The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) was totally unknown to the Western world until the early 20th century. It was officially described in 1901 in honor of Sir Harry Johnston from England. While Johnston never actually saw an okapi, he did send back from Africa a striped skin and a skull of the animal that allowed for the scientific naming by English zoologist Phillip Sclater.

The reasons for why the okapi stayed unknown for so long to all but the local pigmy natives are that its habitat is remote rainforest, okapi are very hard to find, and this area was (and still is) a very dangerous place, especially for outsiders. That reminds me of the living dinosaur controversy in that there are still very remote places on earth where animals live that have been described by natives as looking dinosaur-like. However, until living dinosaurs are as common as the okapi, it is unlikely they will be officially categorized as anything other than extinct. The secular view is that dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. Creationists that believe dinosaurs are extinct write that extinction likely happened sometime in the Middle Ages.

Evolutionists throw around figures of six to twelve million years ago as being when the okapi first evolved from some common ancestor that also sprung the giraffe. Actually the okapi is another living fossil since fossil evidences reveal no skeletal change from the oldest to the current in secular paleontological history. In reality, observational science tells us that the okapi was engineered for a specific ecological niche like the one in which it is now found. So, no evidence of evolution and little evidence of adaptation. Can you see that should a living dinosaur ever be discovered it would be the ultimate living fossil?

Okapi in its native habitat in Central Africa

Besides in zoos, okapi are only known to be found today in the dense rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Central Africa. This rainforest is characterized by lots of rain and little light due to the denseness of the tree canopy. Leopards are the main natural predators of the okapi, and the okapi have been engineered to survive and thrive by being endowed with the following traits and characteristics:

  1. Their striped coat allows them to blend in with the light shafts produced by the canopy.
  2. They have long 18” dark blue tongues that are designed to efficiently strip leaves from plants.
  3. The stripe patterns on the rears of females allow for calves to be able to follow their mothers through the dense vegetation of the rainforest. The striping is thought to be unique for each animal.
  4. Calves will stay fixed in a “nest” for the first six to nine weeks of their lives, and they do not defecate for sixty days so that they leave no scent for predators to track. The mothers stay away from their babies for all of this time for the same reason.
  5. Okapi large ears are designed to move independently of one another, so they can hear well from all angles.
  6. They can “talk” to each other with low frequency sounds that are undetectable to their main enemies which are leopards and humans.
  7. Okapi can eat toxic leaves, fruit, and fungi. In order to survive this they have been engineered to consume enough charcoal and clay so as to detoxify the poisons.
  8. They are active during the day and sleep at night to avoid the night-hunting leopards.
  9. Okapi have scent glands on each foot that leave a sticky tar-like residue wherever they go and mark their territory.
  10. Their oily, velvety, fur coat is designed to repel water.

                                           Okapi mother and calf.  

Distinctive rear-end striping of okapi 

Even with all of these designed traits that have worked well to protect them from animal predators and allow them to thrive in their habitat, they are not so effective against the invasion of man into their habitat. Deforestation for gold mining has caused the okapi to be officially listed as “Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Okapi Conservation Project is working with the IUCN and communities of the Ituri Forest in northeastern DRC to ensure protection of the okapi in the rainforest. The pigmies that live in the same rainforests with the okapi and the general DRC population have been accepting educational efforts to understand the value of the animals. The okapi is generally treasured by the people of the country, so there is hope for their long-term preservation.

The okapi are typically solitary, only found together when mating or when calves are still with their mothers. As mentioned earlier, in the wild they are extremely difficult to find, with most photos taken by trip-cameras. Females are typically up to 700 pounds and about 100 pounds larger than males. They stand about five feet at the shoulder.

Okapi at the Sacramento Zoo

Due to their elusive nature, the okapi total world population is hard to estimate for sure. The total population is estimated at 15,000 individuals or less. There are quite a number of zoos in the United States that display okapis. Here on the west coast I have seen okapis at the San Diego and the Sacramento zoos.

J.D. Mitchell

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