The “O” Word–Okapi

The okapi has been one of my favorite zoo animals since I discovered it some years ago at the San Diego Zoo. I was fascinated by its reddish, dark velvety fur, which I later discovered was oily and hleped repel water in its natural habitat, the Ituri Rainforest. The stripes on the back end of the okapi make it look like it may be some sort of zebra, but in fact it is a member of the giraffe family. The body shape is similar to a giraffe, but with a much shorter neck. However, the okapi does have a long, flexible, blue tongue used to capture the leaves from trees like the giraffe. It is the only mammal that can lick its own ears. Now that’s impressive.

The okapi is a beautiful animal. You really have to see one live to appreciate it. There are approximately 10 to 20 thousand left in the wild and only about 40 zoos or institutions house them in captivity. They’re not listed as endangered, but are threatened by pouching and habitat destruction.

Okapis are essentially solitary, coming together only to breed. Hey, I’ve been accused of that…well, not the breeding part, just the solitary part. No wonder I’m fascinated with these animals. Anyway, they’re not social animals preferring to live in large, secluded areas (probably so they can write their novels.)

This is not an animal I was aware of growing up. It was, in fact, unknown to the western world until the 20th century, but has been depicted in carvings for almost 2,500 years in old Persia. Ancient carved images of the okapi have also been discovered in Egypt establishing the okapi was known to the ancient Egyptians. It was known for years as the “African unicorn.”

How many of you have seen an okapi? What’s your favorite zoo animal?


  1. The leopard is my favorite. The sheer beauty of their lean, muscled bodies and keen awareness of their surroundings facinates me. They are aloof, but know exactly what's going on.

  2. this is totally a coincidence, but I really like the river otter. Very popular in at Brookfield.


  3. Zebras. What can I say, I'm a horse-girl. At Sea World, I love the penguins. Can watch them for hours.


  4. Norm, I love the otters too…that was my second choice for the “O” word.

    Gayle, penquins are cool. I spend a lot of time in that enclosure as well. Zebras are great too, but with the okapis, you at least get the zebra butt.

    Beth, loved your description of the leopard…you sound like a writer.

  5. I love reading articles that are well researched and the author actually loves what they're writing about. I have never seen an okapi, but live in south Orange County and will look for the exhibit next time we are at the zoo.

    My favorite animal is the giraffe. I'd really like to pet one some day.

    Stephen Tremp

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