The okapi was not discovered until 1901. Okapia johnstoni, its taxonomic name, honors its native Central African name, as well as the man who ‘discovered’ it, the British explorer Sir Harry Johnston, naturalist, and colonial administrator. Native pygmies in Central Africa had known about this animal, which they thought of as a type of horse, for generations, and this was the description of it they gave to Sir Henry Morton Stanley (the man who found Dr Livingtone, reportedly with the words, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume’). The okapi is, in fact, a forest-dwelling relative of the giraffe.
Okapis are endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they occur north and east of the Congo River. They range from the Maiko National Park northward to the Ituri rainforest, then through the river basins of the Rubi, Lake Tele, and Ebola to the west and the Ubangi River further north. Smaller populations exist west and south of the Congo River. Okapis are also common in the Wamba and Epulu areas. These animals inhabit canopy forests and occasionally use seasonally inundated areas; however, they do not occur in gallery forests, swamp forests, and habitats disturbed by human settlements. In the wet season, they visit rocky inselbergs that offer forage uncommon elsewhere.
Okapis are diurnal, being most active in the daytime, spending most of their time traveling along set paths within the forest foraging. They are solitary except for mothers with calves but will tolerate other individuals, occasionally feeding together for short periods of time in small groups. They have overlapping home ranges, males tending to have larger territories than females, which an individual will mark with both urine and rubbing its neck on trees. Males travel continuously within their habitats, while females remain in their territories continuously. The males use their necks also to fight one another both to settle disputes about territory and when competing for access to females in the breeding season. They communicate using quiet "chuff" noises and in the forest, they strongly rely on their hearing, as they do not have good eyesight.
Okapis are solitary in the wild, primarily coming together for mating, which indicates a polygynous mating system (one male mating with multiple females). Young are born from August through October. After a gestation of up to 16 months, a mother retreats into dense vegetation to give birth to a single offspring. Usually, the calf can stand within 30 minutes and the mother and her baby begin looking for a good nest place. They stay in the nest for two months, affording the necessary protection from hungry predators. The calf is usually weaned at about the age of 6 months but may suckle from its mother for over a year. The youngest female in captivity to breed was the age of 1 year and 7 months, and the youngest male, 2 years 2 months.
Deforestation and loss of habitat to agriculture and human settlements are threats for the okapi. They are also poached for meat and their unique pelts.
According to the IUCN Red List resource, the total population size of the okapi is around 35,000-50,000 individuals. According to the UNESCO resource, the total population size is 30,000 individuals. Currently, okapis are classified as endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are decreasing.
Being herbivores, okapis may have a role in the structuring of plant communities. They may also affect predator populations, as items of prey.