ZooTampa at Lowry Park welcomed a female Okapi calf on August 21. The calf was born to parents Betty and Zach who arrived at the zoo in 2006 and are part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a program designed to create sustainable, genetically diverse populations of rare animals. The baby Okapi’s birth draws much-needed attention to this little-known, endangered species.
Betty’s prenatal care included regular ultrasounds, a high-calorie diet and, and for the first time in this species, a milk-testing method used in Horses and Rhinos to predict Betty’s calving date.
“By increasing Betty’s prenatal care, we saw physical changes that predicted calving,” Dr. Ray Ball, D.V.M., vice president of medical sciences and senior veterinarian at ZooTampa said. “This included a dramatic change in her mammary glands and her hindquarters getting softer in preparation for the birth. The milk sampling also allowed us to determine her milk was good quality and helped us evaluate Betty’s overall health.”
Although Okapi are shy by nature, Betty is quite comfortable with zookeepers and allowed them to collect milk samples used in the testing. Zookeepers often build strong bonds with the animals they care for which enables higher quality of care for each individual animal.
Okapi (pronounced oh-COP-ee) are the only living relatives of Giraffes and are found only in the remote Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Studying Okapi is a challenge due to their remote location and ongoing conflict in the region.
Their zebra-striped legs provide camouflage within the forest’s dense greenery. “As a natural defense against predators, Okapi mothers hide their calves away in nests. The calf will spend its time in the nest leaving only to nurse,” said Chris Massaro, General Curator at ZooTampa at Lowry Park.
Conservationists estimate that 10,000 – 35,000 Okapi live within protected reserves in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Due to human encroachment and hunting, Okapi numbers are declining. The International Union for the Conservation of nature (IUCN) lists Okapi as Endangered.
ZooTampa participates in the Okapi Conservation Project, an international effort to protect the species from extinction, as part of its mission to protect and conserve endangered and threatened wildlife.