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Kesho: Male, born September 26, 1992. He arrived at the Zoo July 6, 2000 from the Bronx Zoo. His name means "tomorrow" in Swahili.
To some, the okapi looks like it was made from parts of other species. However, if you take the time to appreciate it you’ll see an animal that is both unique and beautiful. The lush velvet-like fur is a deep brown with a purplish tint. The face is whitish with a black muzzle. The legs and haunches have brown and white stripes with a pattern that is unique to each individual. The coat is slightly oily and if you are lucky enough to pet an okapi you’ll come away from that experience with some of that dark colored oil on your hands. Like their much larger relative the giraffe, okapi walk using a pacing gait in which the two legs on each side of the body move together. They can gallop, but the denseness of their forest home makes it more likely that they evade predators by hiding and slipping quietly away rather than running. Male okapi have two short skin-covered horns, while the females do not have horns. The horns are similar to, although not usually as large or well developed as, a giraffe’s. The males will use their horns to strike at each other when fighting over females.
A typical lifespan for an okapi in a zoo is 17 years. A very few individuals may live as long as 30 years, but most individuals don’t reach these oldest ages. Lifespan in the wild is not well known.
Rare and elusive, okapis are not easy to study in the wild. They are mainly solitary, except for females with calves, and move through the forest using familiar and well-worn paths. Native people once captured okapi by digging pits along these paths and covering them with branches. When the okapi passed by, it would fall into the trap. Wild okapi spend a majority of their time foraging. They are highly selective browsers and seem to prefer plants that grow in forest openings cause by fallen trees. Their peak feeding time is mid-morning and late afternoon, although they sometimes will forage on moonlit nights. Unlike their quiet cousins the giraffe, okapi often make a variety of audible (to humans that is) sounds. They are not territorial and do not defend an area against other okapi, but they do have home ranges that often overlap and contain water, food and shelter. The main predator of wild okapi is the leopard. In one study, 25% of the study animals were killed by leopards.
Wild okapis mainly locate each other by scent, and this is how the males identify a female for breeding. Once they have found each other, the pair may stay near each other for a couple of days. Once breeding has occurred, the calf is born 14.5 months later. At birth the okapi calf weighs about 50 lbs and is small and vulnerable. The mother licks her baby, which helps form a strong bond between them. The calf usually attempts to stand within 15 minutes and can stand successfully within a half-hour. The calf is a bit darker and less sleek than the adults, and it has a short mane that begins between the ears and runs down the back to the base of the tail. The okapi calf is unique in many ways from other young ungulates (hoofed mammals). It has a very rapid initial growth rate and doubles its birth weight in a month’s time. Calves also do not begin to defecate for nearly a month, which is highly unusual and was misunderstood in early captives – their keepers were often worried about their young charges – but this is normal for a young okapi. The calf also goes through a nesting stage where it curls up in the brush and hides while its mother leaves and returns only for short periods to nurse the calf. The calves reach sexual maturity about two years of age.
Okapi can stand around 5’ at the shoulder.
Okapi weigh between 400 and 700 lbs.
Okapi are herbivores, meaning they only eat plant material. The okapi is a browser preferring tree leaves and buds, but they also eat grass, ferns, fruit and fungi. At the Zoo, the okapi eats alfalfa hay and is offered a variety of browse – his favorite is black willow, which is grown just for him at our browse farm. In addition to hay and browse the animal also receives an herbivore pellet that contains a balance of nutrients to complement the hay. The keepers use the fruit and vegetables included in the diet for training and enrichment.
Rare and elusive, okapi are found in the Ituri Forest in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. This 23,000 square mile area is home to a wide range of unique plant and animal species.
On the 2011 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the okapi is listed as Near Threatened.
Democratic Republic of Congo: Okapi Conservation Project (OCP)
To learn more about the conservation efforts at the Philadelphia Zoo, click here.
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