Louisiana’s west bank breeding facility awaits a special delivery

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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) – Many people remember April, the pregnant giraffe which went viral a few years ago when keepers announced she was pregnant.

The Audubon Nature Institute may have something to rival the excitement, at least in the zoo world.

Curators announced Asili, a four-year-old okapi at Audubon’s west bank breeding facility, is pregnant.

“I’m very excited about it,” said Michelle Hatwood, General Curator at the Audubon Species Survival Center near the Plaquemines-Orleans Parish line. “it’s a big deal in the industry, for zoos, and for conservation.

Asili, a four-year-old pregnant okapi at the Audubon Species Survival Center in Algiers
Asili, a four-year-old pregnant okapi at the Audubon Species Survival Center in Algiers(John Snell | John Snell)

“It’s an animal that a lot of people don’t know about,” Hatwood said. “It is actually related to a giraffe.”

However, the okapi looks more like some cross between a horse and a zebra.

Five of them live at Audubon’s sprawling facility near the Orleans-Plaquemines Parish line, where nearly 500 acres are dedicated to a project to breed animals for zoo populations in North America.

Several years ago, Audubon joined San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in a partnership they dubbed “The Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife,” an effort to ensure sustainable populations of unique and endangered zoo animals.

The two institutions have been working toward the goal of breeding okapis ever since.

The various species, from giraffes to sitatunga, live in large enclosures in a 500-acre facility.

Here, the okapi alone enclosure stretches over 22 acres, providing the animals an opportunity to graze in dense forests closer to their natural habitats than a zoo would normally provide.

“It’s like the rain forest of the south,” Hatwood said. “We get a lot of rain just like they would in the wild and this is the perfect habitat for them.

If all goes according to plan, curators hope Asili will deliver her calf next July.

Here are some details about okapi provided by the Audubon Nature Institute:

Okapi were first discovered by the Western world in 1901, but still very little is known about them. They live in thick forests in the DRC, are very hard to study, and their population is unknown.

Okapi are endangered, threats to their population and habitat include illegal mining, habitat loss, and civil unrest.

There are 82 okapi in 28 zoos in the United States and the Species Survival Center has 5 (3 males and 2 females). We plan to grow the population here to 10 animals plus their offspring here, making us one of the top 3 breeding and conservation centers for okapi in the US, along with White Oak Conservation Center (FL) and our partners, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

AZA-accredited Zoos in the US work closely with EAZA accredited Zoo in Europe to share knowledge about this species as a global management effort.

Zoos in the US and Europe conserve these species by financially supporting and working with the Okapi Conservation Project in Africa (specifically, the Ituri Forest in the DRC).

Okapi females will usually get pregnant for the first time at age 4 or 5. Our female, Asili, who has been confirmed pregnant is 4 years old. They have one offspring.

Kikari, age 12, is the bull recommended to father offspring with Asili and Minazi. Each calf born is a celebration in the industry, as they are a challenging animal to breed and with a 14-month gestation, offspring are not common. Three calves were born in the U.S. over the last 12 months.

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