IUCN Red List classification
Although it bears striped markings reminiscent of the zebra on its front and back legs, the okapi is most closely related to the giraffe and so is often refered to as a 'forest giraffe'. The okapi is a national symbol of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the logo of the Congolese Wildlife Authority, Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).
ZSL is involved in conservation of the okapi though a project which supports the ICCN in the management of the Virunga National Park in the DRC. In 2008 ZSL and the ICCN conducted a survey okapi of the Watalinga Forest, northern sector of the Virunga National Park. Camera traps used in this survey captured landmark pictures of the okapi and proved that the species had a wider distribution than previously thought. The study also investigated the threats faced by the Watalinga okapi population and found that their extinction was likely unless immediate action was taken to monitor and protect them. ZSL is looking for additional funds to conduct a more comprehensive, community-based project.
- Okapis are a similar shape to giraffes, but with much shorter necks, and have reddish-brown bodies with horizontal black stripes on their upper front and back legs. It is thought that
the okapi’s markings help the young to follow their mothers whilst also acting as camouflage. Okapi live alone or in mother-offspring pairs.
- Like a giraffe, the okapi has a very long (approximately 30cm), prehensile (adapted for grasping), bluish-grey tongue. The okapi, which is almost exclusive folivorous (eats leaves), uses its tongue to strip leaves and buds from trees. Evidence suggests that okapis are highly selective in their foraging behaviour and feed primarily on the leaves of young, emerging trees, shrubs and lianas.
- Today the okapi is endemic (exclusively confined) to the closed, high canopy forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The species is known to have existed in Uganda but is now regionally extinct there.
- Okapi were unknown to the western world until the early 20th Century. Following his expedition in 1890, Henry Morton Stanley described a mysterious horse-like creature inhabiting the forests of the Belgian Congo. Stanley’s account inspired Sir Harry Johnston, the then British commissioner of Uganda and a ZSL fellow, to carry out his own expedition. In 1901 Johnston procured a full okapi skin and two okapi skulls from the Watalinga Forest (where ZSL's recent camera trap images are from) which he sent to Zoological Society of London. These remains, supplemented by local descriptions provided by Johnston, enabled ZSL scientists to describe the new species as the closest living relative of the giraffe and assign it its Latin name.
- Although the okapi has full legal protection under Congolese and international law, it remains threatened by hunting (both with firearms and traps) for its meat and hide and by habitat destruction for logging and human settlement. War and political instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo, resulting in the illegal occupation of national parks and the killing of wildlife for food, further impede the conservation of the okapi.
Virunga National Park is the oldest national park in Africa and contains the greatest range of habitats and highest vertebrate species diversity of any park in Africa. It was also the first park in Africa to be listed as a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site, but due to ongoing civil conflict in the region, in 1994 it was relisted as a World Heritage Site in Danger.