(BABY ANIMALS) NEW YORK — Last week, M’bura, the Bronx Zoo’s five-month-old okapi calf was introduced to the public. For those unfamiliar with the distant relative of the giraffe, prepare to fall in love. The okapi’s zebra-stripe legs tend to draw the animal steady ‘oohs’ and ‘awes’ from zoo attendees. But the incredibly timid species native to the Congo are difficult to breed. Read on for more on the Bronx Zoo’s, as well as other American wildlife conservationists’ attempts to recultivate the near threatened okapi. — Global Animal
New York Times, Douglas Quenqua
M’bura, an okapi calf revealed to the public at the Bronx Zoo last week after more than 18 months of delicate husbandry work, was stretching out her stubby zebra-striped legs before a crowd of young admirers on Thursday.
“It’s a zebra horse!” said Dagney Donaldson, 7, of Summit, N.J.
Not exactly. Okapis are the only known relative of the giraffe, but with the silhouette of an antelope. They are notoriously skittish, so adept at avoiding other animals in the wild — including other okapis — that Western researchers didn’t even document their existence until 1901.
To breed such an antisocial animal in captivity requires a mix of patience, genetic know-how and romantic savoir-faire. Potential mates are slowly and strategically introduced over weeks, and newborn calves — which do not defecate for the first month of their lives to avoid detection in the wild — are left untouched by humans to preserve the fragile mother-child bond.
So as M’bura, now a healthy 5-month-old, gallops around her shady habitat in the Bronx, zoo officials are taking a victory lap of their own.
“There’s a lot of science in it, so you collect the data and use the data as a guide,” said Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo. “But the other half is the art of it all. You need somebody there who is really competent who can read the situation, read the animals. It’s like cooking.”
There are 90 okapis in American zoos — 44 males and 46 females — and anywhere from 10,000 to 35,000 in the Ituri rain forest in Congo. They are listed as “near threatened” but are probably more endangered than zoologists realize, said Ashley Vosper, the inventory and monitoring unit coordinator in Congo for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which oversees the Bronx Zoo.
“If we knew everything about where okapis exist, it probably would be endangered,” said Mr. Vosper. “It’s more a case of we don’t really know.”
Much like breeding okapis, counting them is frustrated by their tendencies to flee when other animals approach. “You hardly ever see an okapi in the wild,” Mr. Vosper said. “You have to look for signs, dung piles, things like that.” Political strife in Congo also hinders efforts to get an accurate count.
But deforestation and hunting have diminished their numbers, Mr. Vosper said. Meanwhile, zoos have broken down barriers between them to facilitate breeding.
“Zoos used to compete with one another to have the best collection,” said Ann Petric, the program leader for okapis at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which coordinates all okapi breeding in the United States. But zoos now regularly exchange okapis to ensure the most advantageous breeding conditions.
“We know we need to work together to sustain these species,” Mr. Breheny said.
The pairing of two okapis begins with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which keeps a “stud book” that contains genetic information on all okapis in American zoos. Mates are chosen to prevent inbreeding and maximize genetic diversity among calves.
Once they are paired, okapis at the Bronx Zoo are placed in adjoining cages with a multistage sliding door between them. At first, the door is opened just enough to let the animals smell each other. If they don’t respond aggressively, another part of the door is opened after a week or two so they can see each other, then another the next week so they can touch.
“They’re working it out socially,” said Pat Thomas, general curator and associate director of the Bronx Zoo. “We let them tell us when they’re comfortable.”
To prepare female okapis for pregnancy, they are given mock sonograms every day. The idea is to make the procedure, which requires close contact with handlers, less stressful for the animal and less dangerous for the humans.
When it comes time to give birth, the okapi mothers — unlike other animals in the zoo — are left alone, monitored only by a closed-circuit camera.
Breeding M’bura was somewhat simplified by the fact that her parents — Kweli, a 14-year-old female, and Poucet, “a genetically desirable male,” according to Mr. Breheny — had mated before. This time, the two were brought together in March 2010, and M’bura was born on June 2 this year.
But birth is not the end of the husbandry process. Because okapis are easily spooked, curators forgo neonatal exams on the calf. This reduces the likelihood that the mother will refuse to nurse or, worse, try to harm the calf. One way the handlers know the calf is doing well is if it doesn’t defecate for the first four to six weeks.
“The first 30 days in general is the riskiest time of life for any newborn,” Ms. Petric said. “For okapis, about 20 percent do not survive the first year.”
Still, okapis are having a good year in the United States, with six born so far. While the Bronx Zoo waited to unveil M’bura until she had achieved a healthy size and age, others are quicker to promote their success.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., announced last week that a female okapi had been born in the park on Oct. 1. Another okapi was born at the San Diego Zoo in September.
Matt Hohne, the animal operations director for Disney’s animal programs, said okapis didn’t lure many visitors to the park, but tended to leave an impression.
“While it may not be an initial draw like rhinos or elephants,” he said, “once people get here and discover them, they love them.” Much of that has to do with their oddball appearance, he said, including their prehensile tongues, which can grow to as long as 18 inches, and, of course, their oddly patterned legs.
Theories about the purpose of the black-and-white stripes vary. Some experts believe they allow calves to keep track of their mothers. Others say they provide camouflage in the dappled sunlight of the rain forest.
At the Bronx Zoo on Thursday, several very impressed children said they had learned about okapis in school but had never seen one in person.
“They’re really cool,” Dagney Donaldson said. “I like the stripes and the horse parts.”
For now, visitors can see M’bura snacking on leaves with her mother and running laps in the Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo. The animals are likely to be moved indoors for the season soon, because while oil in their hides gives okapis a velvety sheen and a natural resistance to water, “that’s rain forest rain,” Mr. Breheny said. “It’s not the same as a cold, driving rain. They won’t be out here much later than mid-November.”