After more than a year of careful animal husbandry science by the zoo’s mammal curators, the zoo’s okapi family has grown. The calf, named M’bura, was born on June 2, 2011 and recently made her public debut in the Congo Gorilla Forest’s Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Okapi Jungle and Ituri Field Camp
. M’bura will be on exhibit intermittently as she adjusts to her new surroundings. Exhibit times will vary and are weather dependent.
Okapis are closely related to giraffes and native to the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They live in a large range on both sides of the Congo River. Listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), they are susceptible to habitat loss and human encroachment. Wild populations are relatively stable in protected areas, however, owing in part to the work of the Wildlife Conservation Society to protect okapi and other wildlife in DRC’s Okapi Faunal Reserve and Maiko National Park.
The Bronx Zoo has a long tradition of excellence in animal husbandry sciences and the arrival of the most recent okapi calf is a testament to that leadership. In 1992, a series of breeding was initiated, resulting in the birth of 12 calves in the last 20 years. Few zoos have achieved comparable success with the species. There are approximately 146 okapi in zoos around the world, and the IUCN estimates that 10,000–35,000 remain in the wild.
Animal husbandry is the science of breeding,raising, and caring for animals. Bronx Zoo animal curators carefully apply practical husbandry techniques that begin with matchmaking and continue well after the baby is born.
The Bronx Zoo’s okapi program has been a tremendous success and has helped the zoo community better understand the reproductive biology of these beautiful creatures,” said Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President and Director of the Bronx Zoo. “Every species has different care requirements and the Bronx Zoo has been a leader in advancing husbandry practices for a number of species including the okapi. The arrival of this okapi calf is the culmination of more than a year’s work by Bronx Zoo mammal curators.”
Prospective okapi pairs are chosen for mating by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Okapi Species Survival Plan(SSP). The carefully planned animal matches help ensure that genetic diversity in the North American zoo population remains healthy.
During the early stages of the matchmaking process, new pairs of okapi are housed in adjoining enclosures so curators can judge compatibility. Once the animals get comfortable with each other, curators slowly introduce the male and female and monitor them carefully for signs of breeding behavior. Four to eight weeks after the pair has mated, the zoo’s health experts give the female an ultrasound examination to determine if she is pregnant.
Okapi mothers are pregnant for about 14.5 months. At the zoo, vets, curators, and keepers carefully monitor the development of the fetus through continued examinations. Once the expected due date nears, the keepers prepare the female’s stall with additional bedding. Conditions are kept calm and quiet in anticipation of the birth. Closed-circuit video cameras allow keepers to remotely monitor the birth and maternal care. Once the newborn arrives, the mother is allowed ample time to bond with her calf.
Okapi calves do not defecate for their first four to eight week, a unique trait of their species. In the wild, this natural defense behavior limits the amount of scent that could attract predators while the mother leaves the calf to feed. Zoo-born okapis exhibit the same behavior.
Curators give the mother and calf plenty of room to encourage natural behaviors. In the wild, okapi females will leave their calves for long periods of time to feed and return only for short periods to nurse them. The female and calf spend relatively little time together. For the first two months of its life the calf will spend the majority of its time in its nest area. Okapi calves start sampling solid foods by three weeks of age and are usually weaned by the time they are 6 months old.
At the Bronx Zoo, M’bura will slowly transition to a diet of leaves, alfalfa hay, specially formulated pelleted grain, and produce.