The okapi (Okapia johnstoni
) is a mammal of the Ituri Rainforest in central Africa. Although it bears striped markings reminiscent of the zebra, it is most closely related to the giraffe. Native just to the Ituri forests situated in the north east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was known only to the local people until 1901.
Characteristics and behavior
Okapis have 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.
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 an okapi is long enough for the animal to wash its eyelids and clean its ears: it is one of the few mammals that can lick its own ears. 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 250 kg (465 to 550 lb).
Okapis are largely diurnal and essentially solitary, coming together only to breed.
Okapis forage along fixed, well-trodden paths through the forest. They live alone or in mother-offspring pairs. 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.
Okapis prefer altitudes of 500 to 1,000 m, but may venture above 1,000 m in the eastern montane rainforests. 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 eat tree leaves and buds, grass, ferns, fruit, and fungi. Many of the plant species fed upon by the okapi are known to be 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.
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
behavior and life styles, 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.
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), who in turn receive support from other
organizations 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 Park had been discovered. This had been the first official sighting since 1959, after nearly half a century.