The Okapi

Curio Vol 2 | Issue 2

You look at the Okapi, staring in bemused puzzlement at the juxtaposition of texture, colour, pattern and anatomy that stands before you. Do your eyes deceive you? Do you doubt this pastiche of biology, convinced it is an illusion?

The Okapi partially bears the familiar pattern of a Zebra, horizontal stripes of black and white wrapped around its legs. But the body of the Okapi is decidedly un-zebra/un-horse like. Its torso is a little more lithe, resembling the silhouette of a deer, its pelt a reddish-brown sheen, oily and waterproof. It’s neck is long, and its head appears familiar to that of a taller animal — that of a giraffe.

Biologically, the Okapi belongs to the same family as the giraffe, the only two surviving members of the Giraffidae species. When you compare their heads, it very easy to see the resemblance between these two animals — from the shape of their ears, nose and their long prehensile tongues.

Of course, the Okapi is nowhere near the average height of 5 metres that adult giraffes stand at — rather it measures in at a much more modest 1.5 metres. Behaviourally, the Okapi also share similarities with giraffes — one such ritual is the use of their necks to fight, a common occurrence when males are competing to mate with females during breeding seasons.

Solitary and reclusive are key adjectives which describe the Okapi. They are endangered and are found in the tropical canopy forests of Congo, where it is also the country’s national symbol.

Shy and secretive, the Okapi are rarely seen, and spend a majority of their day looking for food that includes twigs, shoots, leaves, fruits, fungi and berries. They are also known to consume a reddish clay with vital salts as a supplement to their herbivore diet.

The elusiveness of the Okapi has generated some interesting nicknames and references, some of which included the “forest giraffe”, “forest zebra” and even the “African unicorn”.

Many of these names came about due to the fact that these animals were considered mythical until the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, Sir Harry Johnston, a British commissioner of Uganda officially discovered the species and subsequently claimed his name as part of the official scientific naming of the species Okapia johnstoni.

Interestingly, the Okapi was known to ancient civilisation, with a stone carving of the animal featured in the facade of the Apadana Palace in the ancient Iranian city of Persepolis.

Despite the Okapi’s high prowess for camouflage and its ability to hide among thick foliage, the Okapi are still an endangered species, mostly falling prey to the predation of human poaching for their pelt and meat. The estimate of remaining individuals in the wild is estimated to be between 10,000 and 35,000.

Other intriguing facts about the Okapi include the fact that they secrete a tar-like substance from glands on their feet to mark their territory with a strong scent, and emit infrasonic calls (14 hertz) that are undetectable to the human ear.

The Okapi is a rare and unusual creature; beautiful in its uniqueness, shyness and ability to remain hidden, physically and in the imagination. It is amazing to think this beast exists — more amazing if you ever have the opportunity to see it alive in the wild.

Curio is released weekly on Mondays. Words and Illustrations by Rob Lee.