A baby okapi was born this summer, at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo following more than a year of careful animal husbandry science by the zoo’s mammal curators. The calf, named M’bura, just made her public debut in the habitat. She'll be on exhibit intermittently as she adjusts to her sourroundings.
Upon birth, the mother and the calf are allowed time to bond. Unlike what would be normal practice for other ungulate species, a neonatal exam is not performed and the calf is not weighed because the species is very susceptible to stress.
Curators give the mother and calf plenty of room to encourage natural behaviors. In the wild, okapi females will leave their calves for long periods of time to feed and return only for short periods to nurse them. The female and calf spend relatively little time together. For the first two months of its life the calf will spend about 80 percent of its time in its “nest” area. Okapi calves start sampling solid foods by three weeks of age and are usually weaned by the time they are six months old. At the Bronx Zoo, this new calf will slowly transition to a diet of leaves, alfalfa hay, specially formulated pelleted grain, and produce.
Prospective okapi pairs are chosen for mating by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Okapi Species Survival Plan (SSP). Pairs are chosen to ensure that genetic diversity in the North American zoo population remains healthy.
Potential new pairs of okapi are housed in adjoining enclosures so curators can judge compatibility. Once comfortable with each other, the male and female are slowly introduced and monitored carefully for signs of breeding behavior. Four to eight weeks after the pair has mated, the female is given an ultrasound examination to determine if she is pregnant. The ability to ultrasound an okapi is a culmination of patience and diligence from the zoo’s Mammalogy Department animal care staff. To prepare for this, keepers train the female okapi for the procedure as part of a regular routine to familiarize the animal with the sensation of a probe against its abdomen. This raises the animal’s comfort level and eliminates stress during the actual examination and allows veterinarians to complete the procedure quickly and safely with no discomfort for the okapi. Keepers also train the pregnant female to stand quietly on a large scale so that her weight can be monitored throughout the pregnancy.
The average gestation for an okapi is 14.5 months. During pregnancy, vets, curators and keepers carefully monitor the development of the fetus through continued examinations. Once the expected due date nears, the female’s stall is prepared with additional bedding. Conditions are kept calm and quiet in anticipation of the birth. Closed-circuit video cameras send images to a computer in another building allowing keepers to remotely monitor the birth, maternal and calf behavior, and the frequency and duration of nursing bouts.
Okapi calves are unique in that they do not defecate for four to eight weeks after they are born. In the wild, this a natural defense that limits the amount of scent that could attract predators while the mother leaves the calf to feed. Zoo-born okapis exhibit the same behavior; and early defecation can be an indicator of health complications.