The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is one of the world's most recently discovered mammals. This is largely because it is a wary and elusive creature that retreats at the slightest intrusion. Although there had been rumours of its existance many years, it was not formally described until 1901 when the naturalist Sir Harry Johnston found specimens in the Congo. Its closest relative is the giraffe, though they more closely resemble the zebra.

Unlike most animals, the males of the species of okapi are smaller than the females. They can reproduce at any time during the year, though they usually do so between May and June and between November and December. Female okapi usually give birth every 15 to 17 months. Okapi calves suckle from their mother until they are nearly ten months old.

Gestation - 421-457 days
Number of young - 1
Height at birth - 72-83cm (2.2-2.7ft) at shoulder
Weight at birth - 16kg (35lb)
Weaned - 8-10 months
Sexual maturity (males) - 4 years
Sexual maturity (females) - 3 years
Longevity in captivity - 33 years (not known in wild)

Since its discovery by whites, the population of the okapi has declined. Once common in Uganda and Zaire, it is now only found in the latter. Despite it being declared a protected species in 1933, it is very difficult to enforce in their dense habitat and poaching continues.

Henry Stanley (of "Dr. Livingstone I presume" fame) first described the Okapi in his book "In Darkest Africa", which he wrote after exploring the dense Ituri forest of the Congo in 1890. Stanley was somewhat surprised that the Wambutti pygmies he came in contact weren't amazed at his horses, but said they often caught a similar animal in their traps. They called the animal o'api (misinterpreted by Stanley as "atti"). Sir Harry H. Johnston heard rumours of this strange donkey-like animal and led an expedition to find it in 1899. Sir Johnston gained the trust of the Wambutti, and learned from them that the creature was quite like a donkey, but with striped legs. Johnston was quite sure that the O'api was a type of Zebra, and disbelieved the natives when they showed him tracks supposedly made by the animal, as the tracks were those of a cloven-hooved animal rather than the horse-like tracks he was expecting. (Pretty cocky of him, having never laid eyes on an O'api.) Sir Johnston obtained two headbands made from the striped portion of the legs, and sent them back to the Zoological Society of London, where it was determined that the animal was a new species of horse Equus johnstoni . Later a complete skin and two skulls were sent to the society and it was finally determined that the new species was not a horse after all, but a relative of the giraffe.

Okapi are amazing looking animals. They have an incredibly soft velvet-like coat, dark brown to purplish red. The upper legs are striped, with a pattern much like a zebra (hence Sir Johnston's confusion). The lower legs are a snowy white, with black bands at the joints. Okapi have a horse-like head, a thick neck, back legs that are much shorter than the front, and skin covered "knobs" on the head of the males. They truly look like a creature made up of spare parts. They have huge dark colored ears and an obscenely long black tongue. This tongue is so long and flexible that they even clean their ears with it. (Ummm...I guess that's a good thing)


O*ka"pi (?), n. [Native name on the borders of Belgian Kongo, possibly the same word as Mpongwe okapo lean.]

A peculiar mammal (Okapia johnostoni) closely related to the giraffe, discovered in the deep forests of Belgian Kongo in 1900. It is smaller than an ox, and somewhat like a giraffe, except that the neck is much shorter. Like the giraffe, it has no dewclaws. There is a small prominence on each frontal bone of the male. The color of the body is chiefly reddish chestnut, the cheeks are yellowish white, and the fore and hind legs above the knees and the haunches are striped with purplish black and cream color.


© Webster 1913

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