Lisbeth Pisias is a hoofstock caretaker at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. She works closely with the Zoo's okapi and has helped plan World Okapi Day.
The Zoo – which has cared for okapi since 1973 – is currently home to three females: Mali, 26, Caroli, 15 and Kayin, 3. Caroli is Kayin's mother! Each one has a distinct personality, but one thing they all have in common is they like a good ear rub. I will never forget the first time I saw an okapi. I was in awe of them then, and I still am. The okapi is a relative of the giraffe that is found in the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the wild, okapi are known for being elusive.
Okapi are a reclusive species known in the wild as “ghosts of the forest”. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums reports that the median life expectancy for okapis in human care is 16.4 years.
They present their ears to get a scratching... their ears are important for their survival in the dense Ituri Forest where hearing is their first line of defense against predators. They will also lean into a good neck rub, which always leaves a trace of evidence on the caretaker's hands. Okapi have an oil on their skin to help waterproof their coats, which is helpful when you live in a rainforest. It also leaves a dark color on our hands and makes them a bit slippery. Okapi are curious and inquisitive; this makes them fun to work with.
Classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, okapi populations in the wild – estimated between 10,000 and 50,000 – are currently decreasing primarily because of habitat loss resulting from logging and human settlement. The presence of illegal armed groups around protected areas and poaching are also major threats. You can help save okapi by recycling your cellphones and small electronics. When you visit the Zoo you also help with okapi conservation. Round Up for Conservation Money has been donated to the Okapi Conservation Project to help support their efforts in Africa.
The Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) was established to protect okapi and its habitat in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1992, the OCP established the Okapi Wildlife Reserve – a 13,700 square kilometer protected area in the heart of Africa, to ensure the protection of okapi, and many other threatened species including their largest populations of forest elephants and chimpanzees. Additionally, protecting the forest also allows a unique human culture to thrive, as the reserve is also the home of indigenous Efe and Mbuti pygmies who have co-existed with the wildlife of the Ituri Forest for over 40,000 years. Due to the okapi’s biological and cultural importance, it is a flagship species revered by the Congolese people and its continued presence in the Ituri Forest ensures the protection of many other threatened and endangered species that share its habitat.
-Lisbeth Pisias, animal caretaker