Guest blogger: Kelly Carpenter, Seasonal Keeper
Happy World Okapi Day! First, what is an okapi? Well, do not let the stripes on its back half deceive you. The okapi is actually the only living relative of the giraffe; thus, the nickname “forest giraffe”. The okapi was not discovered until 1901 because of its mysterious nature. It is a solitary animal, with the exception of mating and when a mother is with her calf. It lives deep within the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Ituri Forest is extremely dense, which has allowed for the okapi to remain hard to observe. This, along with its zebra-like stripes that look like streaks of sunlight filtering through the trees and its brown velvety fur, also helps this herbivore stay hidden from predators. Now when I say velvety, I truly mean that its fur feels like touching a piece of velvet. This fur has an oily texture that allows for the okapi to mark its territory and keep it dry on rainy days.
The okapi is around the size of a horse, standing about six feet tall at its head and weighing between 500 to 800 pounds. Just like a giraffe, it has a 14 to 18 inch long tongue that can wrap around limbs of trees and leaves, or even groom itself or calves with (there is a good chance you have seen one of our okapis licking their own eyeballs). Something that a lot of people do not know is that the okapi uses infrasonic sounds to communicate with other okapis. These are sounds that are below the range of human and predators hearing. It is very
useful when a calf is first born as a way for the mother to get in touch with it; think of it like putting your cell phone on silent. The calf goes through what is called the “nesting phase”, in which it lies in vegetation for two to three months, conserving all of its energy for sleeping and nursing. It remains in this phase until the calf maintains its temperature, activates the rumens in its stomach, and defecates for the first time. This is the reason why our new calf will remain inside for the first few months after he or she is born.
You read that correctly, we are expecting an okapi calf this spring and we could not be more excited for his or her arrival! I am a seasonal keeper in Rhino Reserve where I have had the pleasure of working with the two okapis that call the Cincinnati Zoo home, and I have been completely captivated by them. Kuvua is our 7-year-old female (her birthday is coming up on November 4th) and is our mother-to-be. This will be her second calf. Her first calf, Kilua, recently moved to the Dallas Zoo to start a family of her own! Kuvua is truly a sweetheart; she is extremely gentle and easy-going. Her favorite foods include leaf-eater biscuits, lettuce and bananas.
Kiloro is her other half and is a 9-year-old male. He is very gentle as well, but tends to be a little bit more stubborn and knows what he wants. His favorite activity is chewing on branches or stealing browse straight from you so he can eat it right away. Both of our okapis are very smart and are trained for hoof trims, blood draws, and other medical behaviors. This training occurs through operant conditioning and requires myself and the other keeper staff to build a trusting and respectful bond with them.
Even with its hidden nature, this species is one whose existence is under threat because of human activities. In the wild, the okapi is completely dependent on the Ituri Forest. This forest is fighting the battle against deforestation, poaching, and mining. This has led the okapi to recently be classified as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Okapi Conservation Project is working to help protect the habitat of the okapi as well as the other plants and animals that call the Ituri Forest home. They are doing this by creating a wildlife reserve that focuses on working with the community to create awareness and an understanding of the problems at hand. They are providing wildlife protection and alternative agricultural practices for food and reforestation.
World Okapi Day was created to celebrate this mysterious animal, to bring awareness to the threats it faces, and to show you how you can help, too! Today at the Cincinnati Zoo, right outside the okapi exhibit, we will be doing fun activities including a scavenger hunt and a raffle, as well as putting out special enrichment. We will also have the keepers, including myself, that get to work with these amazing animals every day out and about to talk to you about our okapis and answer any questions that you may have.
You can also post photos on social media with #OkapiConservation or #WorldOkapiDay. Even recycling your old cell phone at the Cincinnati Zoo will help prevent future mining in the Ituri Forest. So please be sure to tell all of your friends and family to stop by the Zoo and visit the most mysterious and curious animal, the okapi. I hope you all okapied (copied) all of that information! Learn more about the okapi and World Okapi Day here. Happy World Okapi Day!
If you are like me and cannot wait for the new baby to arrive this spring, here is a video of when Kilua first made her debut at the Cincinnati Zoo.