23rd March 2022

Unicorns at Chester Zoo!?

The arrival of a new okapi calf at local Chester Zoo is a vital step for the conservation of this endangered species
Unicorns at Chester Zoo!?
Photo: Eric Kilby @ Flickr

You may have never heard of the okapi – they’ve certainly never been mentioned in my units on animal diversity. But, these beautiful and rare animals have had recent success in the form of a newly born calf in the local captive breeding programme at Chester Zoo.

Okapis are hoofed, herbivorous mammals with characteristically large ears, chocolate brown bodies and white striped legs. Although they may look similar to zebras, okapi are most closely related to giraffes.

The species – Okapia johnstoni – has only been known in the scientific world since 1901. They had previously been known colloquially as the ‘African Unicorn’ due to their rarity and shy nature.

Breeding programmes have been set up in order to preserve this endangered animal – including at our local Chester Zoo!

At the end of February, a female calf stepped outside to join her fellow okapis. There are 5 individuals at Chester, and only 14 in the UK. The new calf has been named Kora after a village in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, this is the only location on the globe where wild okapi are a native species.

File:Okapia johnstoni distribution map in DR Congo.png - Wikimedia Commons
Map of The Democratic Republic of Congo. Shaded area (north east) shows wild distribution of okapis. [Credit: Manedwolf @ Wikimedia Commons]
Estimates for the population of okapis in the wild are difficult to make due to their rarity, but tend to fall between 10,000 and 35,000. Sadly, this population has been in decline over the last 25 years.

Poaching, deforestation, armed conflict and illegal mining in in recent years has lead to okapi classification as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. Such conservation efforts can be very costly. So why should we care about conserving niche species like okapis?

Loss of any species from a particular habitat has knock-on effects for the rest of their ecosystem. Each animal, plant, fungus and microorganism plays a role in a complex food web of many organisms. So, if a single species is lost, its knock-on effects can quickly escalate to impact many more species.

Captive breeding programmes in zoos provide a sheltered environment where population size can be increased in a controlled manner. Zoos also provide an opportunity to improve education and awareness about rare animals like the okapi. Such species might otherwise be unknown and unseen by much of the wider world.

From a genetic perspective, breeding programmes are important for monitoring the health of a species. Smaller populations have a smaller gene pool (meaning fewer different possible characteristics that they can inherit) which increases risk of disease and poor health with every new generation born. Human intervention is therefore important for increasing populations of rare animals in a way that ensures maximum future health of the species.

Furthermore, as the only living relative of giraffes, and the only extant species in their genus, the extinction of okapis would mean the end to an entire taxonomic lineage. This is the equivalent of a family tree reaching a dead end. If okapis are lost, they and all of their already extinct close relatives will be gone forever.

Okapis have a relatively long gestation period of around 440 to 450 days (compared to human 280 days), after which a single calf is born. This means that re-growing the population size will take a long time. But, every successful birth is another small step forward in conserving this species.

If you find yourself visiting Chester Zoo, make sure to pay Kora and her fellow okapis a visit, as such rare species may not be around to be seen forever.

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