Conservationists are celebrating the birth of a rare baby okapi at Chester Zoo.
The female calf, born to mum K’tusha (7) and dad Stomp (17), arrived safely following a 14-month-long pregnancy.
The zoo’s CCTV cameras captured the calf’s first wobbly steps as she was gently encouraged to her feet by mum, shortly after birth. Now, the shy new arrival has stepped outside for the first time after spending the first few weeks of life snuggled up in a cosy nest.
Zookeepers have named the adorable youngster ‘Nia Nia’ in homage to a small village that is in the centre of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a place where the zoo’s field partners are based, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – the only country in the world where okapis are found in the wild.
The okapi’s zebra-like stripes on its back legs allow offspring to easily follow their mothers into the dense forests in the DRC, keeping them well hidden from predators. Its elusive nature, paired with its impressive sense of hearing and unique camouflage, led to the species being nicknamed the ‘African unicorn’ as the animal went undiscovered until as recently as 1901.
Sarah Roffe, Team Manager of the okapis at the zoo, said:
“The birth of an okapi calf is cause for great celebration – they are incredibly rare and incredibly special. Mum K’Tusha is so far doing a wonderful job of caring for her new born. Watching her gently encourage her new baby to its feet in those precious moments shortly after her birth was a real privilege to see.
“Okapis are incredibly secretive animals and, for a little while following her birth, Nia Nia had not wanted to venture too far and had instead remained snuggled up in her cosy nest area, with mum returning to her every few hours to allow her to feed. But now she’s gaining in confidence every single day; she’s bouncing with energy and eager explore. She’s a joy to watch – she’s all ears and long, spindly legs!”
The okapi is the only known living relative of the giraffe and is the national symbol of the DRC, with the species protected under Congolese law. However, despite their protected status, the species has suffered a 50% decline in the past two decades - a result of hunting for its meat and skin, habitat loss and civil unrest in the country.
The species is therefore now listed as endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threated Species.
Nick Davis, Deputy Curator of Mammals at the zoo, added:
“These gentle creatures have been heavily targeted by poachers in recent years, mainly as a result of the illegal bushmeat trade, which is growing across nearly all of its natural range – making conservation efforts to protect these animals really difficult.
“With only 76 okapis in zoos across Europe, and with sightings in the wild becoming even less common than before, every birth is therefore vital to the endangered species breeding programme. The safety-net population in progressive zoos is protecting future conservation options for the okapi, so not only is Nia Nia’s arrival an important moment for us, it’s an important moment for the species.”
Chester Zoo’s experts, along with its partners at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, have conducted surveys for okapis in Semuliki National Park, Uganda, which borders the DRC and contributed to a 10 year IUCN conservation action plan for the species. The zoo is also a long term supporter of the Okapi Conservation Project that is based at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Ituri Forest DRC.