12-year-old on a mission to save Africa's most unusual animal, the okapi, an interview with Spencer Tait

Jeremy Hance
February 16, 2010

Anyone who says a kid can't change the world hasn't met Spencer Tait.

At the age of five Spencer had his first encounter with the Congo's elusive okapi at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Spencer—now 12 years old—describes that encounter as 'love at first sight'. He explains that while the okapi "looks like a mix between a zebra, horse, and giraffe [...] it's really only related to the giraffe."

Dwelling in the Congo's deep rainforest, the okapi is so adept at hiding, that science only discovered the large mammal at the opening of the 20th Century. Today, researchers are still eluded by the okapi: the first photos of the animal in the wild were only captured two years ago. The okapi is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List, and is threatened by deforestation, the bush meat trade, snares, and destabilization due to civil conflict. No one really knows how many okapis survive in the wild, but estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000.

Spencer Tait and his brother Mason at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago visiting the okapi exhibit behind-the-scenes. Photo courtesy of Save the Okapi.
Seeing the okapi at the museum led Spencer not only to learn all about the okapi, but also to find out what was threatening the animal's survival, including the long civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the okapi's home.

Most kids—and adults too—would probably leave it at that, but not Spencer. His passion for the okapi led him to start a one-kid-campaign to raise money and awareness for the okapi. With the help of his father, Bill Tait, Spencer built a website www.savetheokapi.com. In 2008 he set a goal of educating 1,000 people about the okapi. In that year alone, his organization was mentioned in a school newsletter, on a local radio station, and Spencer himself made an appearance on a local Milwaukee TV morning show to talk about the okapi. Last year his organization was highlighted in the Brookfield Zoo newsletter (with a circulation of 90,000 families) and was featured on 'Kohl's Cares for Kids' program.

But Spencer hasn't just increased awareness about this rare and beautiful animal, he has also succeeded in raising funds. With his website, Spencer raised 500 US dollars for okapi conservation, which he donated to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. The zoo not only houses a number of okapis, but coordinates the okapi 'Species Survival Plan', which works to breed okapis in captivity and aid conservation efforts in the wild.

This year, Spencer hopes to teach 10,000 people about the okapi; I have no doubt he'll succeed!


One of Brookfield Zoo's okapis named Sauda. Photo courtesy of Save the Okapi.
Mongabay: Can you tell us about the okapi?

Spencer Tait: Yes! The okapi looks like a mix between a zebra, horse, and giraffe, but it's really only related to the giraffe. They were discovered about 100 years ago and they only live in a small region of Africa.

Mongabay: What is it about this rare and little-known animal that got you so interested?

Spencer Tait: I first saw an okapi at a museum and once I saw it I feel in love with it because it's different. I've also been interested in learning more about unusual things that not everyone knows about. I started to do some research and the more I learned, the more interested I became.

Mongabay: Why do you think it's important to save species like the okapi?

Spencer Tait: Well, the okapi really can't help themselves, so they need humans to get involved or they'll become extinct. Most people have still never heard of an okapi, but I want to change that. It's important for more people to learn about the beauty of an animal, before they go away forever.

Mongabay: How did you raise 500 dollars for okapi conservation?

Spencer Tait: I built a website(www.savetheokapi.com) and began accepting donations for the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. We promoted the website through friends, family, and others, including Zig Ziglar (the person who originally inspired me to make the website). It took us most of summer 2008 to raise the money and we presented the Brookfield Zoo with a big check as soon as we reached the $500 mark.

Mongabay: You have a goal to educate a thousand people about the okapi. How is that progressing?

Spencer Tait: My goal for 2008 was to educate 1,000 people about the okapi and that went really well. We were lucky enough to have a TV appearance on the Morning Blend (a small TV show in Milwaukee). But actually this year are goal is to reach 10,000 people and so far it's going really well.

Mongabay: What can people—both kids and grown-ups—do to help the okapi?

Spencer Tait: First, they can learn about the okapi (you can visit my website for that). Second, they should get the word out by telling people about the okapi. One of the other things people can do is to learn more about the conflict in Congo because all the conflict is creating loss of habitat for the okapi. A good website to learn about the conflict in congo is www.raisehopeforcongo.org.

Mongabay: What advice would you give kids who like yourself are interested in conserving endangered species, but are not sure how to start?

Spencer Tait: You pretty much do what the last question I answered said, learn about the animal, get the word out, and for the last thing you could join an organization, it doesn't even have to be just about the animal it could be about the environment around it too. But that's not the only thing: you could also build a website like me, you could even just put a little sign in your yard, anything to get the word out so other people can learn about it and do the same thing as you. If it's not working out for you remember this, follow your heart, don't be afraid, and if you set a goal make sure it's a big goal because if you set small goals then you're aiming for nowhere and if you're aiming for nowhere that's where you'll land.

Save the Okapi website: www.savetheokapi.com

To donate to Spencer's mission: Donation

To contact Spencer (he loves to talk about the okapi): Contact

Spencer handing over 500 dollar donation to Brookfield Zoo staff. Photo courtesy of Save the Okapi.

Brookfield Zoo okapis Semliki and Sauda. Photo courtesy of Save the Okapi.

Spencer and his family with the 500 dollar donation for okapis. Photo courtesy of Save the Okapi.

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(09/02/2009) The giraffe is one of Africa's most recognizable animals, but its shy and elusive forest cousin, the okapi, was so little known that until just over a century ago the western world believed it was a mythical beast, an African unicorn. Today, a shroud of mystery still envelops the okapi, an animal that looks like a cross between a zebra, a donkey, and a giraffe. But what is known is cause for concern. Its habitat, long protected by its remoteness, was the site of horrific civil strife, with disease, famine, and conflict claiming untold numbers of Congolese over the past decade. Now, as a semblance of peace has settled over Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the okapi's prospects have further dimmed, for its home is increasingly seen as a rich source of timber, minerals, and meat to help the war-torn country rebuild. In an effort to ensure that the okapi does not become a victim of economic recovery, the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP) is working to protect the okapi and its habitat. Founded by John Lukas in 1987, well before the conflict, OCP today manages the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a 13,700-square-kilometer tract of wilderness in the Ituri Forest of northeastern DRC.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (February 16, 2010).

12-year-old on a mission to save Africa's most unusual animal, the okapi, an interview with Spencer Tait .