It was love at first sight when I saw my first okapi

Okapi

One of Marwell Wildlife Park's okapis. Picture by David Connop Price.

Their stripey hind-quarters and velvety coats mean many people think the okapi is a cross between a horse and a zebra, but in fact the okapi is the giraffe’s distant cousin.

BECAUSE of their shyness, okapis are not necessarily a zoo favourite, but I became enamoured with them from the moment I set eyes on one – at London Zoo.

I was accompanying my sister, Kim, on one of her regular trips to London Zoo with the boys she was looking after at the time. We’d gone to the Into Africa exhibit where towering giraffes, beautiful zebras and strange-looking tapirs are housed.  

Then we came across an enclosure which I’d not been to before.

A wonderful animal appeared and looked at us curiously. The four-year-old boy I was with wasn’t particularly fussed about the okapi but my jaw dropped. I said “wow!” in the way that adults do to humour children, but which, in this case, was genuinely meant.

Smitten

This was my first sighting of an okapi, and I was smitten.

There’s something special about the creature. He’s got intelligent eyes, like a horse, a long, purple tongue and ossicones on his head, like a giraffe, and beautiful stripey hind-quarters, like a zebra.

It wasn’t until 1901 that Europeans had evidence of the existence of okapis. The elephant and the lion were already touring the world as part of circuses and many other exotic animals had appeared in various rich eccentrics’ collections, while the okapi was quietly going about minding its own business.

This is probably because okapis only live in a deeply forested area in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Due to instability in the DRC and okapis being experts at camouflage – their stripey bums look like patterns from the sun in dense vegetation – it is unlikely that many of us will be able to see them in their natural habitat.  So zoos have stepped. A fairly successful zoo breeding programme means you can see them in numerous places in the UK, including London Zoo, Bristol Zoo, Marwell Wildlife Park and Chester Zoo.

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