NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Kwasi the okapi is a solitary creature that lives behind the scenes at the Nashville Zoo.
“Currently, only about half our animals are on exhibit. The rest actually live behind the scenes for research and breeding,” says Jessica Knox, Backstage Pass tour guide.
It’s rare to see okapis in person. “There are only about 15 or 20 zoos that have this particular species in human care in the United States, and we’re lucky to have one here at the Nashville Zoo.”
The 8-year-old Kwasi hangs out by himself until backstage pass visitors stop to greet him.
“Okapis in the wild are very nervous and shy, even in zoos. If they’re on exhibit, they usually hang out in the very back, so you don’t get to see them very close.” Knox continues, “But, Kwasi actually loves the attention and loves getting to see people up close, especially if they have really delicious treats for him.”
Knox always brings along a tasty treat for zoogoers to interact with Kwasi.
“What you’re going to do is hold a piece of lettuce up and particularly hold it to the side. He’s going to wrap that nice, long tongue and grab it straight from your fingers there,” Knox explains.
The herbivores have a 16-inch prehensile tongue with a purplish melanin on the tip.
“Since they’re eating a good 15 hours out of the day, if they were going to get a sunburn on their tongue, they wouldn’t be able to eat. So, it’s [melanin] very good protection for them,” says Knox.
Many mistake okapi for being cousins of the zebra because of the stripes on their legs. “Okapi are actually the only other animal on the planet related to the giraffe,” Knox points out.
Knox adds by scientific standards the large-eared animals were only recently discovered in 1901, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo rain forest.
“There’s a lot of trees and branches that they have to maneuver around. They actually have super long eyelashes to protect their eyes from any sticks that might get to close. And, that hearing helps them hear if there’s any danger, either predators like larger cats species or poachers that try to hunt them as well,” says Knox.
While their large ears help them listen for danger, the okapi way of vocalizing cannot be detected by the human ear.
“Generally, the only sound you hear Mr. Kwasi have is whenever he is chewing on some food.” She adds they communicate with infrasound.
“This is very helpful because the lower the sound, the further distances those sounds travel, so it actually allows the okapi to communicate through that dense forest and over long distances,” Knox explains.
Because okapi are endangered species, Nashville Zoo hopes Kwasi will become part of the Species Survival Plan program.
Knox says, “They’re dealing with poaching for their pelt since it is so unique. They’re also dealing with the loss of habitat from illegal mining for things like gold, diamonds and something called coltan.”
Proceeds from backstage pass tickets go directly to the conservation program for the species on the tour they book.
“The only way you can actually see and meet Mr. Kwasi is on one of our backstage pass tours, ‘This is How We Zoo,'” says Knox.
She encourages those interested in the tour to book in advance of coming to the zoo.
“Right now due to COVID-19 safety, we’re allowing one group or family per tour cause you are in close proximity on our shuttle to drive around the back section of the zoo. But, we are hoping as things get better. We’ll be able to open up more spots for guests to join us,” says Knox.
The ‘This is How We Zoo’ tour is offered Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
News 2 has partnered with Nashville Zoo to bring you weekly segments of Zoopalooza. You can watch them on News 2 on Good Morning Nashville on Saturday and right here on WKRN.com.