The Jungle’s Most Elusive Animal

The Jungle's Most Elusive Animal

How much do you know about the okapi? We’re guessing the answer is ‘not very much at all.’ That’s not to say you aren’t well-read or anything. We have no doubt you know your stuff. How could you not after perusing this site for a while?! But the okapi is far outside nearly everyone’s base of knowledge. And that’s because it’s far outside nearly everyone’s recognition!

See, these giant, giraffe-like creatures weren’t even confirmed to actually exist until the turn of the 20th century. Natives in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and European settlers alike swore there was a giant, mysterious unicorn hiding out deep in the jungles. For centuries, nobody could confirm the animal’s identity. Finally, after ages of mystery, the okapi was discovered—far later than any other animal its size anywhere in the world.

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In this list, we’ll take a look at ten fascinating facts about this elusive animal. Once thought to be a mythical beast from another dimension, it’s only now finally being pushed into the limelight a bit more. So, scroll on through these interesting tidbits on the okapi, and become a newly-minted expert on the world’s most secretive specimen!

It’s A Giraffe! Kind Of…

Once considered a mythical creature lurking in the forest, it turns out the okapi shares a common ancestry with the towering giraffe we all love. While the okapi may look quite different from its giraffe cousin—and actually more closely resemble the unrelated zebra—there are some telltale signs of their relationship. Both animals have long necks that serve similar functions, although the okapi’s is not as long as the giraffe’s neck. Their bodies are covered in a similar pattern of brown and white stripes, allowing them to blend into the dappled sunlight of the forest. And as ungulates, their diets are similar, even accounting for their slightly different habitats.

Scientistifically, it all connects. Biologists have classified the okapi and giraffe in the same scientific family called Giraffidae. They share common features in their anatomy and genetics. One of the most fascinating findings is that both animals have ossicones, which are bony bumps on their heads. In giraffes, the ossicones are prominent and permanent, while in okapis, they are smaller and covered in skin. But the similarities are undeniable.

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By studying the DNA of these remarkable creatures, scientists have even gone way, way back and confirmed that the okapi and the giraffe share a common ancestor. So, consider them to be distant cousins in the animal kingdom! Sort of like you and that famous movie star. (Yeah, right.) This discovery has not only demystified the okapi after centuries of being an unknown jungle-dweller, but it has also deepened our understanding of the fascinating diversity of life on our planet.

See Ya Never!

There’s a reason scientists had no idea okapis existed until the 20th century (more on that in a minute) That’s because one of the creature’s most amazing features is its unique striping, which helps it blend into its environment. These stripes may seem strange at first, but they serve a very important purpose. The okapi’s stripes are like a clever disguise. In the dense foliage of the jungle, sunlight filters through the leaves unevenly. That creates patches of light and shadow on the ground. The okapi’s stripes break up its body shape, making it harder for predators to spot. When the okapi stands still among the dappled shadows, its stripes mimic the streaks of sunlight and shadows. That makes it blend in remarkably well.

But how does this camouflage work? Well, the stripes confuse the predator’s vision. When predators like leopards or lions see the okapi, they have a difficult time distinguishing its shape from the surrounding environment. The stripes act as a sort of optical illusion, making it harder for predators to focus on the okapi and giving it a better chance to escape—or hide in plain sight.

Scientists believe that these stripes have evolved over time as a survival strategy for the amazing animal. Through natural selection, the okapi with better camouflage were more likely to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation. As a result, the stripes became more pronounced and effective at blending into the jungle surroundings. Today, its striped lower half continues to confound predators and keep remaining okapis alive in some of the world’s most dense rainforests.

It’s Nearly Gone From The Earth

The okapi is in grave danger, teetering on the brink of extinction. They once roamed the forests of Uganda, but are now considered extinct there. Today, they only live in one country in the wild: the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC, as it is known, is the last remaining sanctuary for these remarkable animals. But even there, their numbers are alarmingly low. And decades of political strife around them have made the okapi’s position in the DRC a very, very perilous one.

So, what has led to the okapi’s decline? Human activities like deforestation and hunting pose the greatest threats. The dense forests that the okapi calls home are rapidly disappearing due to logging and the expansion of agriculture. This destruction of their habitat limits their food sources and disrupts their ability to find mates.

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Furthermore, the illegal wildlife trade has targeted the okapi for its striking appearance and unique hide. Poaching has decimated their population in recent years. Their beautiful coats are highly sought after. And the okapi’s secretive nature makes it even more vulnerable to hunters—with fewer eyes tracking the vulnerable animals, the people who wish harm on them often never receive consequences for their actions. Today, biologists estimate there are no more than 15,000 okapis left in the wild.

The Focus Of Murderous Rage

In 2012, a heart-wrenching incident unfolded at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the far northeastern section of the DRC. Deep within the OWR that year, a team of raiding elephant poachers carried out a dreadful act. They took the lives of six rangers who dedicated themselves to protect okapis on the reserve. The poachers—who were mad about a government crackdown on the illegal elephant tusk trade—also held other reserve workers hostage. And tragically, they didn’t stop there. The okapis themselves became the unfortunate victims of this brutal attack, to. The poachers mercilessly slaughtered 13 okapis living on the reserve grounds.

The social situation behind this devastating act is complex. Poaching, driven by greed and illegal wildlife trade, poses a grave threat to endangered species worldwide. In regions with socio-economic challenges like the DRC, poaching can become an enticing option for men struggling to make a living. Additionally, the demand for exotic animal products in certain markets fuels the poaching industry. In the case of the okapi, their velvety hides are highly-prized in illegal fur smuggling markets worldwide.

Sadly, the 2012 situation wasn’t the only okapi-related tragedy in the DRC in recent years. Another massacre of park rangers and reserve workers occurred in 2017, as well. With illegal okapi pelts in high demand, and the DRC’s federal government largely ineffective at controlling the poaching industry, massacres like this are sadly part of the landscape deep in the jungles.

Violence For Velvet

The okapi’s skin secretes natural matter called sebum, which is an oily, waxy substance. This sebum serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it helps the okapi stay protected from the constant dampness of its rainforest habitat. The oily coating repels water, keeping the skin dry and preventing infections. Secondly, the sebum acts as a natural moisturizer, keeping the skin hydrated in the challenging forest environment. This unique skin feels like velvet to the touch. It’s a bit oily, as we’ve noted, but it is very soft and very smooth. Importantly (and unfortunately), it is unlike any hide on any other animal across the planet.

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We say “unfortunately,” because the okapi’s unique skin attracts the attention of these aforementioned illegal poachers and smugglers in high numbers. They target the okapi for its hide, which is highly prized in the illegal wildlife trade. Due to its rarity and exotic appearance, the okapi’s skin fetches high prices on the black market across DRC and around the world. Of course, this high-priced poaching in turn has devastating consequences for the wild okapi population. Wildlife rangers do their best to fight back against poachers on reserves, but their resources are limited.

Ancient African Legend & Lore

Long ago, hidden deep within the dense and mysterious Ituri Forest, there existed a rumored mythical creature. For centuries, it remained a tantalizing mystery to locals who heard tales of its alleged existence. African legends spoke of a beast with the body of a horse, the legs of a zebra, and the stripes of a tiger. Its appearance was said to be so extraordinary that people believed it to be otherworldly. Some even said it didn’t exist at all. Instead, skeptics claimed it had merely been conjured up by the wild imaginations of medicine men and storytellers.

The okapi’s secretive and solitary behavior helped its own legend grow in this way for thousands of years. Almost never seen by natives in the Ituri Forest, the animal would leave only footprints and large, suspect excrement behind. And how would you react if that’s all you were finding? Its reclusive nature and the dense foliage of its habitat made it impossible to spot in the wild. So, many central African natives across the centuries simply dismissed it as a figment of folklore. They said it existed only in the realms of myth and legend.

When Europeans arrived to colonize the place, they too didn’t believe what they heard about the okapi. Specifically, many European visitors thought African natives were lying to them about the so-called gentle giant of the deepest jungle. And because no white man ever got a good look at one, either, the legends continued to spread. That is, until 1901, when European scientists finally came across evidence of their existence…

An Incredible 20th Century Find

In the late 19th century, deep in the heart of Africa, okapis were quietly roaming the dense rainforests just as they’d always done it. Simultaneously, European explorers were setting out on daring expeditions deep into the mysterious continent.

In the 1890s, explorer Henry Morton Stanley embarked on a treacherous journey through the Congo Basin. Amidst the unfamiliar surroundings, he first learned of an intriguing animal no white man had never seen before. It had the body of a horse, the stripes of a zebra (not quite a tiger, like the aforementioned prior local legend had assumed), and the head of a giraffe. Stanley was captivated by this enchanting creature. One local group called it the “atti,” while another offered the name that stuck: okapi. Sadly, Stanley didn’t actually come across an okapi in the wild. Even though he documented its attributes, Europeans were still mostly skeptical of this supposedly massive plant-eater hanging out alone in the jungle.

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A decade later, in 1901, it finally happened. That year, the okapi was officially recognized as a distinct species. Another explorer named Sir Harry Johnston had been busy following in Stanley’s footsteps. During his treacherous trip, Johnston managed to obtain the first physical evidence of the okapi: the skin and skull of a deceased specimen. These findings were sent to museums in Europe. There, scientists were astounded by this newfound species. They were so gobsmacked that a massive herbivore could be “discovered” at such a late date that they christened its scientific name “Okapia johnstoni” to forever commemorate the man who sent in its hide and skull.

Unbelievable 21st Century Proof

That a land-dwelling animal this big wasn’t discovered until the 20th century is an incredible feat in its own right. It speaks to the okapi’s incredibly secretive lifestyle, and also the unwelcoming thickness of the impenetrable forests in which it lives. But what if we told you that an okapi wasn’t even photographed in the wild until well into the 21st century? Seriously! Think about this for a moment: the first iPhone was released more than a year before the first wild okapi was ever successfully photographed.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the first-ever photograph of a wild okapi was taken. That year, deep within the remote forests of the DRC, a brave (and very, very patient) group of scientists from the Zoological Society of London had settled in. They were there to do something no one had ever done before: snap a picture of a wild okapi. Armed with patience and determination, they set up camera traps in areas where wild, non-game reserve okapi were believed to roam.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Every day, the scientists eagerly checked their cameras, hoping for a glimpse of the legendary creature. And finally, after months on location, their perseverance paid off! One fateful day in September, as they anxiously reviewed the photographs, they couldn’t believe their eyes. A clear image of an okapi had been captured!

If you had doubted the okapi’s elusive ability to blend in with its jungle surroundings up until this point, let this story be proof positive of its mysterious ways. The world’s foremost biological experts needed specialized cameras and space-age technology just to grab a single photograph of a wild okapi well into the 21st century. Basically, what we’re saying is that the okapi would never, ever lose a game of hide-and-seek.

Move Over, Gene Simmons!

The Okapi’s tongue is really (really, really, really) long. In fact, in full-grown adult males, it can reach up to 14 inches. But it’s not just the crazy size that is notable. The dark-purple (or sometimes nearly all black) tongue actually serves a very specific purpose. One of the coolest things about the Okapi’s long tongue is how it uses it to clean its eyes and ears. Yes, you heard it right! With its incredibly flexible and very strong tongue, the Okapi can actually reach its eyes and ears to keep them clean. That sounds like something a lizard could do, right? And yet the okapi is a mammal with a freakish, prehensile tongue attached. Weird!

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Really, it’s like having a built-in cleaning tool. And for more than just a matter of convenience, that actually matters greatly in the rainforest. The tongue can keep bacteria from festering around its head in the moist environment. Remember above how we learned that the okapi’s skin secretes sebum to counteract the constantly wet nature of the rainforest? Between that and the super-long tongue, the okapi can ward off all kinds of forest-related bacteria and detritus. Life, uh, finds a way, as Jeff Goldblum might say about the okapi’s evolutionary adaptations.

The tongue matters for food gathering, too, as you might suspect. Okapis eat anywhere from 40 to 65 pounds of leaves every single day. The forest has plenty of that to go around, but the okapi isn’t using its hooves to pick it up. Enter the tongue. Working much like an elephant’s trunk, the animal’s tongue extends high above its head, grabs what it wants to eat, and pulls it right back down into its mouth. Easy as can be. And tasty, too!

They Speak A Language You Can’t Hear

Okapis have developed a unique communication system to interact with each other. Using a combination of coughs, bleats, barks, and whistles, they convey important messages within their social groups. That’s pretty typical of nearly all mammals, though. What is crazy is the unheard language okapis have with each other. See, okapis possess a very (very, very) keen sense of hearing. They are actually able to emit and detect sounds beyond the range of human awareness. They produce low-frequency calls called infrasonic signals. Those calls vibrate at frequencies far lower than 20 hertz, and are thus imperceptible to humans and most other mammals. These sounds are too deep for our ears to hear, but they serve as vital communication tools for okapis.

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The science behind this remarkable ability lies in the physiology of the okapi’s ears and vocal cords. Okapis possess specialized structures that enable them to generate and detect infrasonic sounds. Their vocal cords produce low-frequency vibrations. Then, their ears are finely tuned to capture these sounds coming in from other okapis. In turn, that facilitates long-range communication within their dense forest environment.

Interestingly, although we cannot directly hear these infrasonic signals, scientists have developed sophisticated computer analyses to decode and interpret them. By studying these signals, researchers have gained insights into the social dynamics, mating rituals, and territorial behaviors of okapis. As technology advances, we continue to unravel the secrets of the okapi’s infrasonic language. But one thing is for certain: they are “speaking” very specific things to each other with this complex and subtle “language.”

[Image via YouTube]

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