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Okapi in rainforest. © Ji / Adobe Stock

Okapi in rainforest. © Ji / Adobe Stock


Giraffe of the forest


If you were asked to name animals with stripes, your first thought might be zebra or tiger. Giraffe would not be high on your list. As for animals beginning with ‘o’, you might be happy with ostrich or orang-utan. But there’s a much cooler option. The okapi (pronounced oh-CARP-ee) oozes charisma. And, as an added bonus, it’s a very useful Scrabble word. 

The only surviving relative of the giraffe, the enigmatic okapi is far less well-known than its larger, taller cousins, not least because it rarely emerges from deep forest and has a very restricted range. 

In fact, the okapi wasn’t known to science until 1901. It was one of Fauna & Flora’s founder-members, Sir Harry Johnston, who brought it to the wider world’s attention after being shown its distinctive skull and skin during his travels through the Congo Basin. The okapi’s scientific name provides a clue to this connection. 

Fascinating facts about the okapi

    Extra eyelid

    Okapis can retract their eyeballs with the help of a third eyelid to protect them from spiky branches.

    Okapi. © gi0572 / Adobe Stock

    Okapi. © gi0572 / Adobe Stock

    What am I?

    Okapi nicknames include Congo giraffe, zebra giraffe and African unicorn.


    The number of different foodplants that okapis are known to eat.

    Local name

    Okapi is a name originally used by the Indigenous, forest-dwelling Mbuti people, who still live as nomadic hunter-gatherers. 

What do okapis look like? 

Viewed from the front, the okapi is fairly unremarkable, with colouring that appears almost uniformly dark. The rear view is something else entirely. A striking set of white stripes extends across its rump and down the hind legs as far as the back of the knees. Below this, it appears to be wearing a pair of white surgical stockings with black tops and feet. The stripes are thought to resemble streaks of sunlight penetrating the dark forest, enabling the okapi to blend in with its surroundings. 

Like giraffes, male okapis have small, fur-covered horns. These are known as ossicones. Males are smaller and darker than females, and their coats often have a purple tinge. Rival males fight by neck-wrestling in a similar fashion to giraffes, but they also charge and clash heads in the manner of bighorn sheep. 

Other giraffe-like characteristics include sloping hindquarters, tall shoulders and long neck. Among the other notable okapi adaptations are its large ears, which can move independently, and an extra-long, blue-black tongue.

What do okapis eat? 

Okapis feed on a variety of shade-loving plants in the deep forest. Their relatively long legs and neck enable them to browse on foliage at a height that can’t be reached by many of the herbivores with which they compete for food. Their muscular tongue is used to grasp and enfold leaves before stripping them from branches. They also eat fruit and fungi.

How do okapis communicate? 

Okapis usually communicate using a quiet coughing noise. They also snort loudly when disturbed. An okapi mother and her calf call to each other using low-frequency sounds that predators cannot hear.

Okapi eating. © Roland Seitre / Nature Picture Library

Okapi eating. © Roland Seitre / Nature Picture Library

An okapi's tongue can be over 30cm long.

Where do okapis live? 

The okapi is found only in dense forest in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Historically, it is thought to have been present in Uganda too, but recent surveys have found no trace of the species on that side of the border. Shy, elusive and mainly solitary, okapis aren’t easy to locate even in their known strongholds. They appear to prefer firm ground under their hooves and avoid waterlogged or flooded areas.

Okapi. © Jabruson / Nature Picture Library

Okapi. © Jabruson / Nature Picture Library

A male okapi in typically dense rainforest habitat in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

How many okapis are left? 

It’s uncertain how many okapis remain in the wild. Estimates vary hugely from as many as 30,000 to as few as 5,000. Numbers are believed to have declined by an alarming 50% in the past 25 years.

Why is the okapi endangered? 

The okapi has been officially protected since 1933, but that nominal protection is difficult to enforce in a country plagued by civil conflict and lawlessness. The main threats to the okapi are hunting and habitat loss, two problems that are closely interlinked. 

Habitat loss 

All the so-called protected areas that harbour the world’s last wild okapis are being gradually eroded and fragmented by illegal mining and logging activities. According to Global Forest Watch, nearly 7% of primary forest in the vast Ituri ecosystem – which includes the crucially important Okapi Wildlife Reserve – was lost in the first two decades of this century alone. 

Hunting pressure 

The huge increase in the commercial bush meat trade in DRC towards the end of the 20th century had a devastating impact on the country’s wildlife, and the okapi was no exception. The poaching threat remains a serious issue and is exacerbated by illegal logging and mining. These extractive activities make the okapi’s forest home more accessible and vulnerable to encroachment but also bring with them an influx of desperate people whose only source of food is wild meat. Okapis are hunted for their skins as well as their meat. 

Collateral damage 

To add to the okapi’s misfortunes, the remaining population is trapped in an area that has been plagued by violent conflict for many decades. The continued presence of heavily armed militia poses a grave danger to the okapi and to all those who risk their lives to protect this enigmatic but endangered animal. This was underlined in 2012 when seven people including two rangers were brutally murdered – along with 13 captive okapis – during a rebel raid on the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, apparently in retaliation for a crackdown on poaching and gold mining.

Okapi. © Stef Bennett / Adobe Stock

Okapi. © Stef Bennett / Adobe Stock

The okapi's stripes act as camouflage by breaking up its outline.

What can we do to protect the okapi? 

Supported by an IUCN Save Our Species grant, Fauna & Flora and partners are working to conserve the okapi in one of its last remaining strongholds in DRC. The longer-term success of these efforts will depend on the effectiveness of data gathering to pinpoint the key locations within this landscape.

Monitoring and patrols 

Throughout 2022, a dozen community-led patrol teams drawn from the three community forests – Kanyama, Bitule and Omate – adjoining the western section of Maiko National Park, along with five teams comprising park staff from the southern sector of Maiko itself, conducted monthly monitoring across their respective areas. They recorded any signs of okapi presence such as tracks and dung samples. In total, the monitoring teams located 333 traces of okapi, most of which were found in Kanyama and Maiko. 

Camera traps 

This vital data was fed into the design of a comprehensive camera-trap survey launched in January 2023. Okapis are known to stick to a fairly predictable feeding routine throughout the year. Fauna & Flora and partners hope to secure footage of the publicity-shy okapis with the aid of remote cameras places along their regular routes through the forest. 

Additional patrols are also being conducted deeper in Maiko National Park in order to determine okapi distribution beyond the areas previously monitored. 

Once we have a detailed picture of precisely where the okapis are, it will be easier to put in place the protection measures that they urgently need.

Female okapi photographed using a camera trap. © Fauna & Flora

Female okapi photographed using a camera trap. © Fauna & Flora

Female okapi photographed using a camera trap.

Okapi. © Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock

Together, we can save the okapi

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Okapi. © Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock