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New Forest for the Okapi

okapi_treesI have exciting news from the okapi barn in the Wild Animal Park’s Heart of Africa exhibit. While we eagerly await the birth of Ayana’s latest calf, which is due this November, our okapis can look forward to having some new trees in their enclosure!

The okapi, which is the closest living relative of the giraffe, is a shy and elusive animal. Like the giraffe, it has a very long, prehensile tongue. In fact, an okapi’s tongue is generally between 14 and 18 inches (35 and 46 centimeters) long. This is very helpful for grooming and foraging for leaves, which are a staple of the okapi’s diet. In the wild, they live in the Ituri rain forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the natural habitat is one of very dense vegetation.

Here at the Wild Animal Park, we try to mimic the natural environment of our animals as closely as possible. For example, in the wild, the okapis have a solitary life style, so here at the Park we keep our five okapis in separate areas. Next week, several large trees will be added to our okapi enclosure. As a part of my summer fellowship research project, I studied how our okapis utilize space in their exhibit (see post, Where to Find an Okapi). I found that there was a distinct preference for the shaded areas of their enclosure. On average, the okapis in my study spent about 61 percent of their time in the area of their enclosure that had the most trees and shade. The addition of the new trees will help make the space in their enclosure even more similar to their natural habitat. This is very exciting news, because the new trees will provide our okapis with more shade and natural structures to enjoy.

The new trees will also be a fun new source of natural leaves for the okapis to browse. Only large trees can be placed in the enclosure, because even though a small tree would make a great snack for the okapis, they wouldn’t last long against that long okapi tongue. To ensure their survival, trees have to be large enough that the okapis can’t reach the majority of the leaves. Adding this new vegetation to the enclosure will also provide a great source of enrichment by promoting exploratory behaviors.

The addition of new trees to the okapi exhibit seems like the perfect way to finish up my summer fellowship. I have had a wonderful time working in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. I really feel like I have learned a lot from my time here and have had an amazing time along the way. Be sure to drop by the Wild Animal Park to check out the changes that have been made to our okapi exhibit. Say hello to the okapis on exhibit, and look forward to meeting our new calf late this fall!

Sarah Brzezinski is the Neeper Summer Intern in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. We wish her well!