The okapi (/oʊˈkɑːpiː/; Okapia johnstoni), also known as the forest giraffe, congolese giraffe or zebra giraffe, is an artiodactyl mammal native to the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. Although the okapi has striped markings reminiscent of zebras, it is most closely related to the giraffe. The okapi and the giraffe are the only living members of the family Giraffidae. The okapi stands about 1.5 m (4.9 ft) tall at the shoulder and has an average body length around 2.5 m (8.2 ft). Its weight ranges from 200 to 350 kg (440 to 770 lb). It has a long neck, and large, flexible ears. Its coat is a chocolate to reddish brown, much in contrast with the white horizontal stripes and rings on the legs and white ankles. Male okapis have short, hair-covered, horn-like protuberances on their heads called ossicones, less than 15 cm (5.9 in) in length. Females possess hair whorls, and ossicones are absent.
Okapis are primarily diurnal, but may be active for a few hours in darkness. They are essentially solitary, coming together only to breed. Okapis are herbivores, feeding on tree leaves and buds, grasses, ferns, fruits, and fungi. Rut in males and estrus in females does not depend on the season. In captivity, estrous cycles recur every 15 days. The gestational period is around 440 to 450 days long, following which usually a single calf is born. The juveniles are kept in hiding, and nursing takes place infrequently. Juveniles start taking solid food from three months, and weaning takes place at six months.
Okapis inhabit canopy forests at altitudes of 500–1,500 m (1,600–4,900 ft). They are endemic to the tropical forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they occur across the central, northern, and eastern regions. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classifies the okapi as endangered. Major threats include habitat loss due to logging and human settlement. Extensive hunting for bushmeat and skin and illegal mining have also led to a decline in populations. The Okapi Conservation Project was established in 1987 to protect okapi populations.
Okapi (noun, “Oh-KAH-pee”)
Okapis are mammals that are native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. They are forest dwellers that dine on the leaves, fruits and fungi of the understory — the area of the forest below the tall canopy. Okapis are about the size of a pony. Their brown or red-brown fronts resemble a horse or mule. But their back and legs sport zebra-like stripes.
Don’t let the stripes fool you, though. The okapi is most closely related to giraffes. This might be surprising not just because the okapi lacks its cousin’s long neck. Giraffes are herd animals, after all, while okapi are loners. But there are similarities: They have the same long ears. They rest their weight on the same number of toes, just two. The males have similar hair-covered horns, called ossicones, on their heads. Okapis even stick out the same super-long tongues (around 45 centimeters, or 18 inches) that giraffes have. Okapis use their long tongues to grab leaves, clean themselves and even lick their own eyeballs.
Okapis have been dwindling in numbers and are currently endangered. That’s because people have been logging and moving into the forests where okapis live. The animals are also sometimes hunted for their meat and skins.
In a sentence
Zebras wear stripes to shoo away flies, but okapi may use their stripes to blend into a sun-dappled forest.
canopy (in botany) The top layer of a tree — or forest — where the tallest branches overlap.
endangered An adjective used to describe species at risk of going extinct.
forest An area of land covered mostly with trees and other woody plants.
fruit A seed-containing reproductive organ in a plant.
mammal A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding their young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.
native Associated with a particular location; native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.
okapi A hoofed, striped animal, a relative of the giraffe.
ossicones These are horn-like structures on giraffes and okapis. They are not antlers — which are made of keratin, like hair or fingernails. Instead, ossicones are made of cartilage and covered in hair.
understory Plants that grow beneath the canopy, or uppermost level, of the forest.