In the thick Ituri Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo wanders a rarely seen okapi. It resembles a zebra, albeit with proportions that got slightly wonky somewhere down the line. Half its body is covered in rippling white stripes that can melt into its dim surroundings under the right lighting, while the rest of it is covered in dark, purplish fur, oily enough that water slides right off it.

The little we do know about the okapi comes from a field study conducted in the 1980s using radio collars. This dearth of knowledge creates a plethora of conservation challenges for scientists and organizations working to protect this creature. Here are seven other things currently known about the okapi. 

1. Okapi are Considered a “Living Fossil”

Okapi are members of the giraffidae family, a once diverse and large group of creatures that roamed Africa millions of years ago. Scientists believe that okapi and giraffes – as the surviving members of giraffids – shared a common ancestor, both species boasting a lengthy lineage transcending multiple epochs.

It’s one of the reasons why the okapi is referred to as a “living fossil,” a nickname seen even in a New York Times article published in 1982. “Every seeker after lost, legendary or otherwise mysterious creatures on the earth,” wrote John Noble Wilford in the old paper, “finds encouragement in the story of the okapi.” 

Read More: Take a Tour of These Incredible Living Fossils

2. Okapi Can Eat Bat Excrement

Consuming between 45 to 60 pounds of food per day, okapi are voracious eaters. Their diet is unique, as they’re the only rainforest-dwelling species to consume solely understory foliage: fruits, sometimes fungi, leaves, and twigs. Outside of the over 100 plant species on the menu that they choose from, okapi also turn to chomping on charcoal and mineral-rich clay, and even bat droppings, for additional nutrients. 

3. Okapi are the Closest Living Relative to the Giraffe

Another nickname for the okapi is the “forest giraffe,” a nod to their habitat in the dense Ituri Rainforest. If you only had access to a photo of an okapi, you might be surprised to find out they’re actually the only living relative of the giraffe. The other members of the once much more widespread giraffidae family all died out.

Despite its resemblance to a zebra thanks to its striped hindquarters – a likeness that originally duped scientists into classifying them as relatives of the zebra – the okapi shares evolutionary traits with its much taller and lankier cousin.

For example, like giraffes, okapi wield a dark tongue (long enough to clean their own ears) to strip rainforest plants of their fresh leaves. They must also splay their disproportionately long, socked legs in order to drink water. Of course, though, a tall and slender neck isn’t particularly helpful for the forest-dwelling okapi, whose skies are crapped by a dense overhanging canopy. 

Read More: Giraffes Could Go Extinct – The 5 Biggest Threats They Face

4. Okapi are a Flagship Species of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Okapi aren’t just notable for how long-lived they are but also because they’re a beloved icon of the DRC, which is the only place in the world where they can be found. They’re a flagship species of the Ituri Rainforest, meaning they’re a species symbolic of the conservation of a certain region. Therefore, the okapi’s additional homes outside the leafy vegetation are in Congolese bank notes as well as the logo of the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

Indigenous peoples in the region also prize the okapi. The species’ name itself derives from the language of the Lese tribes, who refer to the animal as o’api. The striped patterns on the okapi’s rump also resemble the design of Lese arrows

5. Okapi are Highly Adept at Survival

(Credit: Vladimir Turkenich/ Shutterstock)

From a secret language to independently revolving ears to fingerprint-like stripes, okapi have evolved multiple unique traits and behaviors that let them thrive in the rainforest.

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance reports that its conservation scientists have been able to track the okapis’ secret language, dubbed “infrasonic mutterings.” These murmurs take place at a frequency beyond our own hearing range as humans – and, importantly, out of those of their predators, namely the leopard.

According to the San Diego Zoo, these low-frequency calls may be a mechanism okapi mothers developed to communicate safely with their calves without being discovered.

In addition to this silent code, okapi also rely on a keen sense of smell and hearing to detect potential threats. Their large ears can rotate in different directions to hear things from all sides — front or behind, left or right.

The stripes coloring their rears and hind legs are unique to each individual, to the point where they can be used for identification like a set of fingerprints. Nicknamed “follow me” stripes, these patterns let calves easily track their mothers as they make their way through the foliage. But they also act as an effective form of camouflage, mimicking the shifting beams of light that manage to pierce through the rainforest canopy and fall to the floor.

Another rather amusing survival tactic is a bit akin to necessary constipation: Newborn okapi don’t defecate until at least a month after birth, lest a nearby leopard sniff out the vulnerable baby. 

Read More: 4 Ways Animals Adapt To Life In The Rainforest

6. The Okapi Was Not Known to Western Science Until the 1900s

The okapi’s introduction to Western science and knowledge did not happen until the turn of the 20th Century. The animal was first reported around 1890 by British-American Henry Morton Stanley. About a decade later, Harry Hamilton Johnston learned of the mysterious animal was the o’api and obtained specimens to send back to London.

The okapi’s scientific name, okapia johnstoni, is named after Johnston, though indigenous people had already known of the okapi’s existence long before. 

7. Okapi are Endangered

Okapi are so elusive that it’s difficult for experts to estimate just how many individuals remain in the wild. A study conducted in 2013 estimates perhaps 35,000 remain in the wild, but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) qualifies this as a “guesstimate” at best.

What scientists do know is that the okapi population has been and is falling, declining at a rate of over 50 percent within the last couple of decades alone. This trajectory classifies them as endangered on the IUCN Red List since their last assessment in 2015.

Over the years, a number of threats coalesced to strain the okapi population. Deforestation and human settlement fragment their habitat, while poaching and unstable politics in the region hinder conservation efforts. The most well-known incident occurred in 2012 when a militia group attacked the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The attack resulted in the deaths of seven people – among them wildlife rangers – according to a UNESCO news article on the tragedy, as well as several of the okapi held at the center.

It is difficult for researchers to learn more about and even track okapi in tumultuous conditions, and equally hard to enforce wildlife protection laws. However, numerous organizations and local communities are working to preserve the okapi, with the Okapi Wildlife Reserve within the Ituri Rainforest being set aside in 1992. These efforts are in the name of ensuring the okapi, a living fossil, continues to live up to its name and wander the forest it calls home for many more generations.

Read More: 5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet

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