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Related subjects: Mammals

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An okapi at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Conservation status

Near Threatened ( IUCN 2.3)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Giraffidae
Subfamily: Okapiinae
Genus: Okapia
Lankester, 1901
Species: O. johnstoni
Binomial name
Okapia johnstoni
( P.L. Sclater, 1901)
Range map

The Okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is a mammal living in the Ituri Rainforest in the north east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. Although it bears striped markings reminiscent of the zebra, it is most closely related to the giraffe.


The genus name Okapia derives from the Lese Karo name o'api, while the species' epithet (johnstoni) is in recognition of the explorer Sir Harry Johnston, who organized the expedition that first acquired an okapi specimen for science from the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The name "Okapi" is a compilation of two Lese words. Oka a verb meaning to cut and Kpi which is a noun referring to the design made on Efe arrows by wrapping the arrow with bark so as to leave stripes when scorched by fire. The stripes on the legs of the Okapi resemble these stripes on the arrow shafts. Lese legend says the okapi decorates itself with these stripes.

Characteristics and behaviour

Okapis have dark backs, with striking horizontal white stripes on the front and back legs, making them resemble zebras from a distance. These markings are thought to help young follow their mothers through the dense rain forest; they also serve as camouflage.

The body shape is similar to that of the giraffe, except that okapis have much shorter necks. Both species have very long (approx. 30 cm or 12 inch), flexible, blue tongues that they use to strip leaves and buds from trees.

An okapi cleaning its muzzle with its tongue.

The tongue of an okapi is long enough for the animal to wash its eyelids and clean its ears: it is one of the few mammals that can lick its own ears. Male okapis have short, skin-covered horns called " ossicones". They have large ears, which help them detect their predator, the leopard.

Okapis are 1.9 to 2.5 m (8.1 ft) long and stand 1.5 to 2.0 m (6.5 ft) high at the shoulder. They have a 30 to 42 cm (12 to 17 in) long tail. Their weight ranges from 200 to 270 kg (465 to 565 lb).

Okapis are largely diurnal and essentially solitary, coming together only to breed.

Okapis forage along fixed, well-trodden paths through the forest. They live alone or in mother-offspring pairs. They have overlapping home ranges of several square kilometers and typically occur at densities of about 0.6 animals per square kilometer.

The home ranges of males are generally slightly larger than those of females. They are not social animals and prefer to live in large, secluded areas. This has led to problems with the okapi population due to the shrinking size of the land they live on. This lack of territory is caused by development and other social reasons. However, okapis tolerate each other in the wild and may even feed in small groups for short periods of time.

Okapis have several methods of communicating their territory, including scent glands on each foot that leave behind a tar-like substance which signals their passage, as well as urine marking. Males are protective of their territory, but allow females to pass through their domain to forage.

Okapis prefer altitudes of 500 to 1,000 m, but may venture above 1,000 m in the eastern montane rainforests. The range of the okapi is limited by high montane forests to the east, swamp forests below 500 m to the west, savannas of the Sahel/ Sudan to the north, and open woodlands to the south. Okapis are most common in the Wamba and Epulu areas.


Okapis are herbivores, eating tree leaves and buds, grass, ferns, fruit, and fungi. Many of the plant species fed upon by the okapi are poisonous to humans.

Examination of okapi feces has revealed that the charcoal from trees burnt by lightning is consumed as well. Field observations indicate that the okapi's mineral and salt requirements are filled primarily by a sulfurous, slightly salty, reddish clay found near rivers and streams.


The okapi was known to the ancient Egyptians; shortly after its discovery by Europeans, an ancient carved image of the animal was discovered in Egypt. For years, Europeans in Africa had heard of an animal that they came to call 'the African unicorn'.

An okapi at Bristol Zoo cleans itself

In his travelogue of exploring the Congo, Henry Morton Stanley mentioned a kind of donkey that the natives called the 'atti', which scholars later identified as the okapi. Explorers may have seen the fleeting view of the striped backside as the animal fled through the bushes, leading to speculation that the okapi was some sort of rainforest zebra.

When the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, discovered some pygmy inhabitants of the Congo being abducted by a German showman for exhibition in Europe, he rescued them and promised to return them to their homes. The grateful pygmies fed Johnston's curiosity about the animal mentioned in Stanley's book. Johnston was puzzled by the okapi tracks the natives showed him; while he had expected to be on the trail of some sort of forest-dwelling horse, the tracks were of some cloven-hoofed beast.

Though Johnston did not see an okapi himself, he did manage to obtain pieces of striped skin and eventually a skull. From this skull, the okapi was correctly classified as a relative of the giraffe; in 1902, the species was formally recognized as Okapia johnstoni.

The first live specimen in Europe arrived in Antwerp in 1918. The first okapi to arrive in North America was at the Bronx Zoo, via Antwerp, in 1937. The first okapi born in captivity was at Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, which directs the Okapi Species Survival Plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

Okapi at Chester Zoo

Okapi are now reasonably common in zoos around North America and Europe. Immediately following their discovery, zoos around the world attempted to obtain okapis from the wild. These initial attempts were accompanied by a high mortality rate due to the rigors of traveling thousands of miles by boat and by train. In more recent years, shipment by airplane has proven more successful.

This history has given the okapi a place in the popular imagination as an example of an obscure creature that would be presumed mythical if no specimens had been captured. In this connection it is also used by cryptozoologists to support the view that other mythical animals might also be based on real creatures unknown to science, to the extent that it has been adopted as an emblem by the International Society for Cryptozoology.

Although the okapi was unknown to the Western world until the 20th century, it has been clearly depicted for almost 2,500 years on the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis, where it is shown as a gift from the Ethiopian procession to the Achaemenid kingdom.


Although okapis are not classified as endangered, they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. The world population is estimated at 10,000–20,000. Conservation work in the Congo includes the continuing study of okapi behaviour and lifestyle, which led to the creation in 1992 of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The Congo Civil War threatened both the wildlife and the conservation workers in the reserve.

An Okapi reaches for some leaves.

There is an important captive breeding centre at Epulu, at the heart of the reserve, which is managed jointly by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation ( ICCN) and Gillman International Conservation ( GIC), which in turn receives support from other organisations including UNESCO, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and WildlifeDirect as well as from zoos around the world. The Wildlife Conservation Society is also active in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

On June 8, 2006, scientists reported that evidence of surviving okapis in Congo's Virunga National Park had been discovered. This had been the first official sighting since 1959, after nearly half a century.

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