The Okapi hangs on in Virunga


A female okapi (Okapia johnstoni), photographed at the Bronx Zoo.

There are few animals that I find as charming as the okapi (Okapia johnstoni). During the warmer months no trip to the Bronx zoo is complete until I stop by to see them. (Once the temperature drops they are taken off exhibit so they do not freeze.) While they may not always measure up to our standards of good manners, sometimes sticking their long purple tongues into their ears and noses, the okapi is one of the most beautiful animals I think I have ever seen.

Given that the nearest okapi is only a few miles away from me (as the derived theropod flies), it isn’t particularly difficult for me to observe & photograph the species, but in the wild they can be difficult to find. This is particularly the case in Virunga National Park (also home of the famous species of mountain gorilla), where it was feared that the okapi might have been extirpated from the area. Until June of this year the last previous sighting was made in 1959, but new photographs from camera traps set by the Zoological Society of London show that there are still okapi in the park.


The okapi was first made known to science (and much of the western world) at the very beginning of the 20th century. In 1901 not only were the remains of the animal described by E. Ray Lankester, but accounts of the animal relayed by the British commissioner for Uganda, H.H. Johnston, circulated in the popular press. In that year one such description was excerpted in the American Monthly Review of Reviews, detailing how Johnston came by the remains of the animal that would eventually bear his name.

While in the vicinity of the Semliki River (which runs through the Congo and Uganda), Johnston spoke to some Belgian authorities who knew of the animal. They introduced the explorer to some local people who wore parts of its hide. From these pieces of skin and other information he was able to gather, Johnston thought he was initially on the trail of the ancient three-toed horse Hipparion. He took to the jungle with a naturalist and others, but when he finally saw the tracks of the okapi in the Congo jungle he realized that he was dealing with an artiodactyl (or even-toed ungulate) and not a horse (a perissodactyl, or odd-toed ungulate). Johnston felt that the local people had deceived him, sending him off on a wild-antelope chase, but the Belgian officials promised to forward an okapi skin to Johnston if one could be procured.


“Bandoliers” made of okapi skin, sent to London by Johnston. From Lankester’s Extinct Animals.

The Belgians made good on their promise a few months later, and a skin and skull obtained by the Swede Karl Eriksson (along with another skull collected separately) were eventually forwarded to London for study. While Johnston never actually saw a living animal, the connections he made in the Congo led to the realization that there was a close relative of giraffes living in the forest.

Even after the initial discovery, it was difficult to track down the strange new animal. In the 1905 manual Big Game Shooting a description of the animal was given but little could be said of its habits. The author could only conclude that some brave British hunter would soon shoot a specimen of his own and offer further instruction. In a similar vein, in 1908 the satirical magazine Punch poked fun at Theodore Roosevelt’s penchant for big game hunting by envisioning the hunter as distressed that the okapi might have already become extinct. (The fictionalized Roosevelt decides to shoot a few lions to put himself in a better mood.)


The skull of a male okapi, sent to London by Johnston. From Lankester’s Extinct Animals.

Despite the frustrations of the fictionalized Roosevelt, there actually was hope that a scientifically-minded person might see the animal alive in its natural habitat. As reported in Nature just the year before (1907), Signor Ribotti photographed a young okapi along the Welle River in the Congo. (The photo was subsequently exhibited by Lankester in England.) It could no longer be said that explorers had no hope of seeing a living animal.

I have not been able to find Ribotti’s photograph, but if the report in Nature is correct then the new photographs do not represent the first images of the okapi in the wild (contrary to what has been reported). I will try to find this original image, but if anyone knows of where it might be seen I would encourage you to share that information in the comments. I would be very curious to know how Ribotti was able to photograph such an elusive animal with what was probably very cumbersome camera equipment!

[John Lynch, Andrew Bleiman, and Grrlscientist have also covered this story.]


  1. #1 Mo Hassan
    September 12, 2008

    I know what you mean about the appeal of the okapi. I myself can’t visit the Zoology Museum at Cambridge without stroking the stuffed okapi and giving it a pat on the stripy bum!

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    September 12, 2008

    I think I have a copy of this photograph in a book by Gatti. I can send it to you.

    Thanks for pointing out that this latest set of photos is not the “first time” they’ve been photographed in the wild.

    By the way, they taste a little like the local elephant.

  3. #3 Laelaps
    September 12, 2008

    Greg; That would be great. I’d love to have a look at the photo.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    September 12, 2008

    I’ve posted a scan of the photo on my site, along with some other info. Click the link where my name is to get there. I can send you a full reference later, but I’d actuall like to run down the source. I think it was first published in a book that I know I have laying around here somewhere….

  5. #5 "GrrlScientist"
    September 12, 2008

    HEY, greg! i also pointed out in my story that the okapi had been photographed in the wild before.

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