Archive for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Category

Okapi Lore, Part III

Posted in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Okapi with tags , on November 24, 2010 by Charles Alexander


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.”

okapi drawing

okapi drawing 2

“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.

Okapi Lore, Part II

Posted in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Okapi on November 24, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Henry Morton Stanley’s mention of an unknown ungulate living in the depths of the Congo forest might have remained little more than a cryptid footnote– leaving the field open for the okapi’s discovery perhaps decades later–if not for the prescient mind of Sir Henry “Harry” Johnston, High Commissioner of Uganda in British East Africa.


Portrait sketch of Sir Harry Johnston

At a time when European colonial powers were engaged in an epic “Scramble for Africa”, Johnston was instrumental in formulating Britain’s ultimately unsuccessful Cape to Cairo plan for a continuous band of territory down the length of the continent.  Author, painter, explorer, botanist, zoologist, former consul to Cameroon and Mozambique, and first commissioner of the British Central Africa Protectorate, Johnston possessed a seemingly magic touch for accomplishment. Such was the case with unraveling the mystery of the “atti”. Stanley’s scant reference to a leaf-eating, forest-loving equid immediately resurrected an even more fantastic creature– an African unicorn–from Johnston’s memory. In his September, 1901 article in McClure’s Magazine–”The Okapi: The Newly Discovered Beast Living In Central Africa”–Johnston writes:

“The author of this article remembers having encountered in his childhood–say, in the later sixties– a book about strange beasts in Central Africa, which was said to be based on information derived from early Dutch and Portugese works. The publication of this book was more or less incited at the time by Du Chaillu’s discoveries of the gorilla and other strange creatures on the west coast of Africa, and its purport was to show that there were in all probability other wonderful things yet to be discovered in the Central African forests. Among these suggested wonders was a reccurence of the myth of the unicorn. Passages from the works of the aforesaid Dutch and Portugese were quoted to show that a strange, horse-like animal of striking markings in black and white existed in the very depths of these equatorial forests. The accounts agreed in saying that the body of the animal was horselike, but details as to its horn or horns were very vague. The compiler of this book, however, believed that these stories pointed to the existence of a horned horse in Central Africa. Somehow these stories– which may have had a slight substratum of truth–lingered in the writer’s memory and were revived at the time that Stanley published his account of the Emin Pasha Expedition, In Darkest Africa.  A note in the appendix of this book states that the Kongo dwarfs knew an animal of ass-like appearance which existed in their forests, and which they caught in pitfalls. The occurrence of anything like a horse or ass–animals so partial to treeless, grassy plains–in the depths of the mightiest forest in the world seemed to me so strange that I determined to make further inquiries on the subject whenever fate should lead in the direction of the great Kongo forest.”

Fortunately (not to mention typically), fate did indeed lend Sir Harry a hand: in the shape of a band of homesick pygmies kidnapped by a fugitive German impresario…


Facade of the Apadana, Persepolis, Iran, depicting gift from the Ethiopian procession to the Achaemenid kingdom (5th century BC)

Was the okapi known to ancient civilizations? Judge for yourself.


Young okapi do possess an erect mane very much as depicted here.

The story is continued here

Okapi Lore, Part I

Posted in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Okapi, Western Lowland on November 17, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa, the strikingly-marked okapi (Okapia johnstoni) has long fascinated me–but unfortunately is next to impossible to see in the wilds of its war-torn native land. Fortunately, 143 okapi live in the world’s zoos, where they may be easily observed. When visiting a zoo with okapi on exhibit, I often hear people remark that this strange creature must somehow be a cross between a zebra or donkey– and a giraffe. Actually,  zoo visitors struggling to make sense of the okapi’s seemingly disparate parts are in a sense partially correct. The okapi is in fact the giraffe’s only surviving close relative. And the okapi was indeed first thought to be a donkey and then later, thanks to its stripes, an unknown forest-dwelling zebra just prior to its official discovery in 1901. Clearly, zoo visitors aren’t the only humans that the okapi has mystified over the years.


Female okapi feeding in the Bronx Zoo’s spectacular Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit.

Can you believe that I took these photos in a zoo? Congo Gorilla Forest is without a doubt one of the best zoo exhibits I’ve ever seen– and a wonderful place to watch okapi, western lowland gorillas, red river hogs, Wolf’s guenon monkeys, and numerous other creatures native to the DRC. At 6.5 acres, this incredibly detailed recreation of an African rainforest affords its diverse residents plenty of room to do what comes naturally. Check out this mother western lowland gorilla and infant just hanging out and chilling on a peaceful summer afternoon in the Bronx:


I’ve had the pleasure of observing okapi in many zoo collections– Miami, Cincinnati, San Diego, Dallas, and St. Louis among them– but Bronx remains the best place I’ve seen for giving the visitor a sense of what it would be like to watch okapi in the wild. Even glimpsing an okapi in its actual Ituri Forest habitat, however, would require  near-miraculous luck. With its large ears and keen hearing, a wild okapi would detect your presence long before you ever got close enough to see it, then simply melt away into the shadows of the forest, where its coat pattern and coloring would render it invisible.


Cloaked from inquiring eyes and taxonomic minds in its remote African forest stronghold, the okapi thus remained hidden from the Western world until explorer Henry Morton Stanley–of the immortal line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”– offered a first glimmer that a mysterious ungulate lurked in the Congo’s dense jungles. In his 1890 book In Darkest Africa, Stanley wrote: ” The Wambutti (these dwarfs) knew a donkey and called it ‘Atti’. They say that they sometimes catch them in pits. What they can find to eat is a wonder. They eat leaves.”

Portrait of Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley

Coming in Okapi Lore Part 2: Sir Harry Johnston and the okapi’s true identity revealed…


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