13 November 2012

The young female, named by keepers as Tafari, was born just before 7am on Oct 10 to new mum Stuma and dad, Dicky.

Okapi are the closest-living relative to the giraffe, as evidenced by their long tongues and long necks. Their bold stripes are unique to each individual, much like a person’s fingerprints, and provide ideal camouflage in their native jungle habitat.

Curator of mammals, Tim Rowlands said:

“Tafari’s arrival is a real landmark birth for the zoo. We’ve been working with okapi for almost six years and to finally see a beautiful, healthy calf on the ground after all those years of hard work is absolutely fantastic.

“There’s a lot more to good breeding than luck and this new arrival is down to real team work, years of planning, excellent husbandry and science to back it all up.”

One unit involved in helping achieve the landmark breeding success were the zoo’s endocrinology team who conducted regular studies of the female okapi’s hormone levels by testing her faeces for almost six years.

Endocrinologist Dr Sue Walker said:

“Chester Zoo’s Endocrinology Laboratory is the only lab in the UK that specialises in studying hormone levels in wildlife. The zoo has these facilities because when animals fail to breed, clues can sometimes be found by assessing their hormones. Understanding this can really boost our chances of seeing reproductive success in threatened species both in zoos and in the wild.

“Rather than take blood we do this non-invasively, by getting our keepers to collect faecal samples every day from which we then determine the hormone levels in each sample. This can tell us all sorts of information, such as when a female is coming into season or when the best time to put a male and female together is.

“In the case of Stuma, we tracked her hormone levels for nearly six years, looking at almost 1000 samples and found that following the introduction to the first two males, her hormone levels were really low. This finding, and that fact she didn’t seem interested in either of them, helped our curators decide that they needed to bring in another male.

“As soon as Dicky appeared, Stuma’s hormone levels rocketed and she began to cycle. We had our fingers crossed that we’d be able to confirm a pregnancy and not long after, we did. We were ecstatic then and even more so now we have a healthy mum and calf.

“These findings also have wider implications, as incorporating regular hormone monitoring into the international breeding programme for okapis could help ensure the population health of this beautiful animal.”

In the wild the species is found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Earlier this year conservationists were stunned when poachers raided the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the DRC – an 8,000 square mile reserve part-funded by Chester Zoo – wiping out the entire breeding herd of 14 okapi and killing 19 people.

Mr Rowlands added:

“Atrocities like that, in areas that we hoped were safe and protected, highlight just how important it is that zoos have carefully managed international breeding programmes to safeguard the future of species like okapi.”

An elusive animal, which was only discovered in 1901, little is known about how many okapis may remain in the wild.

At the zoo however, the new baby and mum can be seen in the zoo’s Secret World of the Okapi exhibit, which aims to raise the profile of the species and awareness of the threats it faces, from deforestation and hunting for its meat.