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Okapi

Scientific name: Okapia johnstoniOkapi and baby - Photo taken by Peter Budd

Country: Democratic Republic of Congo

Continent: Africa

Diet: Leaves of tree and bushes - folivore. In the Zoo, lucerne, fruit and vegetables.

Food & feeding: Herbivore

Habitats: Tropical rainforest

Conservation status: Near threatened

Relatives: Giraffe

Description: An okapi looks like a stumpy giraffe with stripes on the rear legs and rump like those of a zebra. In fact they are closely related to giraffes. Like a giraffe, the okapi's long prehensile tongue enables it to grip and pull leaves. The tongue is about 35 cm in length and long enough for the animal to lick its own eyelids as part of its fastidious grooming. The male also has skin-covered horns like a giraffe, however unlike a giraffe, the neck is much shorter. Okapis stand about 170 cm tall and weigh about 230 kg.

Lifestyle: Giraffes have very long necks to get high leaves and to see a long way over grassy plains whereas okapis have much shorter necks. They live in dense rainforest and they never have to reach too high to find lush vegetation. They silently wander along forest trails during the day, browsing their favourite food plants along the way. They are one of the hardest animals to see in the wild because they live in such dense forest.

Family & friends: The okapi is usually a solitary animal, although when the female is in breeding condition, she is shadowed by a male. Sometimes two males become interested in the same female, in which case they will fight, wrestling each other with their necks, like giraffes, and butting each other.

Keeping in touch: Scent-marking suggests that okapis are territorial, although probably only to establish sleeping or resting quarters.

Growing up: The female okapi usually breeds every two to three years, having one baby (twins very rarely) which is identical in colour pattern to the adult. Pregnancy lasts 14-15 months and the baby is weaned at 10-12 months, but may stay with the mother for two or three years. They have a life expectancy of over 25 years in captivity.

The okapi was first described to western zoologists by the British explorer Sir Harry Johnston, in the late 19th century. It is unusual for such a big animal to have evaded zoologists until so recently. Most of the big African animals were described long before the okapi - but the okapi's shyness and impenetrable habitat meant that it had been overlooked by earlier explorers.

Conservation news: It is estimated there are between 10,000 and 35,000 Okapi left in the wild. The two most serious threats to this elusive creature are destruction of its rainforest home, for timber and agriculture, and even more tragically, hunting for what is known as the 'bushmeat trade'. Bushmeat is the meat of any of a whole range of species, including lowland gorillas, that are shot and sold by hunters. Often the meat is not eaten by local people at all, instead it is sold in markets of towns and cities, where there is a growing demand for it. Since 1933 the Okapi has officially had total protection but the hunting still continues and the okapi's future is insecure.

Bristol Zoo was the first zoo in the UK to care for an okapi in 1961 and the first UK zoo to breed one in 1963. The Zoo continues to be in the front-line of okapi conservation, being part of the captive Okapi Conservation Breeding Programme and helping to fund the 8,000 square mile Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo.