8 Extraordinary Facts About the Elusive Okapi

These secretive forest creatures are rarely seen in the wild.

Okapi standing in forest
Okapi are the closest living relatives of giraffes.

Gleb Ivanov / Getty Images

The okapi is not a particularly famous animal, at least not outside its small native range. About 100 live at zoos around the world, but otherwise, they're hidden in rainforests and rarely seen by humans.

Yet while these secretive creatures are adept at staying out of the spotlight, they deserve the admiration we often give to more well-known wildlife. Here are a few things you may not know about the extraordinary okapi.

1. Okapis Belong to the Giraffe Family

At first glance, it would be sensible to assume okapis are related to zebras. Those stripes on their legs, after all, do evoke the distinctive markings of a zebra. Yet despite that superficial similarity, the two are not closely related. They even belong to different taxonomic orders: Okapis are even-toed ungulates (a broad group that includes most hoofed mammal species), while zebras are odd-toed ungulates (along with horses, rhinos, and tapirs).

If you look closely at an okapi's head, however, you may notice another resemblance — the giraffe. Okapis are the only surviving members of the giraffe family who aren't giraffes. They are the lone species in the genus Okapia, which joins Giraffa as the two extant genera in the family Giraffidae. Okapis aren't as tall as giraffes — since tree leaves are easier to reach in their rainforest habitats — but there are other clues, from males' horn-like ossicones to their long, purple, prehensile tongues. Research suggests the last common ancestor of giraffes and okapis lived about 11.5 million years ago.

2. Their Stripes May Serve Multiple Purposes

Okapi walking in the forest
The stripes on an okapi's legs help with camouflage in the forest. Andrea Izzotti / Getty Images

The stripes on an okapi's legs provide excellent camouflage. While giraffes tend to forage in more open habitats, okapi live in dense rainforests, where they blend in uncannily well with the shadows and filtered sunlight.

In addition to camouflage, the stripes may also serve a secondary — and seemingly contradictory — purpose. Okapi stripes are sometimes referred to as "follow me" stripes because they're thought to help baby okapis see and follow their mothers through the vegetation. And since the stripe pattern is unique for each individual, they may also help okapis identify one another.

3. Wild Okapis Only Live in One Country

Wild okapis exist only in the central, northern, and eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There were once okapis in Uganda, but they are now extinct there.

Okapis are limited to forests with high and closed canopies, between about 1,500 and 5,000 feet (450 to 1,500 meters) above sea level. They mostly inhabit primary or older secondary forests, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and don't occur in gallery forests, savannas, or disturbed habitats surrounding larger human settlements.

4. Their Fur Is Velvety and Oily

The bulk of an okapi's body is covered with dark purple or reddish-brown fur, which is dense and feels like velvet. Okapis also produce oil from their skin that helps waterproof their fur, a beneficial adaptation to living in a rainforest. According to the Oklahoma City Zoo, captive okapis at zoos often enjoy a neck rub, which reportedly leaves a dark, slippery residue on the hands of their caretakers.

5. They Are Rarely Seen in the Wild

The okapi has long been known to Indigenous people in the Ituri Forest, but the species was not known globally until 1901, when British explorer and colonist Harry Johnston obtained the skin and skull of an okapi. (Before then, rumors of a forest-dwelling "unicorn" in Central Africa had circulated among Europeans.)

The okapi remains elusive. In fact, there were no images of an okapi in the wild until 2008, when the first wild okapi photo was captured by a Zoological Society of London camera trap.

6. Their Tongue Is Long Enough to Clean Their Eyes and Ears

Okapi cleaning itself with its long tongue
Okapis' tongues are long enough to help them groom their eyes and ears. Thorsten Spoerlein / Getty Images

Okapis are herbivores, feeding on the leaves, buds, and fruits of trees as well as ferns, grasses, and fungi. They can eat 40 to 65 pounds (18 to 29 kg) of food every day. They play an important role in the ecology of their native rainforests as they devour a variety of plants in the understory. This task is made easier by their prehensile tongue, which can grow up to 12 to 14 inches (30 to 36 cm) long, allowing it to wrap around branches and strip them of foliage. Like giraffes, the tongue of an okapi is black or dark blue in color.

Their tongues are so long, in fact, that okapis use them to wash their eyelids, clean out their ears, and even swat insects away from their neck.

7. They Speak a Secret (and Quiet) Language

Okapis share giraffes' reputation for being quiet, but much like giraffes, they do make sounds to communicate. Researchers from the San Diego Zoo recorded lots of "coughs, bleats, and whistles" from okapis, but only when they later analyzed the recordings more closely in a lab did they realize they had captured even more.

Okapis emit low-frequency sounds beyond the range of human hearing, evident only computer analyses that can reveal their infrasonic signals. Researchers believe these are used to help mother okapis stay in touch with their calves while foraging, allowing a secret channel of communication that won't tip off their main predator, the leopard.

8. They Are Endangered

Population estimates of okapis are rough, relying heavily on extrapolation from a limited number of scattered surveys based on their dung. Estimates have ranged from 10,000 to more than 30,000 left in the wild, but given their limited available range, their sensitivity to habitat disturbance, and the threats they face — namely habitat loss due to logging and human settlement — they are listed as endangered by the IUCN. Experts believe their numbers have already halved in the past 25 years, according to the ZSL, and the species is considered to be in decline.