Episode 004 - Okapi

Episode 004 - Okapi

Show notes

The under appreciated animals podcast is a wildlife podcast all about shining a spotlight on the animals that don’t get talked about as often as they should be.
In this episode we’re talking about all things okapi!

In this episode we’re talking about all things okapi
We’ll cover
• what they're often misidentified as  
• what Western scientists were looking for when they discovered them
• and where their scent glands are located and loads more!
and loads more!
A quick reminder that that Tash is not a wildlife professional - just an extreme animal lover with access to a microphone and recording equipment and a passion for learning.

To nominate an animal for a future episode please email Tash at tash@hatchlingmakes.com with the subject line "Podcast animal suggestion" and I'll get back to you as soon as possible! You'll also get a shout out in that episode if I am able to record one!

Check out Tash’s small business;
Follow Tash on social media;
Podcast art by Tash
Music: Outdoors In Summer by Shane Ivers -

Episode transcript:

[intro music]Hello and welcome to the under appreciated animals podcast with Hatchling Makes. An animal themed podcast filled with fun facts about species that aren’t always the main feature in nature documentaries but are getting a chance in the spotlight because they are amazing and they deserve some attention too.

My name is Tash Hatcher and I am a wildlife artist and life long animal lover. I run a small business called Hatchling Makes where I sell wildlife inspired enamel pins and stickers and every sale helps to raise money for wildlife conservation!

In each episode of this show I’ll be chatting about a different under appreciated animal. From horseshoe crabs to cassowaries to rock hyraxes and everything in between. I’ll be sharing fun facts and telling you all about these incredible species from where they’re found to what they eat to just what makes them so special. And hopefully by the end of the episode you’ll love them just as much as I do.

Before we go any further I do want to add in a tiny disclaimer! I am not a wildlife professional in any way shape or form. I am just an extreme animal lover, but I will do my very best to research these creatures to the best of my abilities so I can bring you their stories as accurately as possible.

So without further ado, let’s dive on in to todays episode!

Hi everyone! Welcome back to The Under Appreciated Animals Podcast. If this is the first episode that you’re listening to then welcome! Thanks so much for choosing to listen. And if you’re a long time listener thank you so so much for tuning back in! I can’t believe this podcast is two months old already! I am having so much fun recording these episodes, this really is a bit of a dream come true!

This is episode 4 of the under appreciated animals podcast - I will say, I do sometimes wish I had picked a slightly shorter podcast name but here we go! And today I’m going to tell you all about the okapi!

Okapis are one of my all time favourite animals. They are definitely in my top 10. They’re such incredible creatures and I’m lucky enough to live in London where at the ZSL London Zoo they have an okapi enclosure and so I’ve been able to see them up close - as close as the public can get to the okapis at London Zoo anyways! And they’re just so charming and wonderful. And I’m so incredibly excited to record this episode cause I think they’re so often misidentified and so under appreciated.

If this is your first time listening and you’re wondering what to expect, this episode is going to be filled with fun and interesting facts about okapis, and hopefully you’ll learn something new about these amazing animals! We’ll be covering what they eat, where they’re found and where their scent glands are located - and spoiler alert, it’s not where you’d normally think a scent gland would be! So without further ado - let’s dive on into this episode!

So as always we’re going to kick off with what an okapi looks like. Okapis are another one of those animals that’s sort of a mix of several animals put together. A lot of times folks think that they’re actually a subspecies of zebra or a cross between a zebra and giraffe - and typically at zoos they do tend to be located close to the zebra enclosures, so I can absolutely see how folks can look at a zebra and then look at an okapi and think they’re related. But in actual fact okapis are related to giraffes, not to zebras! The zebra confusion comes from the white horizontal stripes that okapis have on their rump and legs, and like I said, I can totally see why they’re misidentified as zebras a lot cause you put them next to each other and it does look like there is a family resemblance there.

Okapis are about the size of a small horse, at around 5ft tall, which is just a little smaller than the average human height! So if you’re about 150cm tall then you’re about the height of an okapi! And okapis have these huge ears that sort of remind me of a baby deer - that kind of oversized look when the deer hasn’t grown into their ears yet. It’s so cute. I think that’s what makes me love okapis even more just cause it makes them look so endearing - pun unintended there. But I’m going to roll with it! The ears of an okapi can also move independently of each other so they can listen out for predators!

We’re going to hop back to those white stripes I talked about earlier. So just like a fingerprint those stripe patterns are different for each and every individual so that’s how each okapi is identified in conservation work. Now whilst I was researching this episode I did come across some suggestions that the white stripes also help with thermo regulating which is something that has also been said about zebras. I’m not saying for definite that is the case, but there is some scientific reasoning there and if it is true that is pretty amazing.

So I said earlier that okapis and giraffes are related and there are some similarities in how they both look. Both of them have a long, purple-blue-black coloured, prehensile tongue which they use to strip leaves off trees and male okapis also have ossicones, which I’m really hoping I said correctly, which are those little horn like bits on their heads which, again, is the same as a giraffe!

Okapis also have pretty long legs so, again like giraffes, when an okapi is at watering holes, they have to sort of spread their legs out so they can bend down and drink. And I always think of tripods when I see okapis and giraffes do this cause it sort of forms that triangle shape with the two front legs and then their head bent down if you imagine viewing them from the front it looks exactly like a tripod. I couldn’t find out what that is called but I feel like we should just call it tripoding. Who do we talk to about making this happen?

One last thing about the physical characteristics of okapis - which I actually didn’t know until I was researching for this episode - is that their coats are basically thick velvet but they’re also really oily! And that’s to make them waterproof, so sort of like duck feathers. I just find that fascinating cause when you look at an okapi you wouldn’t think that it would feel oily you’d kind of imagine it’s like petting a cow. So I would imagine it’s maybe short and a little corse. But they are a species that’s found in rainforests, we’re going to get to that in a second, so it makes total sense that they’ve got this like, little quirk to keep them dry!

So okapis and giraffes are the only two members of the scientific family Giraffidae (gir-raff-a-dae). And okapis are also known as “forest giraffes” which I think is really sweet. And that sort of brings us nicely to where okapis can be found! So as the name suggests, okapis are found in the forest, specifically the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And that’s the only place that you can find them in the wild.

Okapis are diurnal so they are mostly active during the day and they eat the plants in the understory so they’re really reliant on the rainforests. They can eat up to 100 different plant species including ones that are poisonous to humans and they eat between 45 to 60 pounds of food a day. That’s a heck of a lot of food! Okapis have 4 stomachs, similar to a cow, and that helps them to digest the more difficult plants that they may come across. They’ll also supplement their diet by eating things like charcoal or even clay to gain minerals into their diet - so sort of like horses with a salt lick!

Now okapis are really really elusive, so much so that they were actually unknown to Western scientists until 1901! And I’m specifying Western science here because they were well known to the Congolese locals for generations and generations before that. What happened was that Western scientists heard rumours of a “striped donkey” living in the rainforest and when they went to investigate they discovered okapis!

Now I always wonder how we as humans could miss a huge animal like an okapi for so long, cause it’s not like Westerners hadn’t been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo before then, the first Western explorer was there in 1870 so that’s a good 30 years! But then I watched a video of an okapi walking away from the camera into the forest and within a few paces it had totally disappeared. Those stripes help to camouflage into trees and I can totally see how we would not have seen them. It was very much a blink and you’ll miss it sort of thing!

And whilst we’re on the subject of finding things out relatively recently and to sort of underscore just how elusive these animals are - the first wild okapi was only caught on camera in 2008 and the first wild baby okapi was only spotted, again on camera, in 2018! That was so recent! It was caught on camera as part of a camera trap program called “Team Okapi” that began in 2016 and with the baby okapi, the team actually saw the pregnant mother on camera and then a few months later saw the same mother followed by the baby! How amazing is that. Imagine being the scientist who spotted that.

Now there is a reserve that you can go visit as an eco tourist to try to see an okapi in the wild. But honestly they are SO elusive, even field researchers wait for weeks or months to see them. So if you do want to go see an okapi, then the zoo is your best bet because there is a zoo breeding programme which, from what I can tell is worldwide, to help boost up their numbers because okapis are classed as an endangered species. And that breeding programme is pretty successful from what I could tell. My search results from looking up “okapi breeding programme” brought me loads of news articles about new babies being born in London Zoo, Chester Zoo, Bronx Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Zoo Basel, you get the idea! Actually the last okapi to be born in London Zoo was pretty recently in 2020!

Now the only natural predator of the okapi is the leopard and they’ve developed some really interesting sort of quirks to protect themselves. So for example babies, once they’re born they can stand after 30 minutes, same as giraffes or other sort of prey animals. But they’ll also hide in a nest, where they spend most of their time, and then that way they are hidden from predators and their mothers will fight off any predators that come near the nest. And then as another sort of, how many is that three? So triple layer of protection, baby okapis won’t poo for up to 60 days after they’re born so they don’t leave scents for a predator to follow!

Considering that some animals just abandon their babies once they’re born and it’s a bit like “good luck, survival of the fittest” it just sort of warmed my heart that okapi mothers and babies go to so much trouble to protect themselves.

Now I did promise to tell you where an okapis scent glands are, and they are located on the bottom of their feet! I did tell you it wasn’t where you thought they would be! Okapis are solitary animals and they’re also territorial so by having the scent glands on their feet it means they can quite literally mark their territory wherever they go! Male okapis will have fairly large territories and then they will overlap with female okapi territories which are quite small. So those scent glands will really help them to know who’s territory is who’s. And those scent glands will leave like a sticky tar like substance on the floor so it’s a super clear mark! Nobody can argue with that it’s literally like putting your name on it! So there you go! Now you know all about okapi scent glands.

So I mentioned earlier that okapis are endangered. There’s actually a forest reserve in Democratic Republic of the Congo called the Okapi Wildlife Reserve which is home to around 20% of the entire population of wild okapis. The reserve is a UNESCO world heritage site and on the UNESCO website it says there’s around 5,000 okapis living in the reserve, so if we say that’s about 20% of the total world population we’re guessing at around 25,000 individuals. Now that is a HUGE guess, I’m not sure when the UNESCO website was last updated with the population levels and there’s always room for error, etc etc, so don’t quote me on it. But let’s say best case scenario is there’s 25,000 wild okapis left in the world. That’s still a really REALLY small number.

So threats to okapis are all the general ones you may think of when you think of an animal which lives in the rainforest. So deforestation and mining because that obviously reduces their habitat and also their food source. Like I said before okapis are super super shy so they don’t tend to hang around in areas where there’s heavy human activity, but they do get poached, mostly for their hides because of their distinctive stripe patterns but also they can be hunted for their meat. However, they are a protected species in the Democratic Republic of Congo too so that is great, great news.

Okapis are also considered an umbrella species. That means that conservation efforts to save the okapi also helps to save loads of species that live in the same habitat. So that will be things like monkeys, birds, bugs, insects, frogs, all kinds of animals. Okapis are really loved in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - they’re actually the national animal and it’s one of the animals that’s featured on their bank notes! I love it when native wildlife is celebrated on things like bank notes because it really helps to widen the awareness for that species, especially when they’re endangered. Plus I just think it’s really really cool! How much cooler would it be to have a £20 note with like a beaver on it, or a peregrine falcon, or an adder, or a slow worm! I just think that would be so so fun!

So I think I’m going to start wrapping up the episode here cause otherwise I’m going to talk for another 10 minutes! Okapis are honestly so so amazing and I hope you discovered something new about them today. Thanks again for tuning in and for listening to the end, folks and I’ll catch you in the next episode!

[music plays under Tash talking] Thank you so much for listening to the under appreciated animals podcast. I hope you found this episode fun and interesting and if you did then please reach out! Let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

If you love animals and would like to help support this podcast, you can check out my website for my small business, Hatchling Makes, which you can find at hatchling makes dot com or if you head to the show notes I’ll leave a link there. It’s got wildlife inspired enamel pins, and stickers, and stationery and all that good stuff. Plus 10% of every sale is donated to wildlife conservation.

Also if you have a moment to leave me a review I would be super grateful! That really helps me to know that I’m sharing the animal stories that you want to hear!

You can also discover more under appreciated animals by listening to other episodes which are available wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to subscribe whilst you’re there so you don’t miss out on any future episodes. New episodes will come out every other week on a Friday.

I’m also taking animal suggestions so hop on over into the show notes to find out how to do that if you have an animal you’d like me to highlight on this show! Bonus points if you mention one that I have never heard of before!

That’s all from me until next time take care folks!
[outro music]