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This article is about the animal. For other uses, see Okapi (disambiguation).
Okapia johnstoni -Marwell Wildlife, Hampshire, England-8a.jpg
An okapi 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)
Okapi distribution.PNG
Range map

The okapi /ˈkɑːp/ (Okapia johnstoni), is a giraffid artiodactyl mammal native to the Ituri Rainforest[citation needed], 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 okapi and the giraffe are the only living members of the family Giraffidae.[2]

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.[3] A 2013 study determined that there are 10,000 okapis remaining in the wild, down from 40,000 a decade ago. The same year, the okapi was reclassified as an endangered species.[4]


The generic name Okapia derives from the Lese Karo name o'api, while the specific name (johnstoni) is in recognition of the British Governor of Uganda, Harry Johnston, who first acquired an okapi specimen for science from the Ituri Forest while repatriating a group of Pygmies to the Belgian Congo.[5]

Characteristics and behavior

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.[6][7]

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),[8] flexible tongues used to strip leaves and buds from trees.

An okapi cleaning its muzzle with its tongue

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.[citation needed]

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).[9]

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.[citation needed] 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.[10]

Okapis forage along fixed, well-trodden paths through the forest. They have overlapping home ranges of several square kilometers 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. The male is protective of his territory, but allows females to pass through the domain to forage.

A number of okapis in zoos exhibit monosomy, a condition in which one copy of a chromosome is missing. Some okapis have 46 chromosomes while others have 45. This type of monosomy is often referred to as Robertsonian fusion. Okapis with 45 or 46 chromosomes produce healthy viable offspring.[11]


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.[12]

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 on which okapis feed are poisonous to humans.

Examination of okapi feces has revealed that they consume charcoal from trees burnt by lightning. Field observations indicate that their mineral and salt requirements are filled primarily by a sulfurous, slightly salty, reddish clay found near rivers and streams.


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.[13]

An okapi stands next to its calf at White Oak Conservation.

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.[14]

The okapi is sometimes referred to as an example of a living fossil.[15]

In captivity

An okapi at Bristol Zoo cleans itself.
Okapi at Zoo Miami.

The first okapi to arrive in Europe was in 1918 to Antwerp Zoo. In 1937, the first okapi arrived in North America to the Bronx Zoo.[citation needed] The first okapi birth in captivity occurred at the Stanleyville Zoo in the Belgian Congo on April 19, 1941.[16][better source needed] In 1928, the American anthropologist Patrick Putnam founded the capture station known as "Epulu" in the Belgian Congo, where okapis were captured for shipment to zoos.[citation needed] Today, this is the Okapi Breeding and Research Station, located in Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As of 2014, 176 okapis live in zoos. The majority of them, 94, are in the United States. There are also 69 in Europe, seven in Japan, four in the United Arab Emirates, and two in South Africa.[17][18] The Brookfield Zoo directs the Okapi Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.[citation needed] The European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) for the okapi is led by the Antwerp Zoo which also keeps the International Okapi Studbook.[citation needed] The zoos which participate in the Okapi SSP and EEP, as well as other zoos, are important sources of funding for the Okapi Conservation Project aimed at conserving the okapi in the wild.[19]

There are also some okapis in private collections. For example, Bernie Kosar has around 25 okapis at his home in Ohio.[20]

Wild status

Okapis are classified as endangered since 2013; they are endangered by habitat destruction and poaching. The world population is estimated at 10,000. Conservation work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the Okapi Conservation Project includes the continuing study of okapi behavior 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 center at Epulu, at the heart of the reserve, is managed jointly by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and Gilman International Conservation,[21] which in turn receives support from other organizations including UNESCO, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Wildlife Direct[22] as well as from zoos around the world. The Wildlife Conservation Society is also active in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

In June 2006 and September 2008 scientists reported evidence of surviving okapis in Congo's Virunga National Park. These were the first official okapi sightings in that park since 1959, after nearly half a century.[23][24]

See also


  1. ^ IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group (2008). Okapia johnstoni. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 26 November 2013. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is endangered.
  2. ^ Kingdon et al. (2013). Mammals of Africa. A&C Black, 2013. p. 96. ISBN 9781408189962. 
  3. ^ Shaw, Albert (1918). "The African okapi, a beast unknown to the zoos". The American review of reviews 57: 544. 
  4. ^ Hebert, Amanda (26 November 2013). "Okapi Added to IUCN’S Endangered Species List". Jacksonville, Florida: Okapi Conservation Project. Retrieved 3 June 2014. 
  5. ^ Lindsey, Susan Lyndaker; Green, Mary Neel; Bennett, Cynthia L. (1999), The Okapi: Mysterious Animal of Congo-Zaire, University of Texas Press, pp. 4–8, ISBN 0292747071 
  6. ^ "San Diego Zoo's Animal Bytes: Okapi". Sandiegozoo.org. Retrieved 13 July 2010. 
  7. ^ "Okapi". Zsl.org. 
  8. ^ "Okapi" from Bristol Zoo Gardens. Retrieved 24 September 2010.
  9. ^ Burnie D and Wilson DE (Eds.), Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. DK Adult (2005), ISBN 0789477645
  10. ^ Animal Diversity Web: ''Okapia johnstoni'' – okapi. Animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu. Retrieved on 2013-11-26.
  11. ^ The Okapi Mysterious Animal of Congo-Zaire, Susan Lyndaker Lindsey, Mary Neel Green & Cynthia L. Bennett, University of Texas Press 1999
  12. ^ San Diego Zoo's Animal Bytes: Okapi. Sandiegozoo.org (2011-09-04). Retrieved on 2013-11-26.
  13. ^ The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Photographic Archives; photo detail. The Oriental Institute identifies the subject as an Okapi with a question mark.
  14. ^ Nowak, Ronald M (1999) Walker's Mammals of the World. 6th ed. p. 1085.
  15. ^ "Why Is the Okapi Called a Living Fossil". The Milwaukee Journal. 24 June 1954. 
  16. ^ The International Okapi Studbook[full citation needed]
  17. ^ Okapi Studbook The Okapi, Management Site http://theokapi.org/welcome.aspx[full citation needed]
  18. ^ The Okapi Management Website http://theokapi.org/welcome.aspx[full citation needed]
  19. ^ The Okapi Conservation Project http://okapiconservation.org/about/partners/
  20. ^ Pompei, Dan (11 August 2014). "Bernie Kosar Unmasked". Sports on Earth (Mantua, Ohio: USA Today, Major League Baseball Advanced Media). Retrieved 17 August 2014. 
  21. ^ GIC. Giconline.org. Retrieved on 2013-11-26.
  22. ^ "WildlifeDirect Saving Endangered Animals". 
  23. ^ Poston, Lee (8 June 2006) Rare Okapi Sighted in Eastern Congo Park. World Wild Life.
  24. ^ Photo Reveals Rare Okapi Survives Poaching Onslaught, Newswise, 10 September 2008. Many mainstream media outlets incorrectly reported that it was the first time an okapi had ever been photographed anywhere in the wild.

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