Image: Wikimedia Commons

I’m willing to bet that unless you’ve spent a lot of time visiting zoos or watching nature programs on TV, you’ve probably never seen an okapi. But you’re in good company — this obscure animal wasn’t even discovered until 1901. And it’s already an endangered species.

The okapi looks like a cross between a deer and a zebra, but it’s actually related to the giraffe. And it’s even cuter, in my humble opinion. It has big, dark brown ears, a white face with a brown snout, and a chocolate-colored upper body — with odd, zebra-like stripes on its haunches and legs.

And even though taxonomically they are members of the Giraffidae family, they are small creatures, only about 5 feet tall and without the yawning necks. They are fairly long, about 8 feet, and weigh between 440 and 770 pounds, but are gentle herbivores.

They make their home in the canopy forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, living a solitary life except when they come together to mate, but the loss of habitat is one of the reasons the creatures are struggling to survive. Okapi are also endangered because they are hunted for their meat and for their unusual hides, which are both beautiful and velvety, with an oily texture to dispel rain.

The okapi’s markings are not its only strange feature. They may not have the long necks of their giraffe cousins, but they have extraordinarily long tongues.  Their prehensile tongues are 30 centimeters long, lengthy enough to clean their own eyes and strip the leaves from branches.

They can also rotate their oversized ears to detect predators coming from any direction, and can roll their eyes back into the eye sockets for protection as they travel through dense brush.