World Okapi Day: Q&A with a keeper

Oni the okapi

For the first time in the history of the okapi, 18 October becomes the official day on which organisations around the world celebrate this magnificent animal. Endangered in the wild and often misunderstood as a zebra, the okapi is an elegant creature native to the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We catch up with okapi keeper Gareth, who’s looked after this species for 25 years, to mark the occasion and discover more about this elusive ‘forest giraffe’.

How many okapi are there at ZSL London Zoo and what are they like?

Here at ZSL London Zoo we have two okapi, our female Oni is two years old and our male Mbuti who is almost 12. They are currently a breeding pair, with Mbuti being Oni’s first boyfriend. With an unclear estimate on their population in the wild, it’s really important that we try and breed okapi in order to develop a sustainable population and ensure their future.

Mbuti is very much a ladies man and likes to show off, while Oni is very graceful and elegant.

Why are they important as a species?

There’s nothing else like the okapi on the planet. They are related to the giraffe but they’re the only species in their genus, making their genetics important.

Not a lot is known about the okapi as it was only discovered in 1901 by ZSL, meaning that there’s still a lot to learn about them. They’re also a very illusive species, residing in dense rainforest where it can be hard to find and monitor them.

What’s it like looking after the okapi day-to-day?

My day-to-day work involves a lot of cleaning; I see a lot of okapi poo! We also do a lot of foot care with our okapi because as a species they do sometimes suffer from foot problems, so it’s really important for us to manage. Both of our okapi are conditioned to allow us to pick their feet up and carry out health checks. 

We clean them out twice a day as well, so we’re in here quite a lot. Despite being a solitary species, they do enjoy company and respond well to having people around them.

Gareth Chamberlain and Oni the okapi

What’s their habitat like in the wild?

They come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and there’s only estimated to be around 10,000-35,000 left in the wild, which sounds a lot, but it’s really not. Their habitat is made up of dense tropical rainforest where the environment can be quite damp. They’re velvet-like skin is specially designed for this, helping to keep them dry.

What do you love about the okapi?

I love everything about them, I love how quiet they are and how beautiful they are, you just can’t fault them at all in my opinion.

What unique adaptations do the okapi have?

The okapi has lots of camouflaging; its dark coat colour is shiny and dappled in the sun which helps it blend in to the dark environment of the Congo. They’ve also got stripes on their front and hind legs which are believed to be another camouflage adaption to enable them to avoid predators such as leopards. The okapi’s legs would blend into the undergrowth, making it hard to spot them. Their striped bottom is also believed to help calves follow their mothers through the rainforest.

Another great adaption of the okapi is their ears, they have massive ears that are great for hearing and can turn almost 360 degrees, using their hearing for safety.

Additional unique feature s include their ability to pull their eye deep into the socket to protect their eyes from stray branches and vegetation when walking through the rainforest.

They’re also able to clean any part of their body with their 30cm tongue, including their eyes. The okapi can put its tongue into its eye and clean the surrounding edges. Their impressive tongue is a blackish purple in colour, similar to the giraffe, and is believed to help prevent it from becoming sunburnt when foraging for browse in the strong African sun.

What work is being done to conserve the okapi in the wild?

Since 2001 ZSL has been working with various organisations to help protect the okapi and their habitat inside Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ZSL has worked to rebuild the capacity of the Congolese conservation authority, ICCN, to restore the long-term integrity of the park and other protected areas in the okapi’s range following civil conflict in the area.

Due to political unrest across the okapi’s range, ZSL was forced to suspend operations on the ground in 2013, but continues to support okapi conservation efforts as co-host of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.

The most recent development in okapi conservation has seen the first okapi conservation strategy developed earlier this year, which outlines the conservation measures to be taken to ensure the persistence of this species in the future.

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