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What Is an Okapi?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2014
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The okapi, or forest giraffe, is a large mammal native to the deep forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Shy and long mysterious, the okapi only came into the public eye in the early 20th century, existing in quiet obscurity for thousands of years before becoming known to most of the world. Though population numbers of wild okapi are considered fairly stable by some experts, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the continued success of this rare animal depends largely on continued efforts to protect the forest habitats the okapi calls home.

An okapi may appear at first glance to look like a zebra, rather than a giraffe. The long legs, belly, and hindquarters of the animal are white with black or dark brown striping that strongly resembles a zebra's coat. These stripes provide excellent camouflage in the dim and dappled glades of African forests. The rest of the coat is typically a dark, velvety brown, the better to blend in with shadowy areas.

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The head and neck of an okapi greatly resembles that of a giraffe, though shorter. The forest animal has a long neck and tapered head, plus an extremely long, flexible tongue. Adult animals tend to dine on the fruits and leaves of trees, and will browse consistently throughout the day, often covering several miles of territory in the process. Male adults have short horns, though females are somewhat larger and heavier. This adaptation may be because females serve as sole caretakers of young.

Calves are born generally less than once per year, thanks to a long gestation period of 15 months. At birth, calves are about 3 feet (.91 meters) in height. By the time they reach adulthood, they will generally more than double in size. Okapi calves are very vulnerable in the wild, having few natural defenses. Mother animals typically hide their babies while they forage for food, and calves are equipped with a wide variety of vocalizations with which to call their mothers if needed. As adults, the animals tend to be very quiet, another characteristic shared with the giraffe.

After their discovery by the Western world in the early 20th century, okapi became a popular animal import for zoos and menageries. Unfortunately, early transportation methods as well as limited knowledge about this shy creature led to an extremely high mortality rate. In the 21st century, thanks to improved education and faster transportation methods, many captive okapi live in zoos around the world. In order to ensure species preservation, many zoos have also introduced breeding programs to increase the number of captive okapi and prevent the need for wild captures.

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