Okapi and Giraffe: Giraffidae

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GIRAFFE (Giraffa camelopardalis): SPECIES ACCOUNTS
OKAPI (Okapia johnstoni): SPECIES ACCOUNTS


Giraffes stand up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) to the top of the head and weigh 460 to 4,250 pounds (210 to 1,930 kilograms). When compared to the long neck (up to 8 feet, or 2.4 meters), the body is short. Legs are long and end in hooves the size of dinner plates. Their tails grow up to 39 inches (1 meter) and have a tassel at the end. Males are usually larger than females.

Eyes are large, and the long tongue (19 inches [45 centimeters]) is black. Both sexes have short horns of about 5 inches (13.5 centimeters) in length, though males' are thicker. Males also have a middle horn and four or more small bumps.

The okapi (oh-KOP-ee) never weighs more than 550 pounds (250 kilograms), and its head is horse-like in shape. Its neck is not as long as the giraffe's. Where the giraffe's coat is various shades of brown with patterns of cream-colored hair, the okapi's coat is dark brown with white stripes on the upper legs, white "socks" on the ankle, and dark rings at the leg joints. Both species walk with their weight supported alternately on their left and right legs, like camels. They use their necks to maintain balance.


Giraffids (giraffes and okapis) are found only in sub-Saharan Africa.


Giraffes live in savannas (tropical or subtropical community characterized by small trees and shrubs among herbs and grasses). Okapis live in tropical lowland forests.


Giraffes are browsers (eaters of shrubs, trees, and herbs) that eat mostly deciduous foliage in the rains and evergreen species during other seasons. They also eat fruit and grass now and then, and will drink water if available, but most of it comes through the plants they eat. Okapis eat buds, leaves, and branches as well as clay high in sulfur (to supplement their mineral intake).


  • Giraffes breathe twenty times a minute.
  • Giraffes can run up to 35 miles per hour (60 kilometers per hour).
  • Okapis weren't discovered until 1900.
  • Female giraffes will return to the same site year after year to give birth.
  • Newborn giraffes grow as much as an inch each day.
  • The okapi is the only mammal that can clean its ears with its tongue.
  • Because it takes a giraffe a long time to stand from the lying-down position, these animals will sleep using the buddy system: the herd sleeps while a designated individual keeps watch.
  • The hind legs of the okapi have the same striped pattern and coloring as the zebra.
  • Giraffes love the thorny acacia (uh-KAY-shah) tree and are able to eat it by closing their nostrils and producing a great deal of spit to help swallow the thorns. Their lips are protected by thick hair.
  • Okapis find breeding partners by sense of smell.
  • The okapi was first thought to be related to the zebra.


Giraffes are social whereas okapis keep to themselves. The home ranges of giraffes are large, while those of the okapi are small. The males of both species will fight other males to establish dominance, usually using their horns by swinging their long necks and butting into each other.

Giraffes are polygynous (puh-LIH-juh-nus; one male to several female mates), as okapi are believed to be. Pregnancy lasts fifteen months for the giraffe and results in the birth of a single calf. Calves nurse (drink mother's milk) for a year and supplement their diet with browse beginning at the age of one month. Females stay with the herd while males leave around the age of three years. Life expectancy is twenty to twenty-five years.

After fourteen to fifteen months of pregnancy, a single okapi calf is born deep in the forest, where it will remain hidden for weeks. It will spend up to 80 percent of its first two months in hiding. Calves nurse until the age of six months and live over thirty years in captivity.


Giraffes are poached (illegally hunted) for their hair, which is made into thread, bracelets, fly whisks, as well as for their meat and hide. Okapi breed successfully in zoos, though we know very little about their behavior in the wild.


Neither species is threatened.

GIRAFFE (Giraffa camelopardalis): SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Physical characteristics: These animals stand up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall and weigh between 1,200 and 4,350 pounds (550 to 1,930 kilograms). Coat patterning helps to camouflage them, and no two coats are alike.

Geographic range: Giraffes live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Habitat: Giraffes are found in dry savannas.

Diet: Giraffes feed on leaves of more than 100 tree and shrub species. They use their tongues and thin lips to select only the most

nutrient-dense leaves. Male giraffes can eat up to 145 pounds (66 kilograms) of food a day, but can also survive on as little as 15 pounds (7 kilograms) a day when food is scarce. They have four stomach chambers, which allows them to digest food more efficiently by swallowing food whole, regurgitating (vomiting), chewing, and swallowing again. They will drink water if available, but this makes them vulnerable to predators, so they often drink with a friend keeping watch.

Behavior and reproduction: Giraffes live in herds of up to twenty animals. Herds can be all-female, all-male, mixed, or female with young. Home ranges vary from 2 to 252 square miles (5 to 654 square kilometers), depending on food and water availability. Male giraffes spend 43 percent of their time each day feeding, and 22 percent walking. Females feed for more than half the day, and walk for 13 percent of the time. Giraffes rest at night. Though usually silent, giraffes will vocalize when looking for lost calves or when in danger.

Females are ready to breed at four years, and do so year-round. They give birth standing up, sometimes while walking, so the baby falls about 6 feet (2 meters) to the ground. Newborns are 6 feet (2 meters) tall and weigh between 110 and 120 pounds (50 to 55 kilograms). Babies are born with horns. Predators include hyenas, lions, leopards, and wild dogs. Giraffes use their height to detect predators while they're still in the distance.

Giraffes and people: Giraffes are hunted and poached for meat, skin, and hair. They are a main attraction in zoos.

Conservation status: The giraffe is not currently threatened, but has disappeared from its former range in western Africa. ∎

OKAPI (Okapia johnstoni): SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Physical characteristics: Okapis weigh 462 to 550 pounds (210 to 250 kilograms) and stand 5 to 5.6 feet (150 to 170 centimeters) at the shoulder. Females are taller than males.

Geographic range: Okapis are restricted to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Habitat: The okapi lives in tropical lowland forest near water.

Diet: Okapis feed on more than 100 species of plants, including some that are poisonous to humans. They also eat ferns, fungi, fruit,

and grasses. Okapis ingest charcoal from trees burned by lightning. They use well-worn paths to travel between feeding sites.

Behavior and reproduction: Most active during the day. Not territorial, but males will fight for dominance. Okapis are usually silent but will make coughing sounds during rutting (mating) season. Okapi young are more vocal and make coughing and bleating sounds like a lamb. They groom one another and exhibit playful behavior.

Okapis give birth to a single calf from August to October after about fifteen months of pregnancy. Females retreat into the dense forest growth to give birth. Protective mothers warn off trespassers by beating the ground with their front legs. Lifespan is thirty years in captivity. The main predator of the okapi is the leopard.

Okapis and people: Zoos keep and breed okapis today. When the species was initially discovered, zoos lost many okapis in transport because they were unable to survive the long boat and train rides.

Conservation status: Okapis are not currently threatened, but are protected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because their distribution range is so limited. Populations are healthy. ∎



Leach, Michael, et al. Giraffe: Habitats, Life Cycles, Food Chains, Threats. Milwaukee: Raintree, 2002.

Lyndaker, Susan, et al. Okapi: Mysterious Animal of Congo-Zaire. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

Sherr, Lynn. Tall Blondes. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997.


Meadows, Robin. "A Neck Up on the Competition." Zoogoer (July/August 1996). http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Publications/ZooGoer/1996/4/neckuponcompetition.cfm (accessed on June 4, 2004).

Web sites:

"Okapi." The Big Zoo. http://www.thebigzoo.com/Animals/Okapi.asp (accessed on June 4, 2004).

Palkovacs, E. "Okapi johnstoni." Animal Diversity Web. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Okapia_johnstoni.html (accessed on June 4, 2004).

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Okapi and Giraffe: Giraffidae

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