Okapi were unknown to the western world until the early 20th century. The species is the closest living relative to the giraffe, and is a shy inhabitant of remote forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, while we still know little about them, all available evidence suggests there are a number of threats to their continued persistence.
Okapi are rather similar in shape to their closest relatives, giraffes, with shorter necks, chocolate brown flanks and zebra-striped legs. These stripes help young okapi follow their mothers through shady forest whilst also acting as camouflage. They are solitary animals, living alone or in mother-offspring pairs. Like a giraffe, the okapi has a very long prehensile tongue (approximately 30cm long), adapted for stripping foliage for feeding.
Today the okapi are exclusively found in the closed, high canopy forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They are known to have existed in Uganda but are now regionally extinct there. Their striking and distinct appearance makes them the perfect national symbol of DRC, featuring on the Congolese franc notes as well as on the logo of the Congolese Wildlife Authority, Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).
Discovery by a ZSL Fellow
Okapi were unknown to the western world until the early 20th century. Early reports of a mysterious horse-like creature inhabiting the forests of the Belgian Congo inspired Sir Harry Johnston, the then British commissioner of Uganda and a ZSL fellow, to carry out an expedition.
In 1901 Johnston procured a full okapi skin and two okapi skulls from the Watalinga forest of northern Virunga National Park (the location of ZSL's recent camera trap images) which he sent to the Zoological Society of London. These remains, supplemented by local descriptions provided by Johnston, enabled scientists to describe the new species as the closest living relative of the giraffe and assign it its Latin name, Okapia johnstoni. ZSL continues this link with the okapi today through our conservation work in the field and by successfully breeding captive okapi in ZSL London Zoo.
Threats to okapi
Although the okapi has full legal protection under Congolese and international law, it remains threatened by:
- Hunting with firearms and traps, for its meat and hide
- Habitat destruction, for logging, agricultural conversion and human settlement
- War and political instability in DRC, resulting in the illegal occupation of protected areas and the poaching of wildlife; this also impedes conservation work in the area.