The “African unicorn” can be as elusive as the myth. You would be too, if you lived in the real “heart of darkness”!

Ituri Forest, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is the okapi’s main stronghold and as well as delicious foliage, it has 52 metre (170 feet) tall hardwood trees, little light, and plenty of places to hide. You wouldn’t have thought the giraffe’s only relative would do well in dense rainforest, but the way it’s adapted makes it sound like a magical beast, if not an alien.

As well as the aforementioned unicorn, before it was officially recorded the okapi was thought to be a forest zebra, or, as per Harry Johnston’s preference (whose name it carries in Latin), a prehistoric throwback. Despite being none of these things, it doesn’t disappoint.

For instance, how many animals do you know can retract their eyeballs while running through pointy undergrowth? Low light and poor eyesight don’t seem to bother it either, because it can simply follow the trails left by other okapi, sniff out others by the scent left by their hooves, move its ears independently to focus sounds, and best of all, communicate at low frequencies that neither humans nor most other predators can hear. Failing that, its adorable stripy bottom can be a beacon in the shadows, either to a tottering calf or amorous companion, or camouflage in the shafts of light.

Did I also mention the tongue long enough to clean its eyes?

Even the torrential downpours can be shrugged off, because its velvety, slightly greasy coat of red-wine-mahogany is nearly waterproof. Do you know what else it can shrug off? Up to two chromosomes, with seemingly no ill effects, which would either be abnormal or fatal in other animals.

What can be fatal, however, is being weird and beautiful to the world of humans.

When it’s not being attacked by leopards, the now endangered okapi is killed for its skin, illegal bushmeat, or is frightened away from its rapidly declining habitat by other human activities. Brace yourselves, because this is about to become the other kind of dark.

Local conservation is difficult because it isn’t just wildlife hiding in Ituri Forest and its surroundings. In the late 90s, the DRC was embroiled in a brutal civil war, and armed groups are still active in certain regions. Even its most protected area, Réserve de Faune à Okapis  (Okapi Wildlife Reserve) isn’t always safe – in 2012, the headquarters were attacked and 7 staff members and all 14 captive okapis were killed, and just last year, 5 rangers were murdered in the area. Guns and conservation are a volatile mix, and since the forest giraffe isn’t out of the woods yet, we need other options too. (Sorry, I needed some kind of joke after that.)

Fortunately, it’s a protected species, a national symbol of the DRC, and even appears on its currency, so it’s not exactly unloved or unheard of. In 2017, to raise even more awareness, a 15 metre (49ft) high okapi mural also appeared on the side of a hotel in neighbouring Rwanda. This, coupled with several successful okapi breeding programmes worldwide, suggest its stripy bottom isn’t the only brightness in the dark after all.


Latin: Okapia johnstoni

What? A “forest giraffe” that looks like a zebra crossed with, well, a giraffe

Where? Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially Ituri Forest

How big? Males 1.40-1.55 m / 4.6-5.1 ft tall at the shoulder, females 1.42-1.59 m / 4.7-5.2 ft. Both sexes are about 2.5 m / 8 ft long.

Endangered? Yes, due to deforestation and hunting, and conservation can be difficult because of its shy nature and security threats in the area.

Probable motto: I’m strange but true, and surrounded by armed groups. Maybe I’m really an alien?

They look cute. Do they need my help at all?

Absolutely yes – their numbers have plummeted about 50% in the last 24 years alone, and they have a habit of living in areas dangerous to all concerned.

The Okapi Conservation Project also helps the local people in Ituri Forest and other endangered species.

The Zoological Society of London helps fund the ICCN, the DRC’s main conservation organisation, after withdrawing from the area due to security concerns.

If you’re a French-speaker, you can help the ICCN directly here.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018. “Okapi“.

Harroy, Jean-Paul et al. No date. “Ituri forest“.

Laarson, Naomi. 2017. “Five park rangers killed in DRC in tragic weekend for wildlife defenders“. The Guardian.

Okapi“. No date. San Diego Zoo.

Okapi, Okapia johnstoni“. 2009. San Diego Zoo Fact Sheet.

Okapia johnstoni“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Payanzo, Ntsomo et al. No date. “Democratic Republic of the Congo“.

Swart, Sandra. 2017. “Writing animals into African history“. Critical African Studies 8(2):95-108.

Von Muggenthaler, Elizabeth. 2013. “Giraffe Helmholtz resonance“. Proceedings of Meetings on Acoustics, ICA 2013, Montreal.

Whalley, Frank. 2017. “A sense of wonder at the giant okapi“. The East African.

Zoological Society of London. 2016. “Okapi: Curious Creatures“. YouTube.

Featured image credit: “Rear view of an Okapi, looking back at the camera, Okapia johnstoni, isolated on white” by GlobalIP.