily fur coat is a natural adaptation that keeps them dry in their habitat’s humid and rainy environment.

Distribution and Range

The Okapi’s range is limited despite their adaptation to the dense rainforest. Approximately 25,000 okapis are in the wild, primarily distributed within the Democratic Republic of Congo. Okapis are confined to the Ituri Rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with significant populations in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and Maiko National Park. Although they were once found in the Semliki Forest of Uganda, they are now extinct in the area, with the only recent sighting being in Virunga National Park’s Semliki Valley in 2006.

Despite the challenges posed by the remoteness and inaccessibility of their habitat, surveying the okapi population is crucial for their conservation.

Okapi Diet: A Varied Menu for Forest Survival

okapi, okapis, okapia

In the dense forests of Congo, the Okapi has developed a varied diet that sustains its size and lifestyle. Okapis munch on:

  • leaves

  • fruits

  • grasses

  • fungi

  • clay

Which provides essential minerals. Their plant-based diet consists of fruits, buds, leaves, twigs, and other plant materials, contributing to their nutritional needs.

An okapi consumes a substantial amount of food daily, ranging from 45 to 60 pounds. This includes riverbed clay and occasionally bat excrement for minerals and nutrients. An adult okapi can support a weight of up to 660 pounds and consumes up to 60 pounds of food each day.

Feeding Habits

The Okapi’s feeding habits are as fascinating as the rest of its behavior. Its long, prehensile tongue, which is black or dark blue, serves a vital role in its feeding behavior, aiding in feeding and grooming. This tongue can extend up to 18 inches, allowing okapis to easily reach and strip leaves and buds from trees and bushes.

In addition to foliage, okapis consume fruits, grasses, and fungi; they consume reddish clay to supplement essential salts and minerals.

Digestion and Nutrient Intake

To support their plant-based diet, okapis have a ruminant digestive system with a rumen that harbors bacteria capable of breaking down cellulose, which is abundant in their diet. Okapis possess several stomachs, which aid in the further digestion of plant material, enhancing the efficiency of nutrient absorption. They regurgitate their food and re-chew it, a process known as ‘chewing the cud,’ which allows them to further break down plant material for maximum nutrient extraction.

They also consume reddish clay from their habitat to supplement their diet with essential salts and minerals.

Reproduction and Offspring

The Okapi’s reproductive processes and the development of its offspring are also fascinating to explore. During mating season, male okapis exhibit ritualized neck fighting, head butting, and charging as part of their competitive behavior to win over females. Male and female okapis come together briefly for mating and then separate after the encounter.

The gestation period for an okapi is approximately 15 months. After birth, a mother okapi will nurse her offspring for the first two months. Okapi calves are precocial; they can stand independently within 30 minutes of birth. Typically, a mother okapi weans her offspring at about 6 months of age.

Female okapis usually give birth to a single calf at a time, which is crucial in their reproductive strategy.

Mating and Gestation

The mating encounters between male and female okapis are brief but important. Male and female Okapi come together only briefly to mate, highlighting the transitory nature of their mating encounters.

The gestation period for okapis ranges from 14 to 16 months, which allows for significant fetal development. After mating, female okapis give birth in a secluded spot deep in the forest to ensure the safety and privacy of the newborn.

Calf Development

Okapi calves are precious and precocial, with an okapi calf able to stand within 30 minutes of birth. In the first two months of life, okapi calves are nestled in a hidden foliage bed, and defecation is avoided to prevent predator detection. Approximately three weeks after birth, okapi calves begin consuming leaves, kickstarting their ruminating process by around six weeks.

During the early stages, okapi calves stay within their mother’s range, relying on her for nourishment. They may continue suckling for up to a year despite weaning at six months. Okapi calves reach full size and maturity at about three years old, signaling their total independence.

Endangered Existence: Threats to the Okapi

congolese giraffe, giraffe, species

Despite their enchanting existence, okapis face severe threats that jeopardize their survival. The okapi population has experienced a significant decline, roughly halving in total numbers over the past two decades. Poaching for bushmeat and skin is the greatest threat to okapis, substantially impacting their numbers. Heavily armed militia present in the Okapi’s habitat poses a grave danger to their survival, exacerbating the impact of hunting and habitat destruction.

Habitat Destruction

The disruption of the Okapi’s habitat, leading to habitat loss, is a significant threat to their survival. Illegal mining and logging activities are primary causes of habitat destruction in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, threatening the estimated 3,000-3,500 okapis who depend on the intact forest. In 2022, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve lost 1,350 hectares of primary forest, showing an intensification of deforestation due to mining and logging, with clear signs of forest loss from satellite data.

Mercury pollution from gold mining operations is considerably harming the health of aquatic ecosystems and poses indirect threats to Okapi’s prey base and habitat. Conflict related to mining and poaching activities, including a tragic incident where 13 captive okapis were killed by Mai Mai Simba rebels in 2012, along with disputes over the reserve’s boundaries, have made it challenging to protect the Okapi’s habitat from further destruction.

Hunting and Poaching

In addition to habitat destruction, hunting and poaching pressures have dramatically increased. The opening up of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve due to infrastructure development, such as roads, has increased bushmeat trade and made Okapis more accessible and vulnerable to illegal hunting. The influx of an estimated 15,000-25,000 artisanal miners in areas designated for okapi conservation has driven up local bushmeat consumption, including okapi meat, thus putting further pressure on the species.

The transition from traditional subsistence hunting by local Pygmy communities to commercial bushmeat trading has intensified hunting pressures on the okapi population due to the growing financial incentive behind wildlife exploitation.

Conservation Efforts: Saving the Elusive Okapi

While the threats facing the Okapi are severe, numerous conservation efforts are underway to protect this incredible species. Fauna & Flora International, along with partners, is actively working to conserve the Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the aid of an IUCN Save Our Species grant, which helps to fund these efforts. The Zoological Society of London is collaborating with IUCN to implement strategies to curb the illegal activities threatening the Okapi’s survival.

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is a critical sanctuary for Okapi conservation, and measures are continually taken to map and protect the Okapi’s habitat within this area. The Okapi Conservation Project bolsters the efforts of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve by providing necessary resources to rangers, enabling them to patrol and safeguard the reserve and other habitats occupied by the Okapi. In America, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) manages okapi populations through their Species Survival Plan, which plays a crucial role in ensuring the species’ genetic diversity and long-term survival.

Okapi Wildlife Reserve

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo plays a pivotal role in the conservation of okapis. The Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) has been the primary supporter of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve for over three decades, implementing conservation initiatives that have continued through civil war and political instability. Through technology, the OCP has obtained the first known footage of a wild okapi feeding within the reserve and utilizes motion-sensing camera traps to monitor both the okapi populations and the health of their habitat.

In collaboration with the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), the OCP trains rangers equipped to respond rapidly to threats against wildlife. However, despite the protective status of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, illegal activities such as the bushmeat trade continue due to persistent demand, representing significant obstacles to conservation.

World Okapi Day highlights the Okapi’s symbolic value as a flagship species and promotes community participation in conservation programs within and around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

Captive Breeding Programs

Captive breeding programs also play a vital role in okapi conservation. The program at Tanganyika Wildlife Park is part of a global effort to maintain the genetic diversity of okapis through captive breeding, thus supporting their conservation. Captive breeding processes for okapis involve meticulous monitoring of female reproductive cycles and pregnancy confirmation, employing tools like ultrasounds to ensure the health of the developing fetus.

The captive breeding program at Tanganyika Wildlife Park successfully bred individuals such as Moyo, a female okapi expected to give birth in late spring 2023, showcasing tangible outcomes of the conservation efforts. A dedicated team of animal experts and caregivers oversees the breeding and nurturing of okapis, highlighting the hands-on approach required to conserve this endangered species.


From their unique appearances to fascinating behavior, okapis are one of nature’s most intriguing creatures. However, these forest dwellers are under significant threat due to habitat destruction and hunting. Despite these challenges, many active conservation efforts, including the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and captive breeding programs, are working tirelessly to ensure the survival of this extraordinary species. The survival of the Okapi is not just about preserving an individual species; it is about maintaining the rich biodiversity of our planet, as every creature plays a crucial role in the intricate web of life. As we strive to protect the Okapi, remember that preserving wildlife is also a testament to our commitment to the planet we all share.

Frequently Asked Questions

What two animals make an okapi?

An okapi combines a giraffe and a zebra, resembling a mix between a giraffe and a zebra.

Where do most Okapi live?

Most Okapi live exclusively in the Ituri Rainforest in northwest Democratic Republic of Congo. If you want to see one, you can visit the African Journey exhibit near the giraffes at the Maryland Zoo.

How many okapis are left in the world?

The Okapi population is estimated to consist of between 10,000 and 35,000 individuals remaining in the wild, with the Okapi Wildlife Reserve alone housing approximately 3,000-3,500 individuals. However, the population has declined by 50% over the past 15 years due to various factors, including civil unrest in central Africa.

What is an Okapi?

An Okapi is a unique species with features of both a deer and a zebra. It is closely related to the giraffe and is primarily found in the dense rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What does an Okapi eat?

Okapis have a varied diet consisting of leaves, fruits, grasses, fungi, and clay, which provides them with the necessary nutrients and minerals. They also consume bat excrement and riverbed clay for additional minerals and nutrients.

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