Searching for an elusive okapi

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 first photograph of a live okapi, taken by Signor Ribotti sometime before September 1907.

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.


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    February 13, 2009

    The Harts certainly have photographs of wild okapis, as I’ve suggested before. I’ve not gotten around to contacting them but I did find this picture:

    on Therese Hart’s blog of a wild okapi that was radio collared in the 1980s.

    One has to be careful … even if the information being provided is being written out carefully and with care, it is possible to misinterpret. From the caption on the web site, I can not say for sure that this is a photograph of a wild okapi in the wild at the time of the photograph (though it sure looks like it). But, the Flicker caption says:

    “This is of course a photo of an okapi in the wild. It was taken by me or John, I forget which— but no camera trap. The okapi does have a collar and we were following it with a hand-held antenna and receiver ”

    Does it count if it’s got a collar? Probably.

    So that is ca 1988 +/- 2-3 years. That’s the earliest I got for you. Certainly earlier than these crazy French people’s claim! Maybe….

  2. #2 chat
    February 13, 2009

    very good sites

  3. #3 Raymond Minton
    February 13, 2009

    As I recall, the first skin of an okapi was thought to be that of an unknown species of zebra because of the stripes, and they’re still elusive, mysterious creatures over a century after they were discovered. It’s a shame the giraffe and okapi are the only survivors of what was once a very diverse family.

  4. #4 Lilian Nattel
    February 13, 2009

    That is very cool and I’d never heard of this animal before.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    February 13, 2009

    They taste a little like forest hog with a hint of buffalo. But I’ve never tried any really fresh.

  6. #6 simian
    February 13, 2009

    That little one is so cute! Definitely a very beautiful animal. And Greg – you really ate one? And you didn’t save me any? (just kidding – I’m a vegetarian).

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    February 15, 2009

    I didn’t mean to eat it. (Sort of) I came across a poacher’s camp where an Okapi had been killed and processed, the meat smoked. There was so much meat from this one animal that the poachers could not carry it all away, so there was (a little bit) left. So of course, we ate it. You eat what you find in the rain forest..

    Otherwise I probably would have avoided it … I certainly would never have bought any Okapi meat at a market or from a person who had some. (Don’t want to encourage the market, obviously).

  8. #8 chat
    February 15, 2009

    very good sites

  9. #9 Rowan
    February 15, 2009

    when i lived in san diego, i was a member of the zoological society. in the summer during the “park at dark” months, i would trek to the wild animal park after work and on the weekends.

    there i would traverse the trails of the heart of africa exhibit. i loved walking through the enclosures for the okapi. it was one of the areas i would usually stop for a long period of time to simply watch those beautiful animals.

    now that i have moved away from that region of the country i regret never buying one of the okapi plushies from the gift store.

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