Okapis are ruminant browsers. As such, they require high quality alfalfa hay and other food items, which are highly digestible and when combined, offer a nutritionally complete diet based on what we know about okapis and other ruminant, browsing species. Given this species’ special adaptations for procuring and digesting food, manipulation of browse and rumination are important considerations in selecting the physical form of food items offered. This highlights the importance of offering forage items that can be manipulated by the tongue, and long fiber fractions, from hay and browse conducive to proper rumination.

The okapi is a selective browser with a preference for high quality tender foliage in the wild. (Hart and Hart, 1988) The consumption< of plant fruit has not been reported. Comprehensive data on the total diet is lacking and little is known about the actual nutrient composition of the total diet consumed in nature. With respect to the various food groups offered, the diet should consist of at least 25% pelleted diet and at least 50% alfalfa and browse. Zero to no more than 25%, by weight, of the total diet intake should consist of produce. It is important for the hay to be analyzed on a regular basis to verify levels of available protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Specifications of the pelleted diet should complement the usual results of the hay to provide a balanced diet for this species. Browse can be an important component of the diet and can replace some of the forage component if chemical composition is known and appropriate quantities are consumed. Salt blocks, which also complement the rest of the diet as offered, should be provided on a regular basis. Young individuals sometimes become obsessive lickers of salt, so access may need to be limited and monitored in these situations. Water should be provided ad lib under normal circumstances.

Amount and Type of Feed: Okapis should consume at least 1.8% of their body weight (in DM) daily. This means they must be offered more than this, from 2–2.4% of body weight. Depending on the quality of the hay, they may need more or less. If hay quality is poor with respect to either nutrients or digestibility, more food must be consumed. However, since there is a limit to gut capacity, a high quality diet is important for this species. Water bowls and food containers should be placed in several areas throughout the space, located away from high-traffic areas to minimize the possibility of animals accidentally running into them or fouling them. Their design should be smooth and rounded to minimize animal injury. Their design should also minimize the risk of animal entanglement. These containers should be raised off the floor to a height of ~30 inches (76 cm.). As browsers, they rarely eat from the forest floor, as this is physically difficult for them. This height gives animals of all ages easy access to contents, including young calves, which need to reach to investigate and sample the diet. Additional hay and browse can also be placed higher than 30” to accommodate adult animals. Automatic drinkers are commonly used. Drinkers should be serviced daily to maintain sanitary conditions and freshness. Both water and food containers should be scrubbed on a regular basis to maintain sanitary conditions.

Food Schedules and Presentation: Forage and water should be present at all times unless otherwise directed by the veterinary staff. High-quality alfalfa hay should be renewed at least twice a day. The pelleted portion of the diet, along with any produce, can be split into a number of smaller portions and fed throughout the day as decided upon in the daily routine. Feeding various parts of the diet in novel locations or in dispensers which make the animals work to obtain the food will lengthen the feeding time for the animal and may promote natural behaviors. Offering browse when available also provides an opportunity for the animals< to strip leaves and tender bark from the branches. Body condition can be assessed as in other ungulates.< Prominence of bony joints (hips, pelvis) or noticeable vertebrae, sunken flanks, noticeable ribs or bony heads, and poor coat condition are signs of declining condition. Acquiring regular weights helps assimilate seasonal or life-function weight variations. Additional food quantities may be needed to maintain good< condition in growing, lactating and active animals. Young animals grow fast. Lactation is known to be a serious drain on most females. Acquiring weights on a regular basis in addition to visual inspection provides animal care staff with the information they need to assess individual situations and respond accordingly.

Edited by Terry DeRosa, San Antonio Zoo, Fran Lyon, White Oak Conservation Center and Ann Petric, Okapi SSP Coordinator, Brookfield Zoo Illustration: J. Busch
Updated and adapted for the web, Patrick Immens