Great Britain

Inside London Zoo during lockdown as rare ‘African Unicorn’ prepares to give birth

EXCITEMENT is in the air as I step inside the gates on my way to a baby shower.

But instead of the normal ballons and cake, I am greeted with a basket full of mint, spring greens and curly kale.

This is a party for Oni, a pregnant okapi at London Zoo.

As rare as they are mysterious, okapis, which are closely related to giraffes, have been nicknamed the “African unicorn” due to their shy and elusive nature.

There are only an estimated 25,000 left in the wild — all in the rainforests of the Congo — and they are an endangered species.

They are believed to be the oldest surviving mammals on Earth and have 16-month pregnancies.

So the arrival of six-year-old Oni’s baby, due any day, is eagerly awaited.

Keeper Gemma Metcalf says: “I was super excited when we found out she was pregnant last August but as the birth draws closer the anxious stage has crept in because anything can go wrong.”

Oni is one of the stars of new ITV documentary London Zoo: An Extraordinary Year.

The fly-on-the-wall two-parter, which starts tomorrow, looks at life during lockdown after the zoo was forced to close its doors to visitors on March 21.

It was the first time it had been closed for longer than a day since World War Two ­— and even then it was reopened after two weeks to help boost morale.

During lockdown the zoo saw the births of otter pups Bubble and Squeak.

Other lockdown new arrivals include a male Kirk’s dik-dik antelope at Twycross Zoo, Leics, and a rare spider monkey at Drayton Manor, Staffs.

A newborn zebra was named after Dame Vera Lynn at Wild Place Project, Bristol, in June.

As Oni's birth draws closer the anxious stage has crept in because anything can go wrong.

Gemma Metcalf

And a pair of fluffy sea eagle chicks were named Boris and Rishi at the National Centre For Birds Of Prey, near York, in thanks for the furlough scheme.

Oni gave birth to her first calf Meghan, named after Meghan Markle in honour of the royal wedding taking place the following year, in December 2017.

Meghan was later moved to Chester Zoo as part of an international breeding programme — and offspring are very much needed if the species is to survive.

Gemma says: “An expert from the Congo who had spent his entire career researching okapis had never seen one until he visited the zoo.

“When he saw Oni, he was so amazed that he burst into tears. It made me emotional, too.”

The heartwarming series, which also features the zoo’s sister park Whipsnade, Beds, shines a light on the dedication of staff as they go above and beyond for their much-loved charges.

Oni has been having regular ultrasound scans but these became more complicated when Covid safety measures saw staff split into two teams and kept separate from each other.

This meant Gemma and fellow keeper Megan Harber, who had spent months ensuring Oni was at ease with the procedure, had to teach colleagues via video calls.

Explaining how they prepared Oni, Gemma says: “We did daily target training, which involved encouraging her to lick a wooden stick in return for a treat to encourage her to stand still, as it can take around 45 minutes to do the ultrasound.

“We had to train the keepers on the other team what to do via a video call.

“I told them they’d need a whole tub of gel for each ultrasound and to keep an eye on her because she loves the taste of it so would try to lick it off. The okapi building doesn’t have a very good signal so it kept cutting out.”


While many workers across the UK were furloughed, it was still very much business as usual at the zoo.

Gemma, who has worked there for seven years, says: “The animals are still as demanding as always. They still need to be fed, watered, cleaned and trained.

“They don’t realise there’s half the people looking after them during a shift. They knew there weren’t any visitors, but that’s it.

“Apart from Christmas Day, it’s the first time in my career I’ve worked at the zoo without the public being there. It was so quiet.”

There were still admirers from afar, though.

After noticing emergency services stopping to look at giraffes through the fence while on their breaks, the zoo decided in April to set up an illuminated sign of appreciation for NHS workers outside its Giraffe House.

Gemma says: “They’d stop me to tell us thank you and that they loved the sign.

"The giraffes are deeply suspicious of anything new though and kept trying to pull it down. Members of the public would also shout, ‘Thank you for looking after the animals, you’re doing an amazing job’.”

One of the zookeepers’ biggest fears is passing on the virus to the animals.

Gemma says: “I spend more time with the animals than I do with my own family. If anything were to happen to them it would be absolutely mortifying.”

Keepers working with at-risk species, such as big cats, wear masks and gloves to reduce the chances of infection.

During filming, lioness Indi got a mystery illness. Around the same time, news emerged that a tiger at a New York zoo had tested positive for Covid-19.

If anything were to happen to the animals it would be absolutely mortifying.

Gemma Metcalf

An X-ray reveals that Indi has a bone, believed to be from a set of ribs, lodged in her gut.

Major surgery is carried out to remove it. It is a lifesaving procedure. Had it been a few days later, a perforation would have caused a fatal infection.

The documentary also sees staff welcome back visitors for the zoo’s emotional reopening on June 15.

Prior to that, the Government had warned zoos and animal parks they might have to stay closed indefinitely — before making a U-turn following a campaign spearheaded by The Sun.

Together, London Zoo and Whipsnade face £1million monthly running costs to keep the animals fed and the grounds maintained.

But the figure is unlikely to be met, as social-distancing measures have severely reduced visitor numbers.

One keeper sums it up when she says in the documentary: “We’re not just a zoo, we’re fighting extinction here.”

With just 170 okapi in captivity worldwide, the safe delivery of Oni’s baby will be a huge boost to the breeding programme for the species.

And that is exactly why its arrival will be such a cause for celebration — whenever he or she decides to finally make their grand entrance into the world.

What London Zoo will look like when it reopens on Monday

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