Okapi: Is It Half Giraffe And Half Zebra?

Table of Contents

What would you call this— a giraffe or a zebra?
What would you call this— a giraffe or a zebra?, Credit: Wikimedia/ Daniel Jolivet

I was baffled when I first saw a picture of this creature on Congolese currency. I wondered why they were printed there. In no more than a glance, I found an answer— the animal looks like a half-giraffe, half-zebra; an okapi.


Delving further, let’s make a basic profile of this animal:


Scientific name: Okapia johnstoni


Family: Giraffidae


Habitat : Deep forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Okapis live in the dense Ituri rainforest.


Size: The okapi is about 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) tall at the level of the shoulder and has a body length of around 2.5 m (8 ft 2 in). An adult okapi weighs around 200 to 350 kg (440 to 770 lb).


Diet: Herbivores. They eat fruits, grasses, and sometimes fungi. Sometimes, okapis eat a type of reddish clay to meet the need for essential salts and minerals.


Conservation status: endangered


Okapis are endemic to the deep forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country in Africa. Also known as “forest giraffes,” okapis are relatives of the giraffe. When we say one species is a relative to another, generally it implies that they share common characteristics and genes .


Like a giraffe, the okapi has a relatively long neck. Similarly, they have two tiny horns on top of their forehead. They also have upright ears, just like a giraffe. This helps them to catch even the slightest sound in the environment. And if you catch sight of an okapi while it is feeding, you may also find that the okapi has a prehensile  tongue, like a giraffe.


However, the front and hind legs steer us off. There are white stripes in these regions, much like a zebra.

Two okapis together at the Denver Zoo.
Two okapis together at the Denver Zoo, Credit: Wikimedia/Postdlf


Epulu River in the Ituri rainforest. Okapis live in the Ituri rainforests, and a wildlife reserve has been dedicated to okapis there, Credit: Wikimedia/ J. Doremus

Okapis live in dense forests of the Congo. Their velvety skin is oily. Rainwater slides off the oily skin, keeping okapis dry on rainy days.


Why do they appear to be half giraffe and half zebra? Only partial sunlight passes through the dense rainforest. As a result, the stripes provide excellent camouflage  to the okapis. This helps them to stay off the radar of predators.


If okapis are relatives of giraffes, why aren’t they equally tall? The answer lies in the surroundings. Giraffes live in grasslands, and their favorite food is acacia leaves that grow almost four to six meters above the ground. In contrast, okapis live in rainforests where food comes from low hanging branches, shrubs, and herbs. They can reach their food even without a long neck. In fact, moving through the dense jungle with a long neck would end up in the okapi neck getting tangled with vines and branches.

Evolution of giraffes and okapis

The skull of Paleotragus—the first giraffe to exist.
The skull of Paleotragus—the first giraffe to exist, Credit: Wikimedia/Ghedoghedo

Giraffes evolved from an ancestor common to both deer and cattle almost 25 million years ago. Indeed, these groups of animals were called giraffids. Giraffids roamed Europe and Asia until climate change gave rise to savanna grasslands in Africa. During this time, many of these animals moved to Africa. They evolved further into the first giraffes. Paleotragus was the immediate ancestor of the giraffe. However, they had short necks, unlike giraffes. They were only as tall as a red deer. Okapis are similar to this extinct form of giraffe.


As with any animal in the wild, human activities are a threat to okapis. Hunting and loss of habitat have troubled the okapi population. Fortunately, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve was established in a portion of the Ituri forests in 1992. This wildlife reserve, along with the help of locals and zoos all over the world, continue to protect and aid in the study of the beautiful “half giraffe, half zebra” okapis.

Readability: 64.6

Grade: 7.1


Habitat: The region where an animal is found

Endangered: An animal that may cease to exist in the future

Camouflage: Having an appearance that is hard to distinguish from the appearance of the surrounding environment

Genes: A set of substances that provide the characteristic features of animals

Prehensile: Describing an organ that can grab

Evolved: To have gradually changed over the course of generations


  • Anubhav Ghosh
    : Author
    I am pursuing my bachelor's in microbiology from Scottish Church College, Kolkata and the lab at my college is as close as my home is to me. My interest lies in molecular biology and cell signalling, and I want to be a professor when I grow up. I believe that what we see around has a fantastic science story in it. In my free time, I love to watch soccer. Writing for Smore Science gives me the chance to explore my take on explaining the science around me in ways that everyone can grasp.

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