A male Okapi calf was born last week at Al Bustan Zoological Centre in Sharjah, giving a ray of hope to this endangered species.
Looking part giraffe, part horse, part zebra, the rare Okapi is a naturally-occurring, distinct mammal that is endemic to the Ituri forest in Congo in Africa.
The Okapi calf was born on October 13, five days before the celebration of the World Okapi Day. The calf weighed 16kg at birth and is the first male calf born in the non-commercial zoo in Sharjah.
“Every live birth is a great contribution to conservation. We named him Kito, which means ‘precious child’ in Swahili,” Kate Burns, Assistant Manager at Al Bustan Zoological Centre, told Gulf Newsduring a visit.
“His mother, M’bura, has never bred before so this is her first bloodline. It’s not represented anywhere else. That makes his birth special. In the future, Kito can breed with all of our females, apart from his mother, which will then expand the genetic diversity in our herd. He can also help Okapis in the rest of the world populate,” she added.
Now over a week old, Kito has a lovely little personality, Burns said.
“He’s a little quiet at the moment. His right ear is a little bit floppy, maybe he squashed it in his mummy’s tummy. He’s very quiet but still a bit feisty,” she said.
Okapis were known to the western world only in 1901. Naturally shy and elusive, Okapis are “impossible to observe in the wild” as they have natural defences against predators and can camouflage in the dense African rainforest.
Every live birth is a great contribution to conservation. We named him Kito, which means ‘precious child’ in Swahili… His right ear is a little bit floppy, maybe he squashed it in his mummy’s tummy ”
– Kate Burns | Al Bustan Zoological Centre
But these gentle creatures have no defences against poachers and deforestation. Hunters kill them for their meat and for their waterproof, velvety fur.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that there are between 10,000 and 35,000 Okapis left in the wild.
This new birth in Al Bustan made the centre’s population of seven Okapis the second largest captive population in one institution in the world.
■ Scientific name: Okapia johnstoni
■ Also known as: “forest giraffe”
■ Habitat: Endemic to the Ituri Forest in Congo
■ Classification: Endangered
■ Threats: Poaching, mining, deforestation
■ Size: About the size of a horse, 6ft at the head and 5 ft at the shoulder
■ Gestation period: 15 months
■ Most distinctive features: Head is similar to a girae sans the long neck, body is like that of a horse with velvety fur while its rear end features horizontal white stripes like that of a zebra; has a tongue that’s 14 to 18 inches long used for foraging and grooming
■ Diet: Herbivore, feeds on leaves, shoots, fruit
■ Characteristics: Solitary, shy and elusive
Source: IUCN, Okapi Conservation Project
Kito’s birth will also be registered in the Okapi Studbook, a global record of the family tree of all existing animals of a selected species maintained by an international expert.
Breeding endangered animals through the guidance of the Studbook keeper is like having an ‘arranged marriage’ to ensure the continuity and viability of the bloodline.
“We at Al Bustan only breed for what we call conservation breeding,” Meyer de Kock, manager of the centre, said. “It means that sometimes, if our genetics is not perfect, we will not even breed. Because the one thing that we cannot create is genetics.”
“So it’s extremely important that we keep within this genetic framework. It’s not a random breeding just for numbers. It’s breeding to save the species,” added de Kock.
Reintroducing captive Okapis into the wild is a long-term process, De Kock said, since conditions have to be suitable before it begins.
He said it needs a multi-pronged approach where support from local community, government, laws, and infrastructures like reserves are present for this to be successful.
But this will take time.
“The zoo population is a back-up population and hopefully when the environment becomes stable, it can be reintroduced [by international organisations] with local community’s involvement. The real success for us in the future is to have this stock of genetically-viable animals that is ready for reintroduction,” de Kock said.
“Inshallah… who knows some of our bloodlines or some of our babies born here in Al Bustan will be the parents of the Okapis running around in Africa in the future. That is our vision and passion.