MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - With only a few months until the new Zambezi River exhibit opens at the Memphis Zoo, new faces are making their way to Memphis.
One of the newest zoo residents is Miracle, an okapi fresh from the Houston Zoo.
According to zoo keeper Jamie McTyre, okapis are related to giraffes, though they don't have the same long necks associated with the latter mammal.
"These guys are the only animals related to the giraffes, but they're not going to be as tall," McTyre said. "But they do have really long tongues just like them. Normally okapi and giraffes, they do have black tongues, but Miracle is actually really special and he was born with a beautiful little pink tongue and that's something that's just unique to him. Just like we're all individuals, so are these guys."
Okapis are only found in dense rain forests of the Congo. They're incredibly secretive and solitary animals--in fact, no one even knew they existed until the twentieth century.
But it's hard to miss a creature as handsome as Miracle, who got his name because his mother was at the end of her reproductive years and had never been pregnant before she had him.
McTyre added that okapis are endangered, mostly because of people. She said human encroachment on their habitat and deforestation has driven them further into the forest. Plus, they're hunted as bush meat. McTyre estimated there are only 10,000 to 20,000 left in the wild. She added that most of what ecologists know about okapis comes from studying them in captivity.
"I think that's a big thing that zoos do and why we're important," McTyre said. "These animals act as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild. People aren't going to understand or really appreciate what an okapi is until they see this beautiful guy in person, and he really is stunning. If people see them in person, they might get inspired and do more for conservation, and that's a really big help."
Miracle isn't the only animal you'll have the chance to see--the Memphis Zoo just got four brand new Nile River crocodiles straight from Africa. They have their own enclosure where you can watch them face-to-face--with a pane of glass between you, of course. You'll also be able to watch them leap high into the air as zoo keepers drop food from a platform high above their pit.
The crocodile's enclosure is only rivaled by the space built for hippos Splish and Binti, who are currently housed in two concrete pools. According to zoo official Laura Doty, the hippos will have plenty of room in their new 220,000 gallon pool.
"They'll be able to go in the water and go on land," Doty said. "It's hippos like you've never seen them before."
The Zambezi River exhibit will house animals that come from six different African countries including flamingos, nyalas (a type of antelope), birds, crocodiles, and of course hippos and Miracle. It will also include a gorgeous event hall with both indoor and outdoor spaces and multimedia presentations.
The $22 million enclosure is expected to open in late spring 2016.
In the meantime, McTyre and the other keepers are getting to know Miracle and the new animals.
"He's a pretty confident and calm animal which I love," she said. "He's an individual, and you've gotta love his cute little pink tongue. It's pretty adorable."