Endangered Okapi Born at Audubon Species Survival Center
(New Orleans) Audubon Nature Institute officials announce the birth of the first okapi calf born at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. Okapi are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
The birth of this unique species of hoofed mammal is 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.
The extremely endangered okapi calf was born September 28, 2022, to first-time mom, five-year-old Asili, and 13-year-old dad, Kaikari, two resident okapi at the westbank center. The birth followed a nearly 15-month pregnancy—which is standard for this beautiful ungulate.
IUCN set October 18, 2022, as World Okapi Day to raise awareness of these unique animals. In the wild, they are only found in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are considered one of the world's oldest mammals. Because of the animal's solitary nature and keen ability to avoid contact or detection, scientists didn't describe these beautiful creatures until 1901, and little is known about them.
Their numbers in the wild are extremely threatened due to illegal hunting, mining, human encroachment, and loss of their habitat due to deforestation. Okapi are shy, elusive, and typically solitary animals.
Despite looking like a cross between a deer and a zebra, okapi are the giraffe's only living relative and are known as the "forest giraffe." The okapi is native to the Ituri Rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo—the only place it can be found in the wild—and has thick, oily fur to stay dry in the rain. It has scent glands on the bottom of its hooves that help mark its territory. Except for the tips, the okapi's short horns, called ossicones, are covered in skin. While all males have ossicones, most females have knobby bumps instead.
The okapi lives among dense flora in the rainforest. It can blend into its surroundings thanks to the brown and white stripes on its rump, which mimic the appearance of streaks of sunlight coming through the trees.
Its plant-based diet consists of fruits, buds, leaves, twigs, and other vegetation. Like the giraffe and cow, the okapi has a four-chambered stomach that aids with digesting tough plants. Also, like its giraffe cousin, the okapi has a long, dark blue tongue that can strip leaves from branches. An okapi consumes between 45 and 60 pounds of food daily, including riverbed clay for minerals and salt. It will occasionally eat bat excrement for nutrients.
Scientists say there is no accurate accounting of okapi in the wild, but the estimates are grim. The number of okapi in the wild are believed to have dropped by 50% in the past twenty years, making this birth at Audubon extremely important.
"The birth of this calf is part of the continuing success story of our Species Survival Center," said Ron Forman, Audubon Nature Institute's President and CEO. "These types of births are the reason we built the Species Survival Center. We consider it an honor and responsibility to help prevent these amazing animals from becoming extinct. And we are delighted to celebrate this birth as such a significant win in our work."
Okapi communicate through sounds often too low to register with the human ear. This unique safety measure keeps predators from finding a hidden okapi calf. In the wild, the mother would use these low-frequency sounds to call the calf to her for nursing. At the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, the calf will remain in an indoor nesting space while her mother has the option to come and go as she pleases.
"Asili has proven to be a wonderful, protective and attentive first-time mom," said Michelle Hatwood, general curator of the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. "We hope this is the first of many okapi births at the Species Survival Center."
"So much more remains to discover and understand about this elusive and beautiful animal. As a conservationist, it is exciting to be part of an organization at the forefront of those discoveries—and even more so the significant efforts to save this and so many other endangered species," Hatwood said.
There are six okapi currently at the westbank facility which has dedicated some 26 acres for okapi habitat and several facilities for its care.
Audubon staffers say the female calf, who does not yet have a name, will eventually get to explore this large outside forested habitat with her mom.
This first okapi birth follows a long line of significant advances, accomplishments, and occurrences at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center since it opened in 1993 including successful work with whooping cranes, African wildcats, Mississippi sandhill cranes, giraffe, clouded leopards, Mexican grey wolves, red wolves, bongo antelope, and eland.
Audubon Nature Institute is a family of facilities, events, experiences, sustainability initiatives and conservation programs united in the belief that each of us has the power to impact nature and wildlife for the better. This includes Audubon Park, Audubon Zoo, Audubon Aquarium, Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, Woldenberg Riverfront Park and Audubon Wilderness Park. We inspire visitors, members and our community to support nature and wildlife — and leave the world better than we found it.