In 1900, while Johnston pondered the mystery of Stanley’s “atti”, a band of Mbuti pygmy hunters–kidnapped in the Congo Free State by a German showman– was in trouble. The German and his men had captured the Mbuti in the forest and planned to smuggle them into Europe to display them for profit at the Paris World’s Fair. In his Sept. 1901 McClure’s article–” The Okapi: The Newly Discovered Beast Living In Central Africa”— Johnston wrote of the recovery of the Mbuti, an episode which proved to be a turning point in the discovery of the creature which had haunted Johnston’s imagination since childhood:
“…as the German impresario had fled with his dwarfs to British territory, they [the Belgian officials] asked me to rescue the little men from his clutches and send them back to their homes. This I did, and in so doing, and in leading them back to the forests where they dwelt, I obtained much information from them on the subject of the horselike animal which they called the ‘okapi.’ They described this creature as being like a zebra, but having the upper part of its body a dark brown. The feet, however, they said, had more than one hoof.”
Johnston’s painting of Semliki forest pygmies from his lavishly illustrated The Uganda Protectorate
“When I reached Belgian territory, on the west side of the Semliki River, I renewed my inquiries. The Belgian officers at once said they knew the okapi perfectly well, having frequently seen its dead body brought in by natives for eating. They informed me that the natives were very fond of wearing the more gaudy portions of its skin; and calling forward several of their native militia, they made the men show me all the bandoliers, waist belts, and other parts of their equipment made out of the striped skin of the okapi. They described the animal as a creature of the horse tribe, but with large, ass-like ears, a slender muzzle, and more than one hoof. For a time I thought I was on the track of the three-toed horse, the hipparion.”
“Provided with guides, I entered the awful depths of the Kongo forest with my expedition, accompanied also by Mr. Doggett. the naturalist attached to my staff. For several days we searched for the okapi, but in vain. We were shown its supposed tracks by the natives, but as these were footprints of a cloven-hoofed animal, while we expected to see the spoor of a horse, we believed the natives to be deceiving us, and to be merely leading us after some forest eland. The atmosphere of the forest was almost unbreathable with its Turkish-bath heat, its reeking moisture, and its powerful smell of decaying, rotting vegetation. We seemed, in fact, to be transported back to Miocene times, to an age and a climate scarcely suitable for the modern type of real humanity.”
Natural range of the okapi in Central Africa
“Severe attacks of fever prostrated not only the Europeans, but all the black men of the party, and we were obliged to give up the search and return to the grass lands with such fragments of the skin as I had been able to purchase from the natives. Seeing my disappointment, the Belgian officers very kindly promised to use their best efforts to procure for me a perfect skin of the okapi.”
Okapi specimen secured in 1910 by the American Museum of Natural History Lang-Chapin Congo Expedition
” Some months afterwards the promise was kept by Mr. Karl Eriksson, a Swedish officer in the service of the Kongo Free State, who obtained from a native soldier the body of a recently killed okapi. He had the skin removed with much care, and sent it to me accompanied by the skull of the dead animal, and a smaller skull which he had obtained separately. The skin and skulls were forwarded to London, where they arrived after considerable delay. The British Museum entrusted the setting up of the Okapi to Mr. Rowland Ward of Piccadilly, and from the mounted skin and other data I have made the drawings which illustrate this article.”
“Before sending this skin to Europe, and while it still retained some indications of the shape of the animal, I made the colored drawing which appears as the frontispiece to this issue of McClure’s Magazine, and which will also be given in the Proceedings of the London Zoological Society.”
“This colored drawing differs in some particulars from the appearance of the Okapi as set up by Mr. Rowland Ward, and as represented in the illustrations of the present article. Until the Okapi has been photographed alive or dead, and its exact shape in the flesh is thus known, it is difficult to say which of my two drawings is the more correct. In the first illustration, which appears as the frontispiece, I have given the creature a more horse-like build. In the sketch which accompanies this article, and which is in the main drawn from Mr. Rowland Ward’s building up of the animal from the flat skin, the shape of the body inclines a little more to the giraffe, the Okapi’s nearest ally.”
” My first examination of the skull and skin of the Okapi caused me to name it tentatively ‘Helladotherium.’ The Helladotherium was a giraffe-like animal that existed in the Tertiary Epoch in Greece, Asia Minor, and India. In India the Helladotherium attained a very great size, but the Greek specimens were not quite as large as the modern giraffe. The Helladotherium was hornless, like the Okapi, and in another point it resembled this animal, because the neck was not disproportionately long, and the fore and hind limbs were nearly equal in length. The Okapi bears on its skull remains of three horncores, once no doubt as prominent as those in the existing giraffes. The process of degeneration, however, has set in, and in the living Okapi the horn – cores have been worn down to two small knobs on the forehead, covered outwardly with little twists of hair, and one less conspicuous knob or bump just between the eyes…”
On May 7, 1901 Johnston’s two skulls and okapi skin were put on display at the meeting of the London Zoological Society. The sudden appearance of such a distinctive creature out of the dark shadows of the great Congo forest created an immediate sensation in scientific circles and in the press. Later in the year, the director of the British Museum of Natural History–Sir E.R. Lankester–proposed that the okapi be created within its own genus Okapia, with the species designation johnstoni in honor of its multi-talented discoverer.
Wall plaque erected to the memory of Sir Harry Johnston in the church of St Nicholas, Poling, West Sussex
For the rest of his life, Sir Harry Johnston was– and forever will be– synonymous with the unique and much beloved rare creature that bears his name. He spent his later years writing sequels to the novels of Dickens.