Okapi

World Okapi Day: Celebrating our remarkable history

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The Dallas Zoo has deep roots in the preservation of the okapi species – roots that far exceed North America.

They’re growing steadfastly into Europe, where our renowned breeding program is ensuring the survival of these stunning, mysterious animals from the Congo. And on the first-ever World Okapi Day, we’re sharing our pivotal story to make sure these horse-shaped, zebra-stripe-wearing, giraffe-head-resembling animals never disappear from Earth.

First discovered in 1901 by a British explorer, okapis were incredibly elusive in the wild, earning them the nickname “African unicorn.” The naturally solitary creatures were, and still are, experts at traveling unnoticed in the dense rain forests.

But today, their numbers have drastically dropped. Fewer than 15,000 remain in the Congo, and that’s a generous estimation. Their numbers have fallen by 50 percent in the past 15 years due to illegal poaching, logging and human encroachment.

It wasn’t until the late 1930s that okapi made their way to the U.S. And accredited zoos have learned new information daily about these extraordinary animals ever since.

The 1980s proved to be a big decade for okapi breakthroughs. In 1982, only 16 okapi lived in U.S. zoos, and seven of those called Dallas Zoo home.

With a stable population, our staffers spearheaded okapi research and wrote the standards for okapi behavior, including research on infrasound communications, vocalizations heard below the range of human hearing; behavioral indicators of estrus and pregnancy; and relationship and physiological norms for mothers and calves.

Published in 1999, The Okapi: Mysterious Animal of Congo-Zaire, is still the only book of its kind on okapi in English. This material allowed zoos across the world to successfully reproduce okapi.

Before arriving in Zurich, the okapi underwent 3 inspections, 6 trips on various forklifts, an 8-hour flight, and two road trips. Megan Lumpkin was there every minute of the 30-hour journey.

Before arriving in Zurich, the okapi underwent 3 inspections, 6 trips on various forklifts, an 8-hour flight, and 2 road trips. Lumpkin was with Ann and Imba every minute of the 30-hour journey.

Sending our bloodline

In the Dallas Zoo’s 50-year history of caring for endangered okapi, we’ve welcomed 36 calves. About 75 percent of all okapi in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Okapi Species Survival Plan (SSP) are related to Dallas Zoo offspring.

Jump to spring 2013, when we made a move that hadn’t been done in more than 20 years – after three years of coordination, we flew two of our majestic okapi to Europe.

Our okapis’ bloodlines were needed to improve and protect their lineage in zoos overseas, so the SSP and the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) partnered to diversify the okapi gene pool.

We sent okapis Ann and Imba on a cargo plane to Zurich, Switzerland, along with their dedicated keeper Megan Lumpkin, an okapi behavior expert.

“People often call okapi mysterious, but I know them to be so much different,” said Lumpkin, Upper Wilds of Africa assistant supervisor. “It‘s so special to work with an animal that few humans have had the opportunity to research in the wild.”

Ann now resides at the Zooparc de Beauval in France, while male Imba lives at Zoo Basel in Switzerland.

Assistant Supervisor, Megan Lumpkin, shares a special moment with 19-year-old male Niko.

Assistant Supervisor, Megan Lumpkin, shares a special moment with 19-year-old male Niko.

Cue the big baby news

The first okapi calf born out of the Dallas Zoo and EEP partnership was just welcomed Oct. 1 to father Imba. This is also the first okapi baby for Zoo Basel in 11 years.

The grandson of our male Niko and female Kwanini, Imba’s doing exactly what his endangered species needs.

Lumpkin says that despite the language barrier, she and Imba’s lead keeper exchange emails frequently, and the baby photos make the memories of that 30-hour journey worthwhile.

Although okapi experts say numbers in human care still need to grow, about 170 okapi now live in zoos across the globe, with 96 in U.S. AZA-accredited facilities and 67 in European zoos.

“They’re truly gentle giants and are very much individuals. Being naturally solitary animals, they have to figure things out for themselves,” said Lumpkin. “Every day I have the rare opportunity to learn something new about this remarkable animal, and I’ve fallen in love with them.”

(Dallas Zoo’s five okapi remain off exhibit through the spring while construction of the 2.1-acre, $13.5 million Simmons Hippo Outpost continues near their habitat.)

WATCH this throwback footage of baby Almasi, our last calf born Aug. 14, 2013.

Categories: Conservation, Okapi | Leave a comment

OH-kapi! Baby pictures show success for this endangered species

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These unique animals, relatives of giraffes, have been called the “African unicorn,” because they’re so elusive. But did you know the Dallas Zoo is world-renowned for our breeding program to keep this endangered species from disappearing from Earth?

Okapi first came to the zoo in 1960, and our first calf arrived in 1963. Since then, we’ve welcomed a total of 36 calves. What’s even cooler is that we’ve maintained a continuous maternal line over the past 55 years. (That represents sustained success in the areas of husbandry, breeding, calf management, and veterinary care.) It’s a rare achievement for any zoo, with any species. That line started with the original matriarch, Vivianne.

We’ve even sent okapi overseas to zoological parks in Europe, to ensure that genetic lines stay pure and healthy. The expertise and collaboration between zoos in the U.S., Europe, and Japan have made great progress in saving the okapi since it was first identified/ discovered in 1901.

Many of our calves have been born in August, including our youngest, Almasi, who turned 1 just the other day. So to close out the month, we’re celebrating this very special maternal line with some of their baby pictures. Here’s how it goes: Vivianne-Liana-Kamili-Desi-Almasi.

Find out more about these remarkable animals in the Wilds of Africa, and catch an okapi keeper talk at 1:30 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday.

Read more about our okapi program in this Dallas Morning News story.

 

Liana mother (born at Dallas Zoo Dec 1974) with Kamili calf born August 31, 1982.
Liana mother (born at Dallas Zoo Dec 1974) with Kamili calf born August 31, 1982.
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Categories: Africa, Conservation, Exhibits and Experiences, Mammals, Media, Okapi | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

There’s just no such thing as a ‘typical’ day for zoo vets

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On any given day, the Dallas Zoo’s three veterinarians might work on a tiny frog who weighs a few grams and then examine an elephant that weighs 10,000 pounds. That’s the irony of “specializing” in zoo veterinary medicine: one must be a generalist for hundreds of mammal, bird, reptile, fish, and invertebrate species.

Vets must know how to recognize different digestive, vascular, and reproductive systems; infectious and chronic illnesses; pharmacological needs; and animal behaviors in order to develop courses of care.

MEDICATIONS: Administering drugs isn’t simple as picking up a ‘script from Walgreen’s. Zoo vets often have to improvise when calculating drug dosages, because pharmaceutical companies don’t publish formulations for every species. The vets know that a published dosage for a horse would be good for a zebra, or that antibiotics effective on lizards would probably work with snakes. Compounding pharmacies may be used to create concentrated volumes for large-animal needs.

“But you can’t just increase the dosage of some drugs because the animal is bigger,” explained Christopher J. Bonar, V.M.D., Dipl. A.C.Z.M., director of animal health. “Sometimes we have to do metabolic scaling to formulate dosages based on an animal’s metabolic rate. Large animals like rhinos have a slow metabolism.”

SPECIALTY EQUIPMENT: When necessary, veterinarians must be creative with equipment to accommodate everything from tiny poison dart frogs to long-necked giraffes. They’ve turned urinary catheters into endotracheal tubes. Anesthesia masks have been made from pop bottles and construction cones.

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Dr. Maren Connolly examines koala Tekin while he’s under anesthesia as part of his annual checkup. Dallas Zoo/Cathy Burkey

ANESTHESIA: Like with humans, putting an animal “under” and performing surgery are last resorts. That’s why zookeepers train animals to demonstrate behaviors that make it easier to draw blood, administer shots, and conduct exams.

There are a few times when anesthetizing an animal is risky – for the vets! Herpetologists noticed that a red spitting cobra wasn’t eating or defecating, and had a swollen abdomen. The snake had a history of kidney problems, common to this species. The challenge was to sedate the venomous snake.

“Our very skilled snake keepers helped on this one,” Bonar said. The dangerous end of the cobra was drawn into a plastic tube so the vets could pump gas to anesthetize it. “We inserted a tube into the trachea to ventilate it during surgery and confirmed that the snake had a renal tubular carcinoma. After testing the other kidney to make sure it was functioning well, we removed the affected kidney.”

BIRTH DAYS: It’s exciting when babies are born – or hatched. Newborn antelopes and other herd animals are often checked and tagged 48 hours after birth. Although recognizing newborns may seem simple, herd animals often deliver at the same time of year, and the babies look strikingly similar. Vets check the mother’s lactation and the baby’s suckle response and hydration. During difficult labors, vets may manually assist with breech births or perform C-sections.

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Keepers trained Ramona chimp to allow an ultrasound during her pregnancy to check on the fetus. Dallas Zoo/Cathy Burkey

Vets monitor hormone levels or perform ultrasounds for some expectant mothers, such as Marge warthog and Ramona chimpanzee. Both mothers were trained to allow vets or a veterinary ultrasonographer to apply a jelly-like substance to their bellies for the test to check the fetus’s health and estimate due dates. Ramona even learned to hold on to the bars of her bedroom to make the job a little easier. After babies are born, vets usually wait to do well-baby exams until mom is ready to eat away from the baby or share care with others in the group.

Zoo populations often use the same methods as humans to limit or facilitate pregnancies. Many animals are on birth control so the population doesn’t get out of control or inbreeding doesn’t occur. In cases where there is a need to increase the population or genetic diversity of a species in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Program (SSP), vets may use assisted reproduction.

“We always prefer natural reproduction,” Bonar said. “Techniques that work with a horse or cow won’t necessarily work with a rhino or cheetah. We work with the SSPs and a company that does hormone analysis and makes reproductive recommendations for us. But basically we watch to see if the females are coming into estrus. Are the males fertile? Are the animals compatible? Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, and we recommend a simple change in environment for a short time.”

Zoos with expertise in breeding certain species often serve as consultants. The Dallas Zoo advises on okapi breeding at other facilities.

Advanced Diagnostics: Bonar and his team of vets routinely test blood or tissue samples, but they often send them to more than a dozen pathology labs, each one specializing in a certain species or test. When an animal passes away; vets perform necropsies to determine the cause of death so that information can contribute to the body of knowledge among scientists and zoo professionals. When possible, tissue and bones are donated for educational purposes.

In the wild, many animals don’t exhibit obvious signs of illness because other members of its group may perceive it as weakness or because the animal may become easy prey. Diagnosing challenging cases may require the services of offsite computed-tomography (CT) or magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) facilities.

Outside medical specialists allow the hospital team to extend their resources. The Dallas Zoo routinely works with specialists on cases requiring ophthalmic or dental surgery, CT or MRI scans, pathology results, and hoof trims. That’s why the Zoo is assembling a Medical Advisory Committee. The depth of knowledge of the Zoo’s veterinary team, combined with the expertise of several specialists, will help provide even better care.

Categories: Chimpanzee, Elephant, Giraffe, Mammals, Okapi, Reptiles and Amphibians, Veterinary Care | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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