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The Elusive Okapi Okapia johnstoni

by Gordy Slack

Deep amid the tropical swamps of the Ituri Forest live some of the few remaining wild populations of the mysterious okapi. This gentle herbivore is the giraffe's closest modern relative. It was only discovered by scientists less than a decade before the 1909 launch of the Congo Expedition. Even today, the life history and daily habits of the animal are little understood. But in the first decade of the century, the okapi occupied an almost unicorn-like place in the popular imagination. With a tongue long enough to lick its own eyes, hind flanks striped like those of a zebra, and hearing so finely honed that it could sense and elude approaching hunters with extraordinary skill, the okapi epitomized the Congo's biological wonders.

Native Africans had probably been tracking and hunting okapi for thousands of years, but it was not until 1890 that the American explorer and writer Henry Morton Stanley sent the first reports about the animal to the Western world. These early accounts suggested that the okapi was some kind of African donkey that fed on leaves.

In 1901, explorer and colonial administrator Sir Harry Johnston, then High Commissioner of Uganda, took on the search for okapi in the hope of adding a new member to the roster of mammals--perhaps the highest accomplishment for a naturalist. Johnson was able to get a few pieces of an okapi's striped hide from natives and he sent the skins to the British Museum, where London scientists prematurely announced the discovery of a new species of zebra.

In search of a complete specimen, Johnston organized an expedition into the Ituri Forest, assisted by a company of Pygmies. At one point, when he came upon some okapi tracks and found them to be cloven, he thought the animal must be some kind of forest eland. But when he finally got a complete skeleton and skin it was immediately clear that "far from being a horse or an antelope, as expected, it claimed as its nearest relative the giraffe," wrote Herbert Lang. "It was one of the survivors of the giraffine group, such as the Paleotragus and Helladotherium, flourishing in southern Asia and Europe during Miocene ages, several million years ago. The okapi had found a safe retreat in the heart of Africa, in the gloom of the Congo forests."

Johnston's dream of credit for the discovery was realized, and the scientific name assigned to the okapi by P.L. Slater retains Johnston's moniker: Okapia johnstoni.

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