The Hidden World of the Shy Okapi- The regal okapi makes its home deep in the Ituri forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where for the most part it can mind its own business, preferring to stay hidden in the shadows. But in this camera trap photo from our partners at Okapi Conservation Project we see a young male with a few scratches on his hindquarters to go along with his stripes, likely inflicted by the okapi’s primary predator the leopard.
Okapis have many defenses to keep them one step ahead of the leopard. Believe it or not, their distinguishing coat makes for excellent camouflage. The stripe pattern blends in easily with the dark foliage, branches, and streaks of light breaking through the forest canopy, making this horse-sized animal disappear from sight. The okapi was unknown to the world outside of the Congo until the early 20th century. European explorers in the Congo heard about the okapi from locals but they didn’t see any until Sir Harry Johnston, the British Governor of Uganda, was able to obtain an okapi skin and two skulls from the locals. Up until then okapis had been treated like mythical creatures by European explorers; an “African unicorn” as they called it.
The okapi’s radar-dish-like ears can move independently, helping them focus on sounds in front and behind at the same time and allowing them to detect threats well in advance. Even if a leopard is able to get close, they would still have to deal with the force of a 400-770 pound animal fighting for its life with its hooves, neck, and heavy head. The males have short horns on their head called ossicones, like their closest relative the giraffe, which they can use to fight off leopards. Baby okapis are vulnerable but no easy target. Like most ungulates, they’re able to walk within 30 minutes after they’re born and won’t defecate until they’re between four and eight weeks old. This keeps their scent hidden until they’re strong enough to defend themselves from predators.
Okapis have many amazing adaptations to protect themselves from predators but they’re not as capable of defending themselves from man-made threats like loss of habitat from slash and burn agriculture. Our partners at Okapi Conservation Project are protecting okapis by helping farmers grow more sustainable crops so they don’t need to continue building further into the forest, making sure the okapi will always have a habitat to hide in.