Forest Phantoms


You could be standing just steps from one and you would never notice…

The people who know them best describe them as ghosts.

To western science, they were only a local myth well into the 1900’s.

But the okapi is very real. And even though the times have changed they are still elusive in the thick jungles of central Africa.

Today, those who study okapis must use radio telemetry and other high-tech gadgets to monitor their whereabouts; and it is still tough to catch a glimpse of them! These enigmas of the forest are built to blend in, which is an amazing feat for a 600 pound male. Long after their “discovery,” scientists still struggle to understand these large animals and their amazing ties to the forest. To us, their communication is invisible. In an environment thick with predators and alive with dense trees that make it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction, okapi communicate using glands between their toes to leave trails of smell wherever they walk, and make sounds so low that humans cannot hear them. To us, life in the forest is a struggle, but with amazing features like an 18-inch muscular tongue that can grasp leaves, velvety brown fur that is so oily it sheds water like Rainex, and camouflage markings on their rump that look like a zebra, the okapi can disappear into the undergrowth and thrive.

While they are hard to find in the wild, okapi have been front and center at Brookfield Zoo for decades. The zoo has a long and storied history with the species that includes the first North American birth in 1959, and landmark research that is directly responsible for a nearly 6-fold increase in the zoo population size. These forest cousins of the giraffe stand as one of the species Brookfield Zoo is most proud to exhibit.

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Brookfield Zoo has coordinated the Okapi Species Survival Plan since its inception in 1982 and has been at the forefront of redefining the world’s understanding of these solitary animals---particularly their unusual maternal behaviors. Observations of early okapi life are confusing. Calves “nest” much like a newly hatched bird. They sit quietly in the same spot for hours waiting for their mother---in fact they do not even defecate for the first 30-60 days of life! Every few hours, the mother returns to feed, but seemingly little time is spent nurturing. After a year or so, calves are weaned and the animals part ways.

But appearances are deceiving. Long-term observations at Brookfield Zoo showed that these solitary animals do care for their young. Keepers have observed coordinated behavior between moms and calves that suggest they use infrasound---noises so low, we humans cannot hear them. Okapis tend to rely on sound and smell---their dense forest homes make these senses far more efficient than sight.

In 1989, the zoo’s understanding of okapis was put to the test when Ndura was born. Soon after his birth, it became clear that keepers would need to step in and take over his care. He was one of the first okapi that zoo staff had ever attempted to hand-rear and it was this experience, along with some pioneering research about the relationship between okapi mothers and their calves, that established the basics of okapi care in zoos.

Keepers learned quickly with Ndura that raising an okapi calf is not easy work. Okapi calves require bottle-feeding five or six times every day. It can take keepers days to establish a technique for the individual okapi calf---and once it is figured out, they cannot change any details or the calf will reject the bottle. Keepers must approach from the same side, use the same nipple on the bottle, and offer the milk from the same angle every time. But the keeper’s patience paid off. Ndura went to Europe and fathered many offspring before his recent death at the ripe old age of 16.

More on Okapi (including video)...
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