okapi facts

11 Okapi Facts About The Shy African Mammal

The seldom-known Okapi is a unique mammal native to the Ituri Forest of Congo in Central Africa. These African mammals look like a hybrid of a deer and zebra or a giraffe and zebra.

The unique Okapi coat is distinguished by its dark brown to black color, with white stripes on its hindquarters and legs. These stripes help the Okapi blend into the patterns of light and shadows in the forest, making it harder for predators to spot them. They are also rarely seen in the wild.

The Okapi are the only living relative of giraffes; like them, they have a long prehensile tongue. It helps them reach tall foliage and lick their ears. This list of Okapi facts will help you uncover the exciting world of this mysterious mammal.

If you're curious about African mammals, you can read the top Zebra facts and Giraffe fun facts

Okapi Facts You Never Heard Of

okapi stripes
Photo by ambquinn on Pixabay

1. They look like a combination of zebra and giraffes.

Okapis are hoofed mammals that appear like a mix of zebra and giraffes or deer and zebra. Their reddish-brown coat and black-and-white striped markings distinguish them from the other hoofed mammals around them. 

The Okapi has a body shape similar to a giraffe but with some critical differences. They have shorter necks which allow them to move quickly through the dense rainforest and navigate low-hanging branches. Furthermore, their distinctive stripes resemble zebras.

The Okapi's stripes on their legs allow them to blend seamlessly into their environment. The filtered sunlight in the forest creates a play of light and shadows, which Okapi's unique pattern mimics.

2. Wild Okapis live in only one country.

okapi on forest
Photo by mbc-2016 on Pixabay

Though approximately 100 captive Okapis live in zoos worldwide (like the San Diego Zoo), the only remaining population of wild Okapis lives exclusively in the Ituri Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo2. Smaller populations exist west and south of the Congo River. They used to live in Uganda, but these populations are now extinct.

The elusive Okapi lives in lowland rainforests with high humidity, dense vegetation, tall canopy, and freshwater habitats. Their preferred habitat within these rainforests is the understory layer. Okapis are well-adapted to navigate through the dense vegetation and tangled forest floor undergrowth.

They use their long necks and flexible bodies to maneuver around obstacles and reach vegetation for feeding. The dense foliage provides essential cover and protection for the Okapi, keeping them hidden from predators and human observation.

3. It goes by various names.

Humans have called the okapi various names, such as forest giraffe, zebra giraffe, and Congolese giraffe. The names associated with the Okapi have roots in local African languages and European influences.

The name "Okapi" itself comes from the indigenous Central African language, specifically the Lese people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Lese people refer to the animal as "o'api" or "okepi," which eventually became "Okapi" in English.

One of the alternate names for the Okapi is the "Forest Giraffe" due to its physical resemblance to giraffes3. Okapi belongs to the same family, Giraffidae.

Another name sometimes used for the Okapi is the "Zebra Giraffe," owing to its striped markings on its hindquarters and legs. Additionally, the Okapi was once called the "African Unicorn" due to its elusive nature and the belief that it was a mythical creature.

4. Okapis are mysterious animals.

okapi's front view
Photo by lila_getupft on Pixabay

Next on our okapi facts list: Okapis don't like company and rarely show themselves in the wild. They are predominantly solitary animals, preferring to remain hidden and avoid human presence1.

Moreover, okapis can only come together while mating and caring for their young. You can sometimes find them feeding with other Okapis occasionally, but most of the time, they prefer to be alone.

Okapis are primarily active during the twilight hours or at night, further reducing their chances of being encountered by humans. Their ability to move silently through the dense vegetation and their sharp senses of hearing and smell help them sense potential threats, allowing them to avoid detection. They often retreat deeper into the forest when sensing danger.

5. Their tongues are so long they can even lick their ears.

One interesting fact about the okapi is that they have long, flexible tongues. Their long tongue can measure between 14 to 18 inches (35 to 45 centimeters). That's eight times the length of a dog's tongue! They can even lick their ears through their long tongues.

This prehensile tongue serves multiple purposes, mainly feeding. The Okapi's tongue wraps around branches precisely, effortlessly stripping leaves, buds, and fruits. Additionally, the tongue plays a crucial role in grooming and personal hygiene, as it can clean even hard-to-reach areas like the eyes and ears, removing dirt, debris, and parasites.

Notably, the tongue's blue-black coloration protects it from sunburn when exposed to intense sunlight.

6. They can communicate using sounds that humans can't hear.

forest giraffe eating grass
Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Okapis have a fascinating way of communicating using infrasound, which is sound at a frequency lower than what humans can hear. Their incredible hearing allows them to stay connected with other okapis over long distances without attracting predators' attention.

During the breeding season, males use infrasounds to intimidate other males and attract females. Meanwhile, mothers and calves use them to recognize and communicate with each other inside the dark rainforest. In addition to infrasound, okapis communicate through scent marking and visual displays. They have scent glands in their hooves, which they use to leave a trail of their presence. 

Males mark their territory with a tar-like substance from their scent glands, and females use these markings to sense the presence of nearby males—additionally, performances like neck wrestling and head-butting help establish dominance and resolve conflicts.

Other animals also use infrasound. One of them is the elephant.

7. They are herbivores.

The Okapi's diet is incredibly diverse, consisting of over 100 plant species. Okapi species feed on leaves, buds, fruits, and aquatic plants in their dense rainforest habitat. They adjust their behavior and range when food becomes scarce to cope with seasonal changes.

The Okapi's feeding habits showcase their resourcefulness. Their tongue can reach 18 inches, helping them strip leaves from branches and grasp hard-to-reach plants. They have also been observed consuming fungi, clay, and charcoal, possibly to supplement their mineral intake and detoxify their systems.

In addition to their dietary role, okapis serve as nature's gardeners by dispersing seeds and maintaining plant diversity in their habitat, contributing to the delicate balance of the rainforest ecosystem.

8. They eat poop.

okapi's side view
Photo by ambquinn on Pixabay

As disgusting as it may sound, Okapis occasionally eat bat poop. While Okapis primarily feed on plant material, including leaves, fruits, and shoots, they have been observed consuming bat excrement, also known as guano.

Bats can roost in large numbers, accumulating guano on the forest floor. Okapis have been licking or consuming small amounts of bat guano, likely to obtain certain minerals or nutrients that may benefit their diet.

9. They have a long gestation period.

One of the most intriguing facts about the okapi is their remarkably long gestation period, lasting 14 to 16 months. A female Okapi is sexually mature at approximately two to three years, while male Okapis typically mature slightly later, around three to four years.

Throughout the year, the Okapi breeding season occurs, although there may be variations in reproductive activity within different populations. During the mating season, male Okapi engages in behavior to attract female okapis and establish dominance.

When an adult female Okapi is receptive to mating, she displays specific behaviors indicating her readiness. For example, she stands still with her tail raised, allowing the male to approach and mate. The actual mating process is typically brief, lasting less than a minute.

10. Okapi calves are masters at hiding

forest giraffe on grass field
Photo by Mike Kit on Pexels

Okapi mothers give birth to a single calf. Newborn calves resemble their adult counterparts, with reddish-brown coats and unique white stripes on their hindquarters and legs.

The mothers provide exceptional care and protection to their young, keeping them hidden for the first few weeks of their lives. Their cautious mothers only visit the Okapi calf briefly to nurse, minimizing the risk of attracting attention. The rest of the time, the calves remain motionless, seamlessly blending into their surroundings. But they have another clever trick up their sleeves.

To further reduce the chances of being discovered, okapi calves engage in "nesting." They deliberately relieve themselves a distance from their hiding spots, ensuring their scent doesn't give them away to predators. This intelligent strategy provides an extra layer of protection, allowing the calves to stay hidden and safe.

Calves stay close to their mothers for an extended period, typically 6 to 12 months, receiving guidance and protection.

11. Okapis are endangered.

The Okapi, classified as an endangered species, faces numerous threats, including habitat loss and illegal hunting. Habitat destruction through deforestation, human activities, and the illegal trade in Okapi products endangers their survival.

The Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) was established in 1987 to address these challenges. OCP focuses on anti-poaching efforts, training local rangers, and collaborating with authorities to combat illegal activities.

They also engage with local communities, promote sustainable livelihoods, and raise awareness about wildlife conservation. OCP works to preserve Okapi populations and their delicate ecosystem through research, education, and partnerships while encouraging sustainable development.

Okapis also receive sanctuary at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reserve was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and is dedicated to conserving Okapis and protecting their unique ecosystem. Spanning 13,700 square kilometers (5,300 square miles), it supports approximately 5,000 Okapi, a significant portion of its global population.

Despite challenges, effective anti-poaching measures and wildlife monitoring have contributed to stabilizing the Okapi population. Local rangers, including the Mbuti Pygmies, play a passionate role in conserving the reserve. The reserve is vital in protecting these unique creatures and preserving their natural habitat.

We hope you enjoyed this list of interesting facts about the Okapi!

Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with O.

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1

Stanton, D. W. G., Hart, J., Kümpel, N. F., Vosper, A., Nixon, S., Bruford, M. W., Ewen, J. G., & Wang, J. (2015b). Enhancing knowledge of an endangered and elusive species, the okapi, using non-invasive genetic techniques. Journal of Zoology, 295(4), 233–242.

2

Kümpel, N. F., Quinn, A., & Grange, S. (2015). The distribution and population status of the elusive okapi,Okapia johnstoni. African Journal of Ecology.

3

Dagg, A. I. (1960). Gaits of the Giraffe and Okapi. Journal of Mammalogy, 41(2), 282. https://doi.org/10.2307/1376381

Chinny Verana is a degree-qualified marine biologist and researcher passionate about nature and conservation. Her expertise allows her to deeply understand the intricate relationships between marine life and their habitats.

Her unwavering love for the environment fuels her mission to create valuable content for TRVST, ensuring that readers are enlightened about the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation efforts.

Fact Checked By:
Mike Gomez, BA.

Photo by Daniel Jolivet on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0) (Cropped from original)
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