Okapi is an incredible beast. Resembling a zebra, a deer and a bit of an anteater, it resembles an incorrectly assembled puzzle. When you first meet the beast, the question arises: how did such a horse appear? And is it a horse? Scientists say no. The okapi is a distant relative of the giraffe. The inhabitants of equatorial Africa have known the miracle beast for thousands of years, but Europeans only became aware of it at the turn of the 19th – 20th centuries.
View origin and description
The history of the development of okapi as a species is still being studied, there is almost no information about the origin of the genus. At the very beginning of the 20th century, scientists in London received the remains of an animal. The first analysis showed that there was no relationship with the horse. The second is that the closest common ancestor of the okapi and giraffe has long since died out. No new data has been received that could refute or change the information received by the British.
At the end of the 19th century, the natives of the Congo told about wild animals similar to horses to the traveler G. Stanley. Based on his reports, the governor of the English colony of Uganda, Johnston, launched an active investigation. It was he who handed over the okapi skins to scientists for study. Within six months, the animal new to Europe was officially called “Johnston's horse.” But the analysis of the remains showed that the okapi is not related to either the horse or any other known species. The original name “okapi” has become official.
Scientists attribute the animal to the class of mammals, the order of artiodactyls, the suborder of ruminants. Based on the proven similarity of the skeleton with the extinct ancestors of giraffes, the okapi is assigned to the giraffidae family. But his genus and appearance are personal, Johnston's former horse is the only representative of the okapi species.
The pedigree of the animal includes two representatives of the giraffe family, which does not facilitate its study. Throughout the 20th century, zoos around the world encouraged the capture of animals in order to get a curiosity in their collections. Okapi – unusually shy and unadapted to stress animals, cubs and adults died in captivity. In the late 20s, the largest zoo in Belgium managed to create conditions in which the female Tele lived for 15 years, only to die of starvation in the midst of World War II.
Appearance and features
The appearance of the African miracle beast is unique. It has a brown color, with overflows from dark chocolate to red. The legs are white with black stripes in the upper part, the head is white-gray with a large brown spot on the upper part, the circumference of the mouth and the large elongated nose are black. The brown tail with a tassel is about 40 cm long. There is no smooth transition from color to color, islands of wool of the same shade are clearly limited.
Males have small horns, which suggests a relationship with a giraffe. Each year, the horn tips fall off and new ones grow. The growth of animals is about one and a half meters, while the neck is shorter than that of a relative, but noticeably elongated. Females are traditionally a couple of tens of centimeters taller and do not have horns. The average weight of an adult is 250 kg, a newly born cub is 30 kg. In length, the beast reaches 2 meters or more.
Interesting fact! Gray-blue, like a giraffe, the okapi's tongue reaches 35 cm in length. The clean animal easily washes dirt from its eyes and ears with it.
Okapi has no tools to resist predators. The only way to survive is to run away. Evolution has endowed him with sensitive hearing, allowing him to learn about the approach of danger in advance. The ears are large, elongated, surprisingly mobile. Keeping the ears clean, regularly cleaning them with the tongue, the beast is forced to maintain fine hearing. Cleanliness is another defense mechanism against a predator.
Representatives of the species do not have vocal cords. Exhaling sharply, they make a sound like a cough or whistle. Newborn babies use mooing more often. In addition, the okapi lacks a gallbladder. An alternative is special pouches behind the cheeks, where the animal can store food for a while.
Where does the okapi live?
Habitat clearly limited. In the wild, former Johnston horses can only be found in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the last century, okapi possessions extended to the border area of the neighboring state – Uganda. Total deforestation is gradually driving animals out of their usual territories. And shy okapi are not capable of looking for a new home.
Animals choose a place for life carefully. It must be a fertile area about a kilometer above sea level. Animals do not check the last indicator, trusting their instincts. The plain is dangerous for them; it is extremely rare to see a forest horse in an empty clearing. Okapi settle in areas overgrown with tall bushes, where it is easy to hide and hear a predator making its way through the branches.
The rainforests of central Africa have become a suitable place for the okapi to live. Fastidious animals choose a house not only by the number of bushes, but also by the height of the leaves growing on them. It is also important that the thickets have a vast territory – the herd does not settle in a heap, each individual has a separate corner. In captivity, conditions for the survival of the okapi are created artificially.
It is important to ensure:
- A dark enclosure with a small lighted area;
- Absence of other animals nearby;
- Supplementary food from the leaves that the individual ate in the wild;
- For a mother with a cub – a dark corner that imitates a dense forest, and complete peace;
- Minimal contact with a person until the individual is completely accustomed to new conditions;
- Familiar weather conditions – a sharp change in temperature can kill an animal.
There are fewer than 50 zoos in the world where okapis live. Their breeding is a complex and delicate process. But the result was an increase in the life expectancy of the animal up to 30 years. It is hard to say how long a forest horse exists in the wild, scientists agree on a period of 20 – 25 years.
What does the okapi eat?
The diet of the okapi, like the giraffe, consists of leaves, buds, and fruits. A giraffe that is too tall, does not like to crouch to the ground, chooses tall trees or the upper branches of ordinary ones. Okapi, having the height of an average European, prefers to feed at a height of up to 3 meters above the ground. It grasps a branch of a tree or shrub with a long tongue and pulls the leaves into its mouth. Leaning down to the ground, he pulls out tender young grass.
Interesting fact! The okapi menu contains poisonous plants and toxic mushrooms. To neutralize the effects of harmful substances, they eat charcoal. Trees burned after a lightning strike are quickly becoming a subject of interest for forest gourmets.
The okapi diet contains from 30 to 100 species of tropical plants, including ferns, fruits and even mushrooms. They get minerals from coastal clay, which they eat with great care – open areas and proximity to water pose a great danger. Animals feed during the day. Night outings are extremely rare and in case of urgent need.
Animals eat, as well as sleep, very carefully. Their ears catch the rustle, and their legs are ready to run at any moment of the meal. Therefore, people managed to study the eating habits of okapi only in zoos. For the first six months of life, babies feed on milk, after which they can continue feeding from their mother or stop it completely.
Interesting fact! The digestive system of small okapi assimilates mother's milk without residue. The cubs do not leave waste products, which allows them to be invisible to predators.
Keeping animals in the zoo requires care. After capture, adults are very frightened, and their nervous system is not adapted to stress. Animal life can be saved only by simulating the conditions of life in the wild. This also applies to nutrition. An elaborate menu of leaves, buds, fruits and mushrooms helps people to tame the okapi. Only after the individual gets used to people, it is transferred to the zoo.
Peculiarities of character and lifestyle
Okapi are incredibly shy. People obtain information about their daily behavior only in captivity. It is impossible to observe the population in the expanses of central Africa – constant wars make any scientific expedition life-threatening for researchers. Conflicts also affect the number of animals: poachers enter reserves and build traps for valuable animals.
And in captivity, animals behave differently. Building a clear hierarchy, males fight for supremacy. Butting other individuals with horns and hooves, the strongest male indicates his power by stretching his neck up. The rest often make respectful bows to the ground. But this form of interaction is unusual for okapi, they are better off in single enclosures. The exception is mothers with babies.
The following is known about the behavior of okapi in natural conditions:
- Each individual occupies a certain territory, grazes on it independently;
- Females adhere to clear boundaries, not allowing strangers into their possessions;
- Males treat borders irresponsibly, often graze close to each other;
- An individual marks its possessions with the help of fragrant glands on its legs and hooves, as well as urine;
- The female can freely cross the male's territory. If a cub is with her, he is not in danger from a senior representative;
- The mother’s attachment to the cub is very strong, she protects the baby for at least six months after birth;
- During the mating period, pairs are formed, which easily disintegrate as soon as the female feels the need to protect the baby;
- Occasionally form groups of several individuals, perhaps to go to the watering place. But there is no confirmation of this hypothesis;
Social structure and reproduction
Okapis don't need leaders. To repel the attacks of enemies, to defend the territory from competitors, to raise offspring together – this is not in the nature of forest horses. Choose a piece of forest for yourself, mark it and graze until it's time to run – this is how cautious animals behave. Owning a small area alone, sensitive okapi ensure silence around them, reducing the chances of enemies for a successful hunt.
The mating period falls on May-July, when the female and male briefly unite, forming a pair. The next 15 months, the female carries the fetus. Babies are born during the rainy season from late summer to mid-autumn. The smallest newborns weigh 14 kg, large ones – up to 30. Dad is not present at the birth, he does not feel interest in a new family. However, the female, accustomed to freedom, experiences the coldness of her partner without emotions.
In the last days of pregnancy, the expectant mother goes into the thicket of the forest to find a deaf, dark clearing. There she leaves the baby, and the next few days she comes to him to feed. The newborn burrows into fallen leaves and freezes, only the owner of the sensitive hearing of the okapi can find him. The baby makes sounds similar to mooing to make it easier for mom to find him.
The cohesion of this couple will be envied by lovebirds. In the first year of life, the little okapi literally sticks to mommy and follows her everywhere. How long this family idyll lasts, a person does not know. Female cubs become sexually mature after one and a half years, young males come to this at 28 months of age. However, maturation continues until the age of 3.
Natural enemies of the okapi
The okapi has no friends. They are afraid of everything that makes sounds and smells, or simply casts a shadow. In the ranking of the most dangerous enemies, the leopard takes the first place. A large panther cat sneaks up on the victim silently, and in pursuit develops considerable speed. The okapi's keen sense of smell allows you to notice a leopard lurking in ambush, but sometimes this happens too late.
Hyenas are also dangerous for okapi. These nocturnal hunters hunt alone or in packs led by a leading female. Massive okapi surpass hyenas in volume and weight, but smart predators hit the victim with one powerful bite to the neck. Despite light sleep, forest horses are present in the diet of hyenas, whose dinner begins after midnight. Features of the stomach of a predator allow you to eat large game without a trace, even horns and hooves are used.
Sometimes lions attack okapis. For this cat, herbivorous artiodactyls are a favorite dish. On the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, climatic conditions allow predators to feel comfortable. Lions are inferior to leopards in the ability to move silently, and this allows okapi to fall into their paws less often. In pursuit of thickets, predators have almost no chance of overtaking frisky prey, and cautious okapi rarely go out into open areas.
The greatest damage to the okapi population is caused by humans. The value for poachers is the meat and velvety skin of the animal. Africans are unable to defeat the victim in open combat, so they build traps in the habitats of herbivores. The okapi hunt continues despite attempts by the world community to ban it.
At the beginning of the 20th century, zoos caused great damage to the population, thoughtlessly trying to get okapi into their possessions, not knowing how to keep them alive in captivity. Attempts to get offspring within zoos ended in failure until the 60s. People are often relentless in their quest to make money.
Population and Species Status
The population of the species is rapidly declining. Due to the secrecy of animals, it was difficult to count their number at the time of the discovery of the species. However, even then it was known that the pygmies exterminated them in huge quantities. The okapi skin has an unusually beautiful color, velvety to the touch, so there has always been a demand for it. Animal meat also did not leave indifferent lovers of delicious food.
In 2013, the number of animals living in the wild was estimated at 30-50 thousand individuals. By the beginning of 2019, there were 10,000 of them left. The number of okapi living in zoos does not exceed fifty. As of September 2018, the species is not included in the Red Book, but this is only a matter of time. Conservation measures almost do not yield results due to the difficult political situation in the DR Congo – the only habitat of the okapi in the wild.
Nature reserves are located on the territory of the state. The purpose of their creation is to preserve the okapi population. However, armed groups of residents of the DR Congo regularly violate the boundaries of the reservation and continue to set traps for animals. Often the purpose of such atrocities is food. People feed on endangered animals, and it is difficult to stop them. In addition to okapi hunters, the reserves attract gold and ivory hunters.
Another reason for the decline in the population is the deterioration of living conditions. Rapid deforestation has already led to the disappearance of the okapi from the forests of Uganda. Now the situation is repeating itself in the northeastern forests of DR Congo. Unable to survive outside the forest, the okapi are doomed unless the government of the war-torn country takes emergency action. The world scientific community is trying to put pressure on the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi.
Within the boundaries of the existence of the okapi, local residents have built points for the legal capture of animals. Under the supervision of scientists in zoos, animals live longer than in the wild. The extermination of representatives of the giraffe family can be prevented by providing them with a safe habitat. Central Africa does not have such conditions, and it is not necessary to wait for an early resolution of military conflicts within the country.
Okapi is an amazing beast. An unusual color, a velvety-brown skin with tints, a surprisingly fine hearing and sense of smell – all this makes the forest horse unique. Picky about habitat, food, even each other, they face many problems in everyday life. But it is difficult to find more independent and independent representatives of the fauna. Therefore, it is important to prevent the extermination of the species. Okapi is a useful animal for the ecosystem.