There are two species in the giraffe family; one is well known, the other not. The okapi is that 'other' giraffe.
Not many people know what the okapi looks like. It is much smaller than its relative, the giraffe, having a shoulder height of about 5'6" and a body weight of 450 - 550lbs. Its neck is moderately lengthened, but oriented horizontally rather than vertically. It has a rather short body and a back which does not slope to the rear like that of the giraffe.
The okapi's body is a rich, very dark chocolate-brown colour; the throat and the sides of the head are white, the muzzle black and the legs striped black and white, very much like those of a zebra. The tail reaches halfway to the ground and has a tuft of black hairs at the tip.
Its head is rather like that of a deer, but instead of antlers the male has a pair of very short, straight, stubby horns; the female is hornless. The horns of the male are called ossicones, and are similar to those of the giraffe; they contain a bony core covered with skin and hair. The ears are quite large and rather round. Like the giraffe, the okapi also has a very long tongue which it uses to grasp leaves and pull them to its mouth, and even to lick and clean its eyes!
Even today, the okapi is a mysterious creature, rarely seen and poorly understood. However, as little as a century before the writing of this entry, its very existence was still in doubt. To paraphrase Dr Maurice Burton, the story of the discovery of the okapi is one of romance and adventure, and one well worth the retelling today. So before we get to the bare and sober facts about okapis, let us first relive those exciting times and see how this unique creature managed to come into the light of scientific recognition.
The Glory Days are Over... or Are They?
It is generally accepted that the pioneer days of zoological discovery are over. Even at the beginning of the 19th Century it was thought that every kind of large living creature had already been trapped, shot, examined, described, stuffed and put in a museum. The great naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier made a statement in 1812 that the job was finished, there was not really a chance of finding any new species of large four-legged mammal. His words carried weight, and scores of zoologists came in from the jungles, locked themselves in their offices and rooted themselves at their desks; all that remained to do was classify what they had found. But every so often rumours came to them of strange creatures still at large...
Occasionally the scientists at their desks were confronted by more than mere rumours - tangible and undeniable pieces of unrecognised mammals. And with reluctance they updated their lists to include them: the Malayan tapir, the pygmy hippo, the gelada, the gorilla. These new creatures were all very surprising, displaying great audacity in challenging accepted views. Still, they all fit in with known groups, although the discovery of the gorilla, the largest known primate, caused quite a sensation.
A Forest-living Donkey?
But some surprises were more surprising than others. A cryptic entry by the journalist HM Stanley in a book about his African travels gave the first clue. He mentioned a forest-living, leaf-eating donkey known to the Wambutti pygmies. They called it atti and sometimes caught it in pits. Now this is weird. Modern horses (including all donkeys and zebras) are grass eaters. The last leaf-eating horse died out tens of thousands of years ago, and in America, not Africa. Modern horses are also fast runners. Because they eat grass and run great distances at high speed, they are plains dwellers. A forest-living wild donkey? That would be a rare find indeed!
But Sir Harry Johnson, at that time the Governor of Uganda, decided to give Stanley the benefit of the doubt. He had his opportunity when a German showman tried to kidnap a group of pygmies from the Ituri forest to exhibit them at a fair in Europe. Stanley rescued the pygmies and protected them as his guests; they stayed with him for several months, during which time he questioned them about the animals of the Congo rainforests. He was in luck, they easily took up his lead and affirmed that they knew a donkey-like animal. They pointed to a striped zebra-skin and to a mule; the forest-creature in question looked like a mule with zebra stripes on it. They gave its name as okapi, rather than the atti (the name probably being misheard) of Stanley's book.
So Sir Harry went over to the Congo, and talked to the Belgian officials stationed at Fort Mbeni. They had never seen any okapi, but said that the native soldiers regularly hunt and kill them. They bring back the meat and the skin, which they quickly cut into strips to make belts. In fact, an okapi skin had been brought to the fort that very day, but when Sir Harry went to look at it, it had already been cut into strips and he was allowed to take only two. It wasn't possible to make out much of what the creature looked like in life.
Sir Harry sent the strips of skin to London, and continued investigations in the Congo. He went into the jungle with native guides. They showed him the tracks they said belonged to the okapi. But these tracks were cloven-hoofed. Horses have only one toe, so Sir Harry refused to believe that these were the okapi's tracks; he thought it must have been the tracks of a large antelope, not a donkey. Even the zoologist Dr Sclater, who had examined the skin sent to him by Johnson, thought it belonged to a horse. He named his specimens Equus johnstoni1.
Known at Last
At long last the issue was resolved when a Swedish officer in the Belgian army sent a complete skin, and even two skulls, to Sir Harry. He immediately realised what it was; a relation of the giraffe, and not a horse at all! The feature that was the cause of all the confusion? The okapi has stripes very like those of a zebra on its fore and hind legs, and it is virtually hornless. Other than that it is very much like a large antelope.
Its name was changed to Okapia johnstoni - Johnston's Okapi. By 1901, it was at last recognised officially. It was a creature unlike any other yet known - a short-necked, forest-living giraffe, most closely related to the primitive precursors of the long-necked type. These short-necked giraffes were known as fossils from Africa, Europe and Asia, but now they had a living, breathing one to study! What is most ironic, it now seems that the okapi, recognised by Europeans only in the 20th Century, had already been known for thousands of years by Africans. A rock painting dating from over 5000 years ago shows a creature very much like an okapi - and that in an area currently occupied by the Sahara Desert!
Facts and Figures
Distribution and Habitat
The okapi only appears in the eastern parts of the Congo basin, completely inside the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). The region is densely covered with lowland rainforest, where inside the okapi prefers more open areas such as clearings, glades or secondary growth, where there is enough sunlight at ground level to support a profuse growth of herbs, shrubs and other ground cover. Okapis are irregularly distributed over their range, preferring some kinds of forest but avoiding others.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo has recently been added to the World Heritage in Danger List.
So far the okapi has not been studied much. A study done in the Ituri forest indicates that they are active during the daytime, and occupy rather small home ranges, anything from a little less than a square mile to about four square miles. Because of the luxuriance of the vegetation, they do not need to travel far to find enough food. Adult males have the largest ranges, followed by adult females, followed by subadults of both sexes which have the smallest ranges. They are largely solitary, but sometimes form small groups - especially where they occur in high densities. As with giraffes, these groups are loosely organised and form and disband easily. However, there are indications that the males may establish and defend territories.
Like giraffes, okapis are browsers. Luckily for them the forest plants that they eat are soft and succulent rather than dry and thorny, so they don't need to have particularly tough lips and gums. Also, they don't browse high up in trees - this being somewhat impractical, because while savannah trees are often lower than 15 feet, the rainforest canopy is about 100ft above the ground! So okapis find their food in the shrubby forest understory, and consequently they don't have or need particularly long necks. As mentioned, they use their tongues to pull leaves into their mouths. Occasionally they eat fruit, either from fruiting shrubs or those dropped to the ground from tall trees. Sometimes they eat fungi. To give themselves a mineral supplement, they sometimes lick bat droppings that accumulate in hollows.
Again, like giraffes, okapis have extremely long gestation periods, about 420 - 455 days. They don't have clearly defined mating seasons, since the equatorial forests where they live don't experience any seasonal variations in rainfall, temperature or the rate at which the plants grow. However, when a particular female comes into oestrus, the males in the region will fight over her, using their necks to butt each other with their heads similar to the 'necking' rituals of giraffes. Okapis give birth to a single calf which is then hidden in the undergrowth by the female and remains there for several weeks. They are weaned after about six months.
Enemies and Threats
The only large predator that shares the rainforest with the okapi is the leopard. Leopards often kill young okapis and sometimes even adults. Okapis are also hunted by humans for their meat, but because these regions of the Congo are sparsely populated, the Okapi can be considered to be safe at the moment. Because of its ability to thrive in secondary forest, it can tolerate moderate logging in its environment, but nevertheless, okapis are rather rare, fairly limited in distribution, and therefore we should be serious about their protection and conservation.