5 Amazing Facts About the Okapi

The okapi is a mysterious animal. Learn five cool facts about this little-known creature.

Jun 17, 2024byMichael C.
amazing facts about the okapi

Native to the dense rainforests of Central Africa, its striped legs and shy behavior are both key characteristics of this elusive animal. Read on to learn more!

1 The Okapi Wasn’t Discovered Until 1901

okapi in zoo exhibit
Image credit: Oklahoma City Zoo

Before 1901, rumors of an “African unicorn” existed in the rainforests of the Congo. Western scientists argued whether such an animal existed. Indigenous groups were aware of its existence since okapis were sometimes trapped in pitfalls meant for smaller prey. One tribe called them the o’api (mistaken as atti by another scientist) from which its current name derives from.

Sir Harry Johnston, a British explorer, finally managed to prove the okapi’s existence to the Western World. After expeditions to hunt or capture an okapi alive failed, he eventually obtained a few striped skins and a skull. In honor of discovering this unique African animal, the species part of the okapi’s scientific name is named after Sir Johnston himself (Okapia johnstoni). Photos of wild okapis were virtually nonexistent until 2008 when a camera trap installed by the Zoological Society of London managed to capture a few images.

2. The Okapi’s Closest Relative Is the Giraffe

giraffes and okapi zoo exhibit
Image credit: Ituri/Zoochat

Even though the okapi’s stripes resemble a zebra’s, its closest living relative is the giraffe. Because of this, the okapi is also known as the forest giraffe. Recent research has shown that the okapi and the giraffe shared a common ancestor around 11 million years ago. Even though both creatures appear drastically different, they also sport some similarities with each other.

Both animals support horn-like structures on their head called ossicones. In the okapi, however, only males have them. Unlike horns, ossicones are fully covered in skin. Male okapis use them as a defense against predators, such as leopards, and use them for fighting for mates.

Both animals also sport long, blueish-black tongues that aid in browsing leaves. The okapi’s tongue is proportionately longer than a giraffe’s, however, and can even reach out to its ears! Giraffes and okapis also lack gallbladders in their bodies.

3. Okapis Are Only Found in the Congo

okapi and foliage
Image credit: Nachbarnebenan/Wikimedia Commons

You can only find a wild okapi in the Northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it is the national animal. It is believed to be extinct in Uganda. They prefer dense, thick rainforests throughout their range. Okapis avoid open areas, such as savannas, and stay away from disturbed environments such as human-populated areas. It is well-adapted to constant rain from its environment; its oily fur is waterproof and keeps the okapi from being wet.

Okapis are territorial animals. Males often hold more territories than females, which can span around two square miles. Okapis scent-mark with urine, feces, and secretions through their feet and necks. They are also constantly on the move during the day, searching for tender leaves to browse (okapis are highly selective feeders). Okapis in the wild are solitary, only coming together to mate.

4. The Okapi’s Stripes Aid in Camouflage

okapi rear view
Image credit: San Diego Zoo

Although the okapi is a secretive animal, it also must remain hidden. The stripes on the okapi’s legs and rear help break its shape through limited sunlight and dense vegetation. Its dark, reddish-brown fur is useful for blending under the shady canopy. Combined with its secrecy, the okapi is a master of camouflage.

Every individual’s striping pattern is unique, just like our fingerprints. Okapi calves are believed to identify and follow their mothers from their stripes. Researchers also use them to identify individuals through camera traps.

5. Okapis Need Our Help

okapi mother and calf
Image credit: Zoo Basel

Unfortunately, the okapi is currently listed as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List. Their habitats are being destroyed by illegal logging and mining operations. Okapis are also poached for their beautiful skins and bushmeat. Armed militia groups tied to illegal activities make conserving the okapi difficult. In a tragic incident in 2012, one militia group broke into a conservation center and killed 14 okapis, along with six park rangers and caretakers.

Researching the okapi is very difficult due to its inaccessible range. It is notoriously difficult to track down, and political unrest only makes it riskier. A proper population survey hasn’t been conducted recently, but it is estimated that only around 10,000-30,000 okapis are left in the wild. It is estimated that within the past 25 years, the population has decreased by half.

okapi looking sideways
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Reputable zoos and other conservation organizations are working hard to save this species. Breeding programs have been established to produce more okapis, creating an insurance population in case the wild population becomes extinct. The Okapi Conservation Project is an organization that works to protect the okapi and bring it back from the brink of extinction.

It manages the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which contains the largest known wild okapi population. The Okapi Conservation Project also supports local communities within their natural range. Educational outreach is supported in schools, and forest rangers are often hired from local villages. Citizens play an important role in conserving the okapi and are often actively involved in projects such as reforestation and wildlife protection.

You can help okapis by supporting zoos and other organizations involved in conservation and research efforts. Protecting wildlife isn’t easy, but in the long run, it can save endangered species like the okapi.

Michael C.
byMichael C.

Michael holds a BS degree in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University. He formerly worked at a pet store as an animal care associate and is the former president of the MSU Herpetological Society. Michael currently owns three snakes (a corn snake, a Kenyan sand boa, and a checkered garter snake) and a leopard gecko. Interests include almost anything animal-related. Michael enjoys drawing, gaming, and having fun in his free time.