Okapi facts

The okapi was first discovered by the western world by ZSL fellow, Sir Harry Johnston, in 1901 but what else do we know about this extraordinary and shy creature?

Okapi

  1. The only place in the world that you can find a wild okapi is in the dense tropical rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is hardly surprising then that they are the country's national animal and even feature on local bank notes.
  • Okapis closest living relative is the giraffe. As its slightly smaller, shyer, rarer cousin in the giraffid family it is often known as the ‘forest giraffe.’ 
  • The okapi tongue is purplish-black, prehensile and reaches 30cm - that's long enough to lick its nose, ears and even its eyes. The dark colour protects the tongue from getting sunburnt as it curls around branches and vegetation, pulling it into its mouth to eat.   
  1. Zebra-like stripes on the okapi’s legs and bottom are thought to be a key part of its fantastic camouflage as well as a way to help the young to follow their mothers through the thick forests.  Being unique to each individual, these stripes also help conservationists to monitor their activities and population size by capturing images of the animals on remote ‘camera traps’
  • Male okapi have furry horns on their heads called ossicones, a bit like the giraffe’s horns, though these are found on both male and female giraffe.

The threats facing the okapi include poaching, deforestation, armed conflict and illegal mining

  • Okapi have large ears they can point in different directions to detect dangerous predators such as the leopard.
  1. Okapi are shy and usually harmless herbivores threatened by deforestation, poaching, armed conflict and illegal mining that has caused their population to drop dramatically in recent years. Having reassessed the species as ‘Endangered’, ZSL worked with IUCN, ICCN (the Congolese conservation authority) and a wide range of other partners to develop the first ever long term Okapi conservation strategy aimed at keeping the Okapi from extinction.
  • Until recently there were thought to be between 10,000 and 35,000 okapi left in the wild. However, as this wide range suggests, it is very hard to know for sure as they are so difficult to survey in the wild, though experts estimate that their number has halved in the past 25 years.
  • The first wild photos of the okapi were taken by ZSL camera traps in 2008, reconfirming the presence of the okapi in the very spot where the species was first described, by ZSL over 100 years before.

Okapi camera trap image
The very first image of an okapi captured by camera trap in Virunga National Park in 2008, during joint ZSL-ICCN surveys.

  • As you may have gathered, okapi are incredibly hard to see in the wild.  Even for field researchers lucky enough to spend time in the okapi’s native rainforests, the best chance of seeing a real, live okapi is probably in a zoo like ZSL London Zoo!

Find out more about the okapi