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
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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More Expedition Readings
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1901 painting of okapi