Enhancing our understanding of the ‘forest giraffe’

Watching an Okapi (Okapi johnstoni) step quietly and almost apologetically through the bushes in a zoo enclosure is perhaps the closest I will ever get to these amazing mammals. Standing as tall as a horse, with enormous ears and a zebra-striped bottom and legs, this remarkable creature appears an odd mix of several species. However, despite the stripes, it is most closely related to the giraffe, albeit separated by over 16 million years of independent evolution.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9Q_tbpqveM

Only officially discovered in 1901 by a fellow of the Zoological Society of London, Okapi are endemic to the tropical forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and are listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List. Completely dependent on the forest for survival, they have suffered a 50% decline in population size in only 15 years as a result of poaching, deforestation and mining. Their elusive nature makes them almost impossible to observe in the wild and few ecological and behavioural studies have, therefore, been undertaken.

A recent study published in the Journal of Zoology has, however, provided an insight into the social structure, mating system and dispersal of a population of Okapi, using a suite of different non-invasive genetic studies. Analysis of faecal samples collected from the Okapi Faunal Reserve in the DRC confirmed the author’s hypotheses that that Okapi do not form social units, and like many mammals are polygamous and/or promiscuous. The findings also confirmed a male-biased dispersal with males dispersing over great distances than the females.

The authors of the paper explain how the methodological framework outlined in the study can be used to provide quantitative values that represent a species’ behaviour at a given time. These short-term ‘snapshots’ can then be compared over time with respect to varying factors such as changes in population size due to hunting and deforestation. The study provides a guide to the use of non-invasive techniques for investigating the behavioural ecology of other rare and elusive animals.

 

Image: Bruce Davidson/naturepl.com/ARKIVE

YouTube footage: Okapi Conservation Project

 

References and further information:

  1. Stanton et al. (2015). Enhancing knowledge of an endangered and elusive species, the Okapi, using non-invasive genetic techniques. Journal of Zoology 295, Issue 4. DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12205
  1. Okapi Conservation Project www.okapiconservation.org
  1. Zoological Society of London http://www.zsl.org/conservation/regions/africa/okapi-conservation

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A nature writer and ecological advisor with wide experience of writing about wildlife and working in freshwater, marine and terrestrial environments. Website: www.phoebecarter.co.uk. Twitter: @DrPhoebeCarter

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