The Okapi - A Monotopic Species
Pictures of the okapi show a handsome animal with rich colouring and bold stripes on the legs. Like the black rhino, numbat, giraffe and moose, it is an example of a monotypic genus, being the only species of its genus. Its scientific name is Okapia johnstoni and it is a member of the Giraffidae family and related to the giraffe, despite the zebra-like markings on the legs.
‘Okapi’ comes from two words of the Lese people. ‘Oka’ meaning ‘to cut’ and ‘kpi’ referring to the arrow design of the related Efe people of the Democratic Republic of Congo who would decorate their arrows by wrapping them with bark. The arrows would then be scorched. This would leave stripes on the arrow shafts reminiscent of those on the legs of the okapi. Legend says that the okapi adds the stripes as decoration and to assist in its camouflage.
There was speculation on its existence in 1887 after publication of details of Henry Morton Stanley’s journeys. The English explorer and colonial administrator, Sir Harry Johnston (1858-1927) was the first to acquire an okapi specimen, sending the remains of a carcass to London in 1901.
The shy okapi is endemic to the Ituri Rainforest in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The okapi is found in dense rainforest areas, with a preference for regions of 500 to 1,000 metres. They mostly frequent streams and river banks with some excursions into secondary forest growth areas.
They are similar in shape to a giraffe although the neck is much shorter. Both have very long, blue tongues (up to 35 cm). These flexible prehensile tongues are used to strip leaves and buds from trees when browsing and are long enough to act as face-washers to wash the eyelids and clean all surfaces of the large ears. The tongue is sticky, pointed and bluish grey. The males have short, skin-covered horns (ossicones) which are fused to the frontal bones and point to the rear.
The head is lighter in colour with a black muzzle. The neck is thick. The forequarters are much higher than the hindquarters. The large, flexible ears are quick to detect predator, the main one of which is the leopard.
The okapi has a dark reddish backs. The legs sport striking horizontal creamy white stripes with white 'socks' on the very lower legs. The cheeks, chest and throat are a pale grey or tan. This unique patterning provides very effective camouflage, allowing the okapi to blend into the dense vegetation of its homelands.
Because of the amount of rain in their habitat, the coat repels water due to its oily, velvety texture. Females have a red hue to the coat and do not have horns. They are slightly taller than the males.
Okapis are 1.9 to 2.5 metres long and 1.5 to 2 metres tall at the shoulder. The tail is thin and 30 to 42 cm in length. Weight ranges between 200 and 300 kg. It was thought that the okapi was most active during the day but recent research shows okapi feeding through the night. Apart from coming together to breed, and looking after the young, they are solitary animals.
Like the giraffe, the okapi moves both right legs forward then both left legs, just as a horse 'paces'.
Okapis forage along well-worn paths and have overlapping home ranges of several square kilometres. As their habitat shrinks, so they have problems as their home ranges become restricted. They are reasonably tolerant of their own. Interdigital scent glands on the feet produce a tar-like substance which is used to mark out territory. Urine marking is also used. Males protect their territory but allow females to pass through to forage. Both male and females mark trees by rubbing their necks on the trunks.
Much of the behaviour of the animal has only been observed in captive subjects. Dominant animals hold their heads higher and their necks straight submission is indicated by placing the head and neck on the ground. Social grooming and play behaviour is commonly witnessed and vocal communication appears to be important.
Okapis cover about a kilometre a day as they forage.
Okapis are herbivores with much of their plant food being poisonous to humans. Leaves, buds, fungi, grass, ferns and fruit make up their diet with over 100 different species are eaten in the wild.
The long tongue adds at least six inches to its reach. Charcoals from trees hit by lightning is also ingested. Reddish, sulphurous clay found near rivers and streams supplies mineral and salt requirements.
The gestation period averages 458 days. One calf is born. There seems to be no imprinting of the young on the mother with calves having been observed nursing from different females.
Newborn okapis weigh between 14 and 30 kg at birth. They are up and nursing within an hour. For the first two days they follow the mother. They then find a hiding spot, make a nest and spend 80% of their time in the nest. It is believed that this hiding behaviour promotes rapid development of the young and protection from predators.
The young nurse relatively seldom and do not defecate, helping keep them safe from predators. If alarmed, the mother will rush to the defence of her calf. Threat behaviour includes stamping with the forefeet.
Horns begin to develop on the males at twelve months and the offspring are full sized at about three years. In captivity, okapis will live for around 30 years.
The wild population of the okapi is believed to be 10,000 to 20,000 with 42 different establishments throughout the world having them on display. Although distribution in the wild is patchy, it is common in much of its range and is not listed as a threatened species. Deforestation and poaching continue to restrict the range and deplete the population. Because of the inaccessibility of its habitat and its reclusive nature, very little field research has been done on the striking okapi.