The okapi, one of Africa's most elusive and secretive animals, will soon be on display at the Zoo (Picture © NZG)
Tambu Mulaudzi (left) is the curator responsible for the okapis and Phutti Maffodi is the conservator who sees to the daily welfare of these rare animals (Picture © Mitzi du Plessis)
In the wild, young okapi fall prey to the golden cat (Picture © ArtWolfe)
On 9 October 2006 the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG) received a pair of okapi (Okapia johnstoni) on loan from the San Diego Zoo in the United States of America, a sister zoo of the NZG.
This historic occasion made the NZG the first zoological gardens in South Africa to house okapi. There are currently only 39 institutions world-wide that display okapi, making the NZG the 40th.
Dr Anne Petric, the international studbook keeper of the okapi, visited the NZG in 2002 to ensure that it was suitably equipped to house these rare animals. On Dr Petric's recommendation, the San Diego Zoo approved the loan of the pair of okapi to the NZG. The two males, Shamba and Melaku, arrived safely at the NZG and have settled in well at their new home. Shamba and Melaku were both born at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park on 1/11/2004 and 5/7/2004 respectively.
The decision to include okapi in the NZG's animal collection reinforces the NZG's vision of conserving Africa's biodiversity for sustainable development. The okapi will form an integral part of the NZG's science awareness programme. The animals resemble a cross between a zebra and a giraffe and their appearance, as well as the fact that they are so rare, makes them attractive to the public.
"What makes them significant from a conservation point of view is that they are not only threatened, but the only two animals of their kind in a zoo in the southern hemisphere," says Reuben Ngwenya, the NZG's Conservation Manager. "The NZG is the first institution in South Africa to house these animals and we are proud of this achievement. Through this it is safe to say that the NZG is truly a forerunner in the aim of conserving Africa's biodiversity."
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) ascribes habitat loss as a major threat to the continued survival of okapi in their natural environment. The habitat loss is brought about by the clearing of the forests for agriculture and infrastructure development for human settlements. Okapi are also subjected to the trade in bushmeat. Okapi's natural enemies include leopard and the youngsters fall prey to serval cat and the golden cat.
Elusive, secretive and secluded
Okapi live a secluded life in the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In its native habitat the okapi is wary and elusive: its acute hearing provides early warning of danger, and its effective camouflage enables it to move about in the wild undetected by man. Therefore, most knowledge about the okapi has been learned by observing it in zoos.
Immediately following the discovery of these elusive animals in 1901, zoos around the world attempted to obtain okapis from the wild. The Station de Capture was originally set up by the Belgians in the DRC to capture and sell these magnificent creatures to zoos around the world.
These initial attempts were accompanied by a high mortality rate due to the rigours of travelling thousands of miles by boat and by train. The first live specimen in Europe arrived at the Antwerp Zoological Gardens in 1918, but soon died. The first okapi to arrive in North America was at the Bronx Zoo in 1937.
In more recent years, shipment by airplane has proven more successful. 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).
Elevated walkways to afford bird's-eye view of okapi
The NZG's enclosure for large antelope is currently being redeveloped and will be completed in May 2007. The enclosure will feature elevated walkways that afford a panoramic view of the exhibit that will include bongo and sable antelope.
Tambu Mulaudzi is the curator responsible for the okapis and Phutti Maffodi is the conservator who sees to the daily welfare of these animals. The diet of okapi consists of primarily leaves, buds and tender shoots of plants. They are fed lucerne, antelope cubes, fruit and vegetables and a variety of browse at the NZG.
For further information on the expected public opening of the enclosure, visit www.zoo.ac.za.
Also read: Okapi - between legend and science