Audubon Nature Institute press release
NEW ORLEANS – Audubon Nature Institute officials announce the birth of the first okapi calf born at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. Okapis 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 the okapi overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Audubon has been an Okapi SSP leader and participant since 2017.
The extremely endangered okapi calf was born on September 28, 2022 to first-time mother Asili, five, and 13-year-old father Kaikari, two resident okapi at Westbank Centre. The birth followed a pregnancy of almost 15 months, which is standard for this beautiful ungulate.
The IUCN has set October 18, 2022 as World Okapi Day to raise awareness about these unique animals. In the wild, they are found only in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are considered one of the oldest mammals in the world. Due to the animal’s solitary nature and ability to avoid contact or detection, scientists did not 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 habitat loss due to deforestation. Okapis are shy, elusive, and generally solitary animals.
Although it looks like a cross between a deer and a zebra, the okapi is the only living relative of the giraffe and is known as the “giraffe of the forest”. The okapi is native to the Ituri rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the only place it can be found in the wild – and has thick, oily fur to keep it dry in the rain. It has scent glands at the bottom of its hooves that help mark its territory. Except for the tips, the okapi’s short horns, called osicones, are covered with skin. While all males have ossicones, most females have knobby bumps instead.
The okapi lives among the dense flora of the rainforest. It can blend in with its surroundings thanks to the brown and white stripes on its rump, which mimic the appearance of sunbeams streaming through the trees.
Its plant-based diet consists of fruits, buds, leaves, twigs, and other vegetation. Like the giraffe and the cow, the okapi has a four-chambered stomach which aids in the digestion of tough plants. Also, like its giraffe cousin, the okapi has a long, dark blue tongue that can tear leaves from branches. An okapi consumes between 45 and 60 pounds of food per day, including clay from the river bed for minerals and salt. It will occasionally eat bat droppings for nutrients.
Scientists say there is no accurate accounting of okapi in the wild, but estimates are grim. The number of okapis in the wild is thought to have dropped by 50% over the past twenty years, which makes this Audubon birth extremely significant.
“The birth of this calf is part of the continued success of our Species Survival Center,” said Ron Forman, president and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute. “These types of births are the reason we built the Species Survival Center. We consider it an honor and a responsibility to help prevent the extinction of these amazing animals. And we are thrilled to celebrate this birth as such an important victory in our work.”
Okapis communicate through sounds that are often too faint to be registered by the human ear. This unique security measure prevents 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 suckling. At the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, the calf will stay in an indoor nesting space while its mother has the freedom to come and go as it pleases.
“Asili has proven to be a wonderful, protective and caring first-time mother,” 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.”
“There is so much more 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 these discoveries – and even more important efforts to save this animal and so many other endangered species,” Hatwood said.
There are currently six okapi at the Westbank facility which has dedicated some 26 acres to okapi habitat and several facilities for its care.
Audubon employees say the female, who has yet to be named, will eventually explore this large outdoor forest habitat with her mother.
This first okapi birth follows a long series of milestones, achievements and significant events at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center since it opened in 1993, including successful work with whooping cranes, African wild cats , Mississippi cranes, giraffes, clouded leopards, Mexicans. gray wolves, red wolves, bongo antelopes and elk.
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