I cannot recall precisely why, but okapis were on my mind this morning. Specifically, I was wondering what had become of the first photograph ever taken of a live okapi, an illustration I had heard about but had been unable to find. I was first put on the trail of the picture when, last September, the Zoological Society of London declared that they had the first photographs ever taken of an okapi in its natural habitat.
I was immediately skeptical of this claim. Had no one ever photographed an okapi in the wild? In my efforts to find an answer to this question I stumbled across references to a photo taken by Signor Ribotti and displayed to the naturalists of London by E. Ray Lankester in 1907. This was the first photograph ever taken of a live okapi, said to be taken near the Welle River in the Congo region.
Given that only skins and bones of okapi had previously made it back to Europe I would have thought that a photograph of a living one would have been widely reprinted. This does not appear to be so (although it did appear in the Illustrated London News in September 1907). My initial search came up empty, and I received no response from the Zoological Society of London as to whether they might be interested in following this interesting historical thread.
Today, however, I was in luck. In the February 1911 issue of The American Museum Journal Herbert Lang wrote a report on the museum’s recent Congo expedition. Much of the mission was spent attempting to obtain an okapi for the museum’s collection (which they did), but of greater relevance to this notice is that Signor Ribotti’s photograph was included in the report.
The photo shows a tiny animal, only a month old, standing on a featureless surface in front of a hazy background. I was hoping that Ribotti’s photograph would be of a young animal out in the forest, but it appears that this little one was captured and brought to a village or other such location to pose. This was disappointing, but I was still elated to have found my quarry.
Contrary to my hopes this photograph cannot be considered the first image of an okapi in its natural habitat, even if it is the first photograph of a living okapi. When the first image of a wild okapi was taken remains ambiguous, although Greg posted a good candidate for this distinction back in September (and, interestingly, it is another young animal, although older than the one Ribotti photographed). I do not presently have the resources to look into this question further, but I will keep it in mind should I unexpectedly find an answer.