Rare Okapi Calf Born at Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield, IL—An okapi (pronounced o-copy), a rare hoofed mammal also
known as a “forest giraffe,” was born at Brookfield Zoo on September
27. The female calf was named Sauda (pronounced saw-dah), a Swahili
word meaning “dark beauty.” Since her birth, she has been off exhibit
in a quiet nesting area, where she will remain with her mother,
Semliki, until spring. At that time, zoo guests will be able
to view her in an outdoor yard at Habitat Africa! The Forest. Until
then, guests can view the calf via a live video feed in the indoor
exhibit or go to the zoo’s Web site, www.BrookfieldZoo.org, to see
images and video.
Okapi, an endangered species native to the dense Ituri Forest, which is
located in the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo
(DRC), were not discovered by American and European scientists until
the early 1900s. Because of okapi’s elusiveness very little is known
about their behavior in the wild, including how they
raise their calves. To learn more about the species, staff of the
Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo, have
been documenting the behaviors and needs of okapi.
In 1959, Brookfield Zoo was the first institution in North America to
have an okapi birth. Since then, 28 calves, including Sauda, have been
born at Brookfield Zoo. In addition to funding okapi research in the
wild, the Society has become a leader in okapi breeding with staff
writing the book on husbandry, which guides the care of okapi in zoos.
The zoo is also a participant in the Association of Zoos
& Aquariums’ Okapi Species Survival Plan (SSP). An SSP is a
cooperative population management and conservation program for select
species in zoos and aquariums in North America. Each SSP manages the
breeding of a species in order to maintain a healthy and
self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and
demographically stable. This is the first calf for both Semliki, 4, and
Ulimi, the 9-year-old sire, making Sauda’s birth a precious addition to
the zoo population. The parents came to Brookfield Zoo from Cincinnati
Zoo and San Diego Zoo, based on a breeding loan recommendation from
Okapi SSP coordinator Ann Petric, who also happens to be curator of
mammals for the Society.
As coordinator for the Okapi SSP, Petric, who works with other experts,
is responsible for managing the species’ conservation efforts,
including population management, research, and education. “Many people
don’t realize that forest creatures behave differently. These animals
are quiet and secretive, which means we have to be patient to learn
their subtle cues,” said Petric. “It is the only way to be successful
in breeding.” The Society’s research has led the way to the growth of
the SSP zoo population from 15 individuals in 1982 to 93 in 24
Since her birth, zookeepers have diligently watched over Sauda to
record all her developmental “firsts” such as the first time she stood,
first nursing bout, first play bout, etc. This information is critical
to insure that the calf is developing and growing well and contributes
to new information about this elusive animal. Zookeepers have
been monitoring her behavior around the clock using EthoTrak systems, a
PDA (hand-held computer devise) developed by the Society to record and
share behavioral data. Behaviors that are recorded include the distance
between mother and calf and how the two interact together as well as
the number of nursing occurrences per day and the duration of each
“We have learned a lot throughout the years like the fact that calves
spend 60 to 70 percent of their day resting in a particular location,
often separated from their mother by great distances,” added Petric.
“And close observation at another zoo taught us that calves typically
do not produce solid waste for 30 to 50 days. All of this information
is crucial to share with institutions that participate in the breeding
Because of the fact that newborns have been noted to nest much like a
newly hatched bird, zookeepers knew to provide Sauda with plenty of
soft bedding materials and hay to rest on. There, she sits quietly,
sometimes for hours waiting for her mother to return so she can feed.
This is normal behavior. In the wild, moms retreat from their calves to
protect them from predators. Okapi’s native forest is teeming with
life, and calves are highly vulnerable to predation. This may also
explain why youngsters do not defecate for such a long period. A hidden
and quiet nesting site would offer the best protection.
Okapi have a short velvety coat that is dark reddish-brown to almost
black. They have creamy white stripes on their hind end and front upper
legs and white “ankle stockings” on their lower legs. The stripes help
okapi blend into the shadows of the forest and make them very difficult
to see, even when they are only a few feet away. Scientists speculate
that okapi’s contrasting stripes are important for calf imprinting and
act as a signal for a newborn to follow close behind its mother. Its
closest living relative is the giraffe.
Because the species is so secretive in the wild, its exact numbers are
not known. However, human encroachment is destroying okapi’s natural
habitat. Okapi are also the targets of poachers, who hunt them
illegally for their valuable skin and meat. To help save the species,
okapi have been under the protection of the central African government
since 1933, but they are difficult to protect in the more remote areas
of the rain forest. In the early 1990s, a portion of the DRC was
declared a protected area for okapi. In addition, an education program
in the DRC has helped native people understand why okapi and their
forest home are worth protecting and conserving. The goal of the
education program is to show that the wise use of forest resources
today will benefit everyone for many years, while the short-term goal
of using its resources quickly benefits only a few.
The mission of the Chicago Zoological Society is to inspire
conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature.
Open every day of the year, the zoo is located off First Avenue between
(I-55) and Eisenhower (I-290)
expressways and is also accessible via the Tri-State Tollway (I-294),
Metra commuter line, CTA, and PACE bus service.
© Suburban Journals of Chicago Inc.
published by Suburban Journals of Chicago Inc.