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Audubon Mourns Loss of Rare Okapi Calf

It is with a heavy heart that Audubon Nature Institute announces the passing of its 8-month-old okapi calf, Kaya. Kaya was being treated for a severe developmental issue that affected her growth plates, bones, and joints in multiple legs. She was the first okapi calf born at Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, and her birth was celebrated widely as okapi are an extremely rare species.

Audubon Nature Institute’s animal health care team was working closely with orthopedic specialists at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and national okapi experts to diagnose and improve her condition. Unfortunately, during the calf’s most recent exam, veterinarians determined that her condition would not improve, and the difficult decision was made to humanely euthanize her.

“We always strive to give the best quality of life to all the animals under our care,” said Michelle Hatwood, General Curator of the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center.  “Kaya’s situation was especially heart-breaking for the staff that cared for her. Very few okapi births occur each year, so we are saddened for her loss and the loss to the national population.”

Staff that worked with Kaya described her as curious and tenacious, even while her body was failing her. “She was strong-willed and wanted to be independent, even at a young age,” said Jennifer Cain, her primary caregiver.  Staff that cared for Kaya had become very close to the young animal through her treatments, health challenges, and are mourning her loss.

Kaya was the first calf born to 6-year-old mom Asili, and 13-year-old dad, Kikari. While okapi calves have a high mortality rate, especially for first-time moms, animal keepers were excited to see Asili take on her motherly role quickly.

Kaya’s health problems took a couple months to become apparent. “At this time, we don’t know why Kaya was suffering these developmental limb deformities. We know her joints were impacted and it was painful for her to walk,” said Audubon Nature Institute Senior Veterinarian Dr. Bob MacLean.  “While we were able to make her more comfortable, she was not growing properly, and her condition was progressively worsening. It was a particularly difficult decision to euthanize her given how rare okapi are.”

A post-mortem necropsy (animal autopsy) was performed, and results are pending; any information gained from Kaya’s case may help experts better understand okapi anatomy and physiology and offer new options to treat other animals that may develop similar conditions.

Okapi are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Okapi are shy, solitary animals found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Due to their dense habitat and elusive existence, very little is known about their natural history.

Kaya was born September 28, 2022, following a nearly 15-month pregnancy—standard for this beautiful ungulate. Her birth was part of Audubon’s participation in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for okapi overseen by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Audubon has been a leader and participant in the Okapi SSP since 2017.