Okapi Facts

Scientific Name: Okapia johnstoni

Female okapi
Okapis have stripes like zebras, but are more closely related to giraffes.

wizreist / Getty Images

The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) has stripes like a zebra, but it is actually a member of the family Giraffidae. It is most closely related to the giraffe. Like giraffes, okapis have long, black tongues, hair-covered horns called ossicones, and an unusual gait of stepping with front and back legs on one side at a time. However, okapis are smaller than giraffes and only the males have ossicones.

Fast Facts: Okapi

  • Scientific Name: Okapia johnstoni
  • Common Names: Okapi, forest giraffe, zebra giraffe, Congolese giraffe
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 5 feet tall at the shoulder
  • Weight: 440-770 pounds
  • Lifespan: 20-30 years
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Habitat: Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Population: Fewer than 10,000
  • Conservation Status: Endangered

Description

The okapi stands about 4 feet 11 inches tall at the shoulder, is about 8 feet 2 inches long, and weighs between 440 and 770 pounds. It has big, flexible ears, a long neck, and white stripes and rings on its legs. The species exhibits sexual dimorphism. Females are a couple of inches taller than males, reddish-colored, and have whorls of hair on their heads. Males are chocolate brown and have hair-covered ossicones on their heads. Both males and females have gray faces and throats.

Male okapi
Okapis have long tongues. Males have horn-like growths on their heads. Andra Boda / EyeEm / Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

Okapis are native to canopy rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. However, the species is now extinct in Uganda. Okapis may be found in forests at altitudes between 1,600 and 4,000 feet, but they will not remain in habitats near human settlements.

Okapi distribution map
Okapis live in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. U. Schröter / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Diet

Okapis are herbivores. They feed on rainforest understory foliage, including grasses, ferns, fungi, tree leaves, buds, and fruit. Okapis use their 18-inch tongues to browse for plants and groom themselves.

Behavior

Except for breeding, okapis are solitary animals. Females stay within small home ranges and share common defecation sites. Males continuously migrate throughout their large ranges, using urine to mark territory as they move.

Okapis are most active during daylight hours, but may forage a few hours during darkness. Their eyes contain a large number of rod cells, giving them excellent night vision.

SanDiegoZooSafariPark_BabyOkapi.jpg
Baby Okapi at San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Reproduction and Offspring

Mating may occur at any time of the year, but females only give birth every two years. Rut and estrous occur every 15 days. Males and females court each other by circling, licking, and smelling each other. Gestation lasts 440 to 450 days and results in a single calf. The calf can stand within 30 minutes of birth. Calves resemble their parents, but they have long manes and long white hairs within their stripes. The female hides her calf and nurses it infrequently. Calves might not defecate for the first couple of months following birth, presumably to help them hide from predators. The calves are weaned at 6 months of age. Females reach sexual maturity at 18 months, while males develop horns after one year and are mature at 2 years of age. The okapi's average lifespan is between 20 and 30 years.

Two okapis (Okapia johnstoni) in Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma State, USA
Imran Azhar / Getty Images

Conservation Status

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) classifies the okapi conservation status as "endangered." The population has been declining dramatically, so there may be fewer than 10,000 remaining animals in the wild. It's difficult to count okapis because of their habitat, so population estimates are based on dung surveys.

Threats

The okapi population was devastated by a decade-long civil war in their habitat. Although protected under Congolese law, okapis are poached for bushmeat and for their skins. Other threats include habitat loss from mining, human settlement, and logging.

While okapis face dire threats in their natural habitat, the Okapi Conservation Project works with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to conserve the species. Around 100 okapis live in zoos. Some of the zoos participating in the program are the Bronx Zoo, Houston Zoo, Antwerp Zoo, London Zoo, and Ueno Zoo.

Sources

  • Hart, J. A. and T. B. Hart. "Ranging and feeding behaviour of okapi (Okapia johnstoni) in the Ituri Forest of Zaire: Food Limitation in a Rain-Forest Herbivore." Symposium of the Zoological Society of London. 61: 31–50, 1989.
  • Kingdon, Jonathan. Mammals of Africa (1st ed.). London: A. & C. Black. pp. 95–115, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4081-2251-8.
  • Lindsey, Susan Lyndaker; Green, Mary Neel; Bennett, Cynthia L. The Okapi: Mysterious Animal of Congo-Zaire. University of Texas Press, 1999. ISBN 0292747071.
  • Mallon, D.; Kümpel, N.; Quinn, A.; Shurter, S.; Lukas, J.; Hart, J.A.; Mapilanga, J.; Beyers, R.; Maisels, F.. Okapia johnstoni. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T15188A51140517. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T15188A51140517.en
  • Sclater, Philip Lutley. "On an Apparently New Species of Zebra from the Semliki Forest." Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. v.1: 50–52, 1901.