The remoteness of the natural environment has made it difficult to study the behavior and social habits of the okapi in the wild until very recently. Studies indicate the okapi is solitary. Small groups of animals followed in the wild are thought to be a female with her most recent calf or calves, or a female in the company of a male. Biologists believe that a lactating female holds a territory at the exclusion of other okapis. Males are thought to move more freely in search of suitable browse and estrus females.
Group Composition: In captivity, small social units have been
successfully kept together. The most stable groups appear to be
related females or animals that have been raised together from an
early age. A variety of social combinations can be successful
depending largely on the personality, age, and/or reproductive status
of the individuals involved, and the size and quality of space
An adult male is often housed alone but adjacent to the female group. Two immature males can be introduced and housed together successfully through maturity prior to their introduction or close proximity to mature females. A female with a young calf should be housed alone in a location that is familiar and comfortable for the female.
Two females with calves may be successfully maintained together if the females have previously had a positive relationship. Timing of this is dependent on the experience and comfort levels of the dam and the individual temperament of the animals involved, and should be attempted after calves have left the nest.
The Introduction Process is similar at all institutions. The only differences have been the length of time the animals have fence contact prior to being placed together and where the introduction takes place. Animals to be introduced are given fence contact before the actual introduction. This contact period lasts from 1-2 days to several weeks. After the initial contact, the animals should be introduced in an area that will allow quick access for separation in case there are any major problems. Institutions that introduce mother-calf pairs to another animal(s) usually introduce in a large pen to allow animals to move away from each other. When introducing calves without the dam present, most institutions introduce in a barn or small pen. If animals are being introduced in a more confined area, a neutral area may be a part of or the only introductory pen. This neutral area may decrease or eliminate aggressive behaviors. Likewise, when a weaned calf, either during the introduction process or newly introduced, is given access to a large pen the calf should be familiar with the area to decrease the possibility of injuries. During the introduction, the animal staff needs to be prepared to observe both aggressive and submissive behaviors. These behaviors include chasing, submissive lay, head butts/tossing, kicks, spin-in-place, etc. These behaviors may be allowed to continue for a short period of time without the danger of injury. The animal staff will need to judge the severity and duration of any aggressive or submissive behaviors to determine if separation needs to occur. Another possible problem is attempted nursing from the weaned calf. These nursing attempts usually do not occur until after the initial day of introduction. If the calf is persistent in its nursing attempts, the other animal may become aggressive which could result in need for separation. During the initial introduction period, okapi are separated during the night to assure safety. After several days, animals can be left together overnight as long as food intake can be monitored. Adult males are generally not left in with adult females overnight unless additional surveillance is provided.
Since most institutions are housing more than one breeding pair of okapi, all calves should be introduced to another okapi for socialization. Introductions between calves and other okapis of every age and of either sex have been accomplished. Animal care staff should continue to monitor new introductions closely to insure they are progressing in a positive manner or to intervene as needed if negative behaviors begin to escalate.
Group size is usually dependent on the amount of available holding and exhibit space. Since this species is not highly social, group size is generally small. The facility must have the capacity to hold each individual separately if needed. The typical number of animals held at a breeding institution is 2.2.2 comprised of one adult male who mates with two females, a second male who acts as a back-up breeder, and the most recent offspring of the females. A facility that houses non-breeding individuals may hold as few as two animals.
Mixed Species Groups: Several duiker species as well as crane species and ground hornbills have been successfully exhibited with okapis. It is important to provide cover and security for all individuals maintained together.
Human-animal interactions: Most individuals are approachable, and acclimate to regular cleaning and operating routines without exhibiting a negative fear response. Some individuals tend to keep a larger distance from humans in the same space. Most allow and sometimes solicit tactile interaction with their usual keepers through a barrier. Staff from many institutions work in with individuals, particularly in large spaces. It is advisable to follow a regular routine so the animals learn what to expect. There are a small number of hand-raised okapis in the zoo community. Most of these individuals exhibit a normal range of behavior. There are several males however, that are fearless around people and as a result, require special daily operating procedures.
In some situations (i.e. aggressive or very bold animals), it may be advisable to shift the animal into an adjacent space prior to servicing. Special precautions should be taken when working around a dam with a neonate. It is advisable to shift the dam away from the neonate prior to servicing the area where the calf is. The period of time this change in routine continues depends largely on the individuals involved and the comfort level of the dam. Nesting calves can be acclimated to tactile interactions during this period, which often helps reduce flight response in an older calf.