The Congo’s okapi, the so-called forest zebra, is now on the world’s endangered species list. Here are five fascinating facts about the okapi to raise awareness about this beautiful creature.
1. The Okapi is Actually Related to the Giraffe
The reclusive okapi is found in the canopy forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While some scientists continue to debate how closely related the okapi is to the giraffe, it is generally considered a fact that the giraffe and okapi share biological similarities.
Though the okapi is much smaller than its long necked cousin, it shares several similar characteristics. For instance, the okapi has a long face shape and large eyes like the giraffe. It also has a prehensile tongue of around 30cm, and shares a tooth arrangement similar to that of the giraffe.
In terms of other physical features, the okapi is distinctive for its reddish brown and slightly oily pelt that carries zebra-like stripes. It also has skin covered horns.
The okapi has relatively poor eyesight and relies on its very sensitive hearing and its use of scent glands.
2. The Okapi is on the Endangered List as a Result of War, Poaching and Deforestation
The okapi has recently been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN) so-called Red List of endangered species. In fact, the okapi has the dubious distinction of having jumped two ranks in the ICUN’s rating system, going from “near threatened” to “endangered” in this second list update of the year.
The okapi’s population has decreased by more than half since 1995, and that rate is projected to continue. Population estimates suggest that there are now fewer than 35,000 okapi left.
The ongoing fighting in the region is unfortunately hampering efforts to save the okapi. “These groups,” the IUCN is quoted as saying, “prevent effective conservation action, even surveys and monitoring in most sites, and engage in and facilitate elephant poaching, bushmeat hunting, illegal mining (gold, coltan and diamonds), illegal logging, charcoal production and agricultural encroachment.”
The okapi is a solitary animal that requires large secluded areas with dense tree cover. It requires a fresh water source and particular foraging areas, and so its habitat has become limited to about 63,000 square kilometers of Ituri rainforest. Around a fifth of that forest constitutes the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, but fighters have invaded that land and regularly hunt and kill the okapi.
3. The Okapi is the Congo’s National Symbol
The okapi is the Congo’s national symbol and appears on the Congolese franc notes. It is also used as the logo for a number of distinguished organizations, including the Congolese Wildlife Authority and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). It is hoped that by capitalizing on the okapi’s national symbol status, action can be taken to snatch the okapi back from the jaws of extinction.
4. The Okapi was Once Called the African Unicorn
The okapi is sometimes called the forest giraffe or forest zebra, but one of its lesser known (unofficial) names is the “African unicorn.” The okapi was so dubbed because, until 1901, many believed the creature was a myth.
Reports of a horse-like creature found in the Belgian Congo prompted Sir Harry Johnston, the then British commissioner of Uganda, to attempt a search for the creature.
Johnston, who is remembered in the okapi’s scientific name Okapia johnstoni, secured a couple of okapi skins and a skull, sending them back to London to be studied. The okapi was then classified as a separate species. Until that point, many had dismissed the okapi as a zebra.
5. The Okapi Eats More Than 100 Different Types of Plants — and Clay!
The okapi is an herbivore, meaning it eats a plant-based diet. Fascinatingly, the okapi hasn’t taken to specially eating just a few plants and can snack on more than 100 different varieties of fauna.The okapi has even been known to eat fungi, and can also eat several types of plants that are poisonous to most other species and humans.
The okapi also consumes a reddish clay, using this to supplement its diet and get the vital salts it can miss out on as a result of only eating the forest’s plants.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.