NEW ORLEANS – Audubon Nature Institute veterinarians and animal care staff are working with experts nationwide to find medical treatment options for an extremely rare okapi calf.
Kaya, the first okapi born at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, is being treated for a congenital developmental abnormality. The condition is causing various medical issues, including problems with her legs and failure to grow as she should. Experts are searching for ways to best treat the calf born last September.
Audubon veterinarians have been working with okapi veterinary specialists around the country and bovid orthopedic specialists at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine to determine an exact diagnosis and treatment plan. According to radiographs and physical symptoms, the disease affects Kaya’s growth plates in all four legs, causing inflammation, conformation issues, and stunted growth.
Audubon’s animal care team is watching Kaya around the clock and keeping her comfortable as they consult with other experts who have experience working with this extremely rare animal. Kaya is being treated with a variety of therapeutics. The disease’s origin and how it affects her joints are still unclear, but veterinarians are using every diagnostic tool available to find a cure.
The extremely endangered okapi calf was born September 28, 2022, to a first-time mom, five-year-old Asili, and 13-year-old dad, Kikari, two resident okapi at the west bank breeding and conservation center. The birth followed a nearly 15-month pregnancy—standard for this beautiful ungulate.
The birth of this unique species of hoofed mammal is part of Audubon’s participation in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for okapi overseen by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Audubon has been a leader and participant in the Okapi SSP since 2017.
Okapi are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Okapiare shy, solitary animals found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although considered one of the world’s oldest mammals, little is known about them.
“Besides being the first okapi born at the Audubon Center, Kaya is the first calf born to her mother, Asili. While first-time moms often have difficulty adjusting to parenthood, Asili picked up on it quickly and has been an extremely attentive mother, even through Kaya’s treatments” said Michelle Hatwood, General Curator at Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center. “Very few people have experience working with this rare species, and we are in continuous communication with other experts to develop the best plan for treating her.”
“Every birth is important when dealing with endangered species, even more so with okapi due to their unique biology” said Hatwood. “Kaya is teaching a global cohort of specialists more about how to care for okapi. We remain hopeful that we will find a treatment plan to facilitate her recovery.”
In the wild, okapi are only found in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are considered one of the world’s oldest mammals. Because of the animal’s solitary nature and keen ability to avoid contact or detection, scientists didn’t describe these beautiful creatures until 1901, and there are still unknown aspects of the species’ physiology.
Their numbers in the wild are extremely threatened due to illegal hunting, mining, human encroachment, and loss of their habitat due to deforestation. Okapi are shy, elusive, and typically solitary animals.
Despite looking like a cross between a deer and a zebra, okapi are the giraffe’s only living relative, often referred to as a “forest giraffe.” The okapi is native to the Ituri Rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo—the only place it can be found in the wild—and has thick, oily fur to stay dry in the rain. It has scent glands on the bottom of its hooves that help mark its territory. Except for the tips, the okapi’s short horns, called ossicones, are covered in skin. While all males have ossicones, most females have knobby bumps instead.
The okapi lives among dense flora in the rainforest. It can blend into its surroundings thanks to the brown and white stripes on its rump, which mimic the appearance of streaks of sunlight coming through the trees.
Its plant-based diet includes fruits, buds, leaves, twigs, and other vegetation. Like the giraffe and cow, okapi have a four-chambered stomach that aids digesting tough plants. Also, like its giraffe cousin, okapi have a long, dark blue tongue that can strip leaves from branches. An okapi consumes between 45 and 60 pounds of food daily, including riverbed clay for minerals and salt. It will occasionally eat bat excrement for nutrients.
Scientists say there is no accurate accounting of okapi in the wild, but the estimates are grim. The number of okapi in the wild is believed to have dropped by 50% in the past twenty years, making this birth at Audubon extremely important.