The major threat to this species is habitat loss from logging and human settlement. Okapis can coexist with humans in the forest, but they disappear in areas of active settlement or large disturbance. Although protected by law, they are still hunted for their meat and skins.
The Okapi Faunal Reserve and Maiko National Park support significant populations. Protecting these areas is most important to ensure long-term survival of the species.
Okapis are large, solitary animals that browse using their long blue tongues. Their diet includes poisonous plants and fungi, and they eat charcoal from burned forest trees to counteract the poisons in their food. They have striped legs and velvety dark coats that are almost purple-black. The stripes are thought to help young Okapis follow their mothers through the dense forest, as well as providing camouflage.
Calves are born with very different proportions to the adults – they have thick legs, short necks and small heads. A young Okapi spends a number of months in an intensive ’nesting’ phase during which it lies in vegetation, drinks its mother’s milk and sleeps. After this phase it starts to eat solid food. Okapi mothers use very low-frequency sounds to communicate with their calves. This is infrasonic sound, below the range of human hearing, and is also used by elephants.
Okapis were not known to science until 1901, although they were very familiar to the people of central Africa before then. Because of their scarcity and shy, elusive behaviour, very little is known about their biology in the wild. It appears that males mark their territory with scent glands on their feet. Males have small fleshy horns, like giraffes.