A living unicorn, an elusive creature, and a species on the brink.

Courtney Dunn
4 min readJan 4, 2022

Rarely seen in the wild, a secretive forest creature exists that is the closest living relative of the giraffe. These animals are so elusive in fact… that zero images of one in the wild existed until 2008. European colonists called it “the African unicorn”. Others referred to it as “the forest giraffe”. But, we now know it as — the Okapi.

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

This mysterious mammal has only been known to the western world since the early 1900s. In the travelogue of Henry Morton Stanley’s journeys in the Congo, Stanley noted the forest was home to a “kind of donkey” that the natives referred to as atti. Additional explorers only caught a fleeting view of the animal’s backside — which resembles that of a zebra with black and white stripes — leading to further confusion on where exactly this animal lay taxonomically. It wasn’t until a group of indigenous Mbuti pygmies alongside Harry Johnston, a British explorer, acquired a complete specimen that scientists finally recognized this species formally.

Until recently, years of instability and war made it too dangerous for others to experience first hand the lush home of the okapi. But, with gradual stabilization, the opportunity to explore this magnificent ecosystem has once again arisen. The Ituri Rainforest, a name which is derived from the Ituri River, can be found in the northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and is one of the most biologically diverse regions in Africa. Along with the okpai, it is home to over 445 other known species of animals — including the African Elephant, Hippopotamus, Forest Buffalo, and seventeen species of primates.

Photo by Abel Kavanagh on Wikicommons

In many ways the Ituri rainforest is similar to many others throughout the world. The climate can be considered incredibly humid with high temperatures and rainfall that allow a plentiful diversity of plants to thrive. It is the rare species within, like the okapi, that sets it apart.

Coupled alongside their interesting coat pattern, okapi have many other strange adaptations up their sleeves. The prehensile tongues of okapi allow them to pluck food from trees with ease and also make them one of the only mammals capable of licking their own ears. Toxic leaves and fruit are no problem for them either, as okapi are known to source and consume clay to perform a self detox should these foods find their way into their systems. A black tar-like secretion from scent glands on each of their feet allow them to mark their territory while another gland produces oil to waterproof their fur.

Okapis are fully protected species under Congolese law but, unfortunately, the future of this striking large-bodied mammal is still severely threatened. The okapi is entirely dependent on the forest for its survival, and deforestation, along with poaching, have led to its perilous decline. An Okapi Conservation Strategy Workshop (2013) found that the population had plummeted over 50% in just a fifteen year span of time. For this reason, the okapi is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

To protect this shy animal, wildlife conservationist John Lukas founded the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) in 1987. Today, the Okapi Conservation Project today manages the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a 13,700-square-kilometer area of wilderness which occupies one-fifth of the Ituri Forest. The reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and not only is home to the indigenous Mbuti pygmies but also harbors the largest populations of forest elephants, okapi and chimpanzees in the DRC. The OCP relies heavily on zoos around the globe to educate the international public about this unique, captivating creature and the importance of its rainforest habitat. The San Antonio Zoo is one such place.

Photo by the San Antonio Zoo

The Center for Conservation and Research at San Antonio Zoo seeks to fulfill the San Antonio Zoo’s Mission Statement through a variety of approaches, including fieldwork and captive husbandry of rare and threatened species — including the okapi. The zoo currently has two okapis that it is attempting to mate — Epulu, a nine-year-old male, and Ludimi, a ten-year-old female.

Beside assisting population efforts through breeding, the San Antonio Zoo plays an important role in educating the public about these amazing animals. As guests admire and learn about okapis, it is believed they will want to help protect okapis and their forest home — providing hope for their future.

Photo by the San Antonio Zoo.

Want to see okapi from the comfort of your own home? Visit www.zoolife.tv today to see Epulu and Ludimi as they go about their lives at the San Antonio Zoo.



Courtney Dunn

Zoologist focused on saving endangered species through creative solutions 🐅 Product Operations Manager @ Zoolife.tv Follow on Twitter → twitter.com/drwildlife