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Although it looks somewhat like a cross between a horse and a zebra, the okapi is actually a close cousin of the giraffe. The relationship between okapi and giraffe is most evidenced by both animals having a relatively long neck, long head, and large set-back ears. Like the giraffe, the okapi simultaneously steps with the front and hind leg on the same side of the body rather than moving alternate legs on either side like other ungulates. Also like the giraffe, the okapi has a very long tongue, which it uses to gather food and for grooming.
The okapi's body is chocolate-brown, with creamy white horizontal stripes on the legs and hindquarters and white stockings on the ankles. The cheeks, throat, and chest are whitish-gray or tan. Male okapis have rear-pointed, hair-covered horns that reach a maximum 6 inches in length.
An okapi can be 6 feet from ground to top of head and 8 feet long, with females typically being slightly taller than males. Maximum weight is about 550 pounds.
Distribution and Habitat
Wild okapis are only found in the tropical forests of northeastern Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo). They frequent river banks and stream beds and may occasionally venture into areas of secondary forest growth, at elevations between 1,640 and 3,280 feet. Their numbers appear to be fairly high and consistent, despite their limited range, but they are threatened by deforestation for agricultural purposes.
Habits and Behaviors
Okapis are believed to be solitary and to have overlapping home ranges in the wild. The home ranges of males are generally slightly larger that those of females. Although they are not social animals, they tolerate each other in the wild and may even feed in small groups for short periods of time.
Normally quiet and friendly, an okapi can suddenly become aroused, butting and kicking at whatever or whoever it perceives as a threat.
The okapi is most active during the day.
Okapi courtship and mating rituals are known only from observations done in zoos. Partners begin courtship by circling, sniffing, and licking eachother. Eventually, the male asserts his dominance by extending his neck, tossing his head, and thrusting one leg forward. After mating, the male and female part company.
One calf is born after a gestation of 435-450 days, and can suckle and stand after just 30 minutes. Young spend the first day or two of life following the mother around and exploring the environment. After this, they find a suitable hiding spot and make a nest. For the next two months, they spend 80% of their time in this nest, nursing relatively infrequently and never defecating. Weaning occcurrs at about 6 months, although the youngster may continue to suckle for more than a year. Young males begin developing horns at one year of age, and both males and females reach adult size at about three years. Captive females are sexually mature at about 1.5 years, captive males at about 2 years. The okapi's lifespan is about 30 years in captivity, but data from wild populations is unavailable.
Okapis feed primarily on the leaves, buds, and shoots of more than 100 different species of forest vegetation, many of which are known to be poisonous to humans. Their diet is supplemented with grasses, fruits, ferns, and fungi. They are known to move over well-defined paths in search of food.
The okapi was not recognized as a distinct species by western scientists until 1900, when Harry Johnston sent two pecies of "zebra-like" skin to London. The biggest danger to the okapi is lack of knowledge about it outside of zoos. Little field research has been done on the species due to its inaccessible habitat and reclusive nature.
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This page was last updated on December 19, 2017.