The mysterious forest zebra is the closest living relative of the giraffe

Eric Kilby

A mysterious and elusive creature native to the dense rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo that stands as a testament to the rich biodiversity of Central Africa. While it shares a taxonomic family with the giraffe, the okapi exhibits unique characteristics distinguishing it from its taller relatives. The okapi was a late discovery to the Western world, with its existence only confirmed in 1901, earning it the title of “Africa’s last large mammal discovery.”

Unlike giraffes, okapis possess a much shorter neck. However, it is longer in proportion to their body than most mammals, allowing them to navigate and forage in the dense foliage of their rainforest habitat. One of the most striking features of the okapi is its long, prehensile tongue, extending up to 14 inches (35 centimeters), which they use with remarkable dexterity to strip leaves and buds from trees and bushes. This tongue is also adept at personal grooming, enabling okapis to clean their entire face and even their ears.

The okapi’s fur is another marvel of evolution. Its coat is a rich, velvety dark reddish-brown, providing effective camouflage in the dappled light of the forest understory. The distinctive white-and-black stripes on their rumps and legs, reminiscent of zebras, serve as a “follow me” signal in the dim forest, helping calves keep up with their mothers. These stripes also disrupt the animal’s outline, making it difficult for predators to detect them. Male okapis are characterized by the presence of ossicones, small, hair-covered horn-like structures on their heads, which are absent in females.

Conservation initiatives for the okapi include habitat protection, anti-poaching patrols, and community engagement programs to promote sustainable land use practices. The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the D.R. Congo, plays a crucial role in these efforts, providing a sanctuary for okapis and other endangered species.


Population est.
DR Congo (Kinshasa)
Official estimate
Extinct 1970s

Recent updates

March 2023: The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced plans to expand its okapi conservation efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including anti-poaching measures, habitat protection, and community outreach programs.

Feb  2022: The Okapi Wildlife Reserve, home to the endangered okapi species, is in danger of being lost forever due to human activity. Mining, deforestation, and poaching have all taken a toll on the reserve, and criminals have even killed several of the reserve’s forest guards since 2012. Okapi Conservation Project works with the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and communities to ensure the protection of the okapi and many other species that call this rainforest home.

Did you know?

  • Despite those zebra-like stripes, they are not related to zebra. Okapis are even-toed ungulates like a giraffe.
  • They do not like the spotlight and are very rarely seen, thanks to their fantastic camouflage.
  • They do not persist in disturbed habitats near large and active settlements.
  • They have impressively long tongues (~46 cm – 18 in) that can reach their ears.
  • Their eyesight is poor, but with an incredible hearing sense, they can listen to low-frequency calls and communication from another okapi, inaudible to predators.
  • On each foot, they have scent glands that leave a sticky tar-like substance to mark their territory.
  • To keep unwelcoming predators at bay, they can go without pooping for the first six to nine weeks of their life and can go up to 60 days before defecating!
  •  Okapis have been affected very badly by poaching for skins and bushmeat, deforestation, bycatch in snaring, accidents, and, most importantly, civil unrest and armed groups.

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Get to know me

Terrestrial / Aquatic

Altricial / Precocial

Polygamous / Monogamous

Dimorphic (size) / Monomorphic

Active: Diurnal / Nocturnal

Social behavior: Solitary / Pack / Herd

Diet: Carnivore / Herbivore / Omnivore / Piscivorous / Insectivore

Migratory: Yes / No

Domesticated: Yes / No

Dangerous: Yes / No

Okapi on banknotes

Congo (RDC) 1000 Francs

Okapi – Congo (RDC) Centimes (1997)

Okapi – Congo (RDC) Centimes (1997)