Somewhere in the Ituri Forest, a dense rain forest located in in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lives an animal rarely seen – so rare that is was unknown to science until 1901. This unique and shy animal is known as the okapi (pronounced oh-COP-ee).
With their velvety chocolate brown coat and black-and-white stripes on their hindquarters and front legs, one might assume the okapi is related to horses and zebra. The truth is that this shy, elusive creature is the only living relative of the giraffe! Okapi have a long prehensile blackish blue-purple tongue measuring 14-18 inches in length. Like their relatives the giraffe, male okapi also develop skin covered horns on their heads called ossicones. Sometimes known as forest giraffes, okapi are much shorter than their savanna-dwelling cousins – reaching a height of only 5 or 6 feet tall.
The okapi prefer to live alone and often travel a half mile a day in search of food. They tend to travel along some of the same well traveled paths that have been worn down by generations of okapi. They feed on shoots, grass, fruits, fungi, seeds and leaves and have been observed eating clay and burnt charcoal as well – this is thought to be a source of minerals.
While okapi are solitary, they still have ways of communicating with each other. A scent gland on each foot leaves behind a sticky, tar-like substance wherever they walk, marking their territory. Males also mark their territory by spraying urine. Okapi are fairly quiet animals but will make coughs, bleats and whistles, as well as calls so low that humans cannot hear them at all!
Leopards are the okapi’s most fearsome natural predator while some smaller wild cats may prey upon okapi calves. They are also illegally hunted despite being a protected species. Due to their densely forested habitat and their secretive nature the exact number of okapi in the wild is hard to determine but it is believed their population ranges between 10,000 and 20,000.