Once believed to be a mythical unicorn, the okapi is the native to the Ituri Rainforest, located in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also known as the Forest Giraffe or Zebra Giraffe, the okapi look more like a cross between a deer and a zebra.
But although they have white striped markings like the zebra, they are related to the giraffe and are the only living members of the family Giraffidae. Despite the report of the British-American explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley about the animal as early as 1890, the okapi was unknown to the world of science until 1901, when the British explorer Sir Hamilton Johnson made his report to the British Museum.
With a body length of around 8`2 feet, an adult male okapi stands about 4’9 feet tall at the shoulder, while their weight varies from 200 to 350 kg. Strangely, the adult female okapis are slightly taller and weigh 25–50 kg more their adult male counterparts. It has a long neck, large eyes, flexible ears and long, prehensile tongue. The coat of the okapi is sleek and chocolate to reddish-brown, almost purple, with the sides of the face pale white and the forehead and ears dull reddish cast.
Much in contrast with the colour of the coat, it has white horizontal stripes and rings on its buttocks, thighs and the top of their forelegs. Their thick and oily fur stays dry in the rain and they have scent glands on the bottom of their hooves that help them to mark their territory. Like the giraffes, the Male okapis have short, but distinct protuberances on their heads that look like horns and called ossicones. Except for the tips, the ossicones of the okapis are covered in skin. While all the male okapis have horns, most females have knobby bumps and hair whorls instead. While the male okapis migrate continuously, the females are sedentary. They are generally calm and tranquil animals, but they can kick and butt with the head to show aggression.
Although they may be active for a few hours in darkness, the okapis are primarily non-nocturnal and elusive animals that prefer to live among dense cover. They are essentially herbivorous, feeding on leaves and different types of plants, mushrooms, seeds, twigs, and fruits. With their long tongues, they easily strip leaves from the branches and also lick clay along the riverbank for salt or eat charcoal off scorched trees to supplement the diet with minerals.
Occasionally okapis also eat bat excrement for nutrients. Like cows and giraffes, they have four stomachs, which help them to digest the huge food, weighing 20 to 25 kg, which they consume every day.
While the female okapis become sexually mature at the age of about one-and-a-half years, the males reach maturity after two years. The okapis are essentially solitary, coming together only to breed. The courtship begins with circling, smelling and licking each other. After the initial proceedings, the male shows his sexual interest by extending his neck, tossing his head and protruding one leg forward, which is followed by mounting on the female and copulation.
After a gestation period of around 45 days, the female usually gives birth to a single calf, weighing around 25 kg, which can stand within 30 minutes of birth, but are known not to defecate until it is at least a month old, which is supposed to help the calf to avoid predator detection by the smell of faeces. The young okapi starts taking solid food from 3 months and becomes independent of the mother around the age of six months. The usual life span of an okapi is between 20 and 30 years in captivity.