Friday, February 4, 2011

Stripes aren't all bad or all stripes aren't bad

     Last post we looked into two prominent species that have went extinct after the introduction of Europeans to their habitat.  Both animals displayed a striped pattern on one end of their body or the other.  If that was a singular example, one wonders why stripes do not indicate points on the dart board. However, there is one animal that is not totally striped (as for now the zebra seems safe, although Tigers are having a rough go) that seems to be rather stable. In fact, it is not as rare as you may think: The Okapi.

   The IUCN Red book lists these guys are "near threatened." Last account I heard on a nature show indicated that there are estimated around 10,000 to 20,000 in the wild. Zoo Basel ( shows about 160 in captivity, making them "reasonably common" in zoos.

    The discovery of this animal by Europeans is somewhat of an adventure story. The entire write up in the American review of reviews can be read here, but I will give a brief high point synopsis.

     The animal was rumored to exist in popular press accounts of Stanley's adventures in Africa in 1887. Okapi remains found their way to london in 1901 creating a sensation.  The remains were sent by the British Governor of Uganda Sir Henry Johnston. Johnston's connection to the Okapi is even more strange.  Apparently the Governor was alerted, or in some other manner made known, of a pygmy smuggling operation within his jurisdiction.

     Apparently a German showman was in the Congo capturing pygmies for exhibition in a traveling show. (circus, perhaps?)  I have done quite a bit of research on zoos and specimen collecting, the most prominent German showman was Carl Hagenbeck, but I have not seen any references that it was eitehr he or his associates that were doing the "collecting." That is not to say they did not, but Hagenbeck is a topic for another post.

    Sir Henry daringly rescued the captive pygmies. (I have no idea whether he daringly or bravely did anything, for all I know it was a Scooby-Doo trap that went awry and somehow managed to work out in the end.) Anyway the grateful, now rescued, pygmies told Johnston more about this mythical creature mentioned in Stanley's accounts.  I am unsure whether it is pygmy custom to tell stories when you have been rescued or if the Okapi just came up in polite conversation.

These are NOT the grateful rescued pygmies, neither is this Sir Henry. They are full grown adults and he is your typical run-of-the-mill British explorer to the Congo. (Photo: wikipedia, and that is why I do not know more about it.)

       Now let us assume the grateful rescued pygmies were slightly happier than he ones in the above photograph.  They continued to tell Johnson about the Okapi. Some tribes and people even began to refer to it as the "African unicorn." This is more for its cleverness at remaining hidden and less from the fact that it had one horn. Fact is, most, if not all, eyewitness accounts involved fleeting glimpses of an Okapi backside racing into the rainforest. Any explorer would be remiss in guessing that it had a head,  no matter the number of horns upon it. 

    Sir Henry Johnston never saw the okapi for himself, but managed to obtain some striped skin, and eventually a skull.  I imagine that these both came from the local tribe of pygmies that Johnson remained close too.  The skull arrived in London in 1901.  After thorough examination the Okapi was placed within the same family as the giraffe.  Thanks to a bungling German pygmy catcher, an aware British colonial governor, and grateful rescued pygmies the world was at last aware of a large mammal living in the Congo.   A rare feat, even in the very earliest part of the 20th century.  The Okapi now bears the name of its "founder" : Okapi johnstoni.

     Some argued at first that the okapi must be related to the zebra, given that it has stripes. Not the soundest science I have ever heard, but I have heard stranger reasonings for more simple things.  But later genetic analysis confirmed the skull placement in the giraffe family.  The okapi has a much shorter neck, but the same sizes tongue.  The tongue is long enough to wash its own eyelids and clean its ears, inside and out.  

    Based on the striped-so-related-to-zebra reports, many trackers went into the congo looking for the Okapi.  Most were complete dumbfounded when they found no horse  like tracks in the rainforest. Instead, if they were lucky enough to come across a track is was the track of a cloven-hoof individual.  

    Given that such a large mammal remained hidden form man (at this point I mean white european man) for so long gave the Okapi an honored place as the International Society of Cryptozoology's emblem.  The society is now largely defunct.  Some reports believe that the okapi is depicted on 2,500 year old Egyptian hieroglyphs as a gift from the Ethiopians to the Achaemenid Kingdom. 

    The name Okapi comes from two words in the Lese language. These are the pygmy people that we have become so familiar with.  first oka which means "to cut" and kpi which is the name of a design.  When an arrow is wrapped in bark and scorched with fire it leaves a striped patter on the arrow, this is called kpi.  Lese legend says that the Okapi decorate their legs with this pattern adding to their great camouflage.  I hope that either a Lese, or a Lese historian/ethnographer wrote that in the article I read, otherwise this whole last paragraph is complete bunk. I cannot substantiate it as I know no Leses (Lesi), or any pygmies, grateful, rescued or otherwise. But, it is a nice story.  

    I will say this, the okapi is mention in a book.  In fact the first time I had ever heard of this thing was in Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  Apparently Arthur Dent's brother was "nibbled to death by an Okapi."


  1. I never thought I would read something like this outside of our lovely history classes, much less enjoy it. Well done, sir. Truly the most well-studied, scholarly, and entertaining blog on the entire web!

  2. The Houston Zoo has an Okapi, which is where I became familiar with them.

  3. i didnt realise that they were soo bigg xo