Okapi feed on leaves, buds and shoots of trees, grass, ferns, fruit, fungi and manioc. Many of the plant species they feed upon are known to be poisonous to humans.
American journalist and adventurer, Henry Morton Stanley accepted New York Herald's mission "to go and find Livingstone". In his diary HOW I FOUND LIVINGSTONE (1872) Stanley presents his story without magnifying his epic adventure of hardships during the journey. He travelled 700 miles in 236 days before he found the ailing Scottish missionary-explorer David Livingstone on the island of Ujiji. At meeting Livingstone, Stanley tried to hide his enthusiasm and uttered his famous greeting: "Doctor Livingstone, I presume!"
Stanley was considered the most effective explorer of his day, who led expeditions along the Congo and the Nile in 1874-77.
I would have run to him, only I was a coward in the presence of such a mob - would have embraced him, but that I did not know how he would receive me; so I did what moral cowardice and false pride suggested was the best thing - walked deliberately to him, took off my hat, and said:
"DR. LIVINGSTONE, I PRESUME?"
"Yes," said he, with a kind, cordial smile, lifting his cap slightly.
(from How I Found Livingstone)
Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston (1858-1927), British explorer, botanist, and pioneer colonial administrator. From an early age he showed an interest in the natural sciences. This was later combined with a concern for the political problems of colonial Africa. He set off on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa in 1882. In 1883 encountered Henry Morton Stanley in the Congo Basin. Widely travelled in Africa and speaking many African languages, he was closely involved in what has been called the scramble for Africa by 19th-century colonial powers.
Harry Hamilton Johnston, pencil sketch by T.B. Wirgman, 1894; in the National Portrait Gallery, …
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London
The Pygmy peoples know the forest, its plants and its animals intimately. They live by hunting animals such as antelopes, pigs and monkeys, fishing, and gathering honey, wild yams, berries and other plants. They are the smallest people on earth with men averaging 4'8" and women 4' 6".
The rare and elusive okapi has sparked such interest worldwide that it has been immortalized in a series of stamps - not only in Africa, but on other continents as well.
Okapi distribution. The Ituri Forest, home to the okapi, lies on the Equator, west of Lake Albert and overlooked by the lofty snow-range of the Mountains of the Moon.
In 1888, when the intrepid American explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley led his first expedition across the forests of the northern Congo, he surmised that this region "held the greatest marvels of Africa". He was right.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, is the most biologically diverse country in Africa. It has the largest portion of the continent's tropical forests and tops the list for Africa in virtually every group of organisms except plants (second to South Africa).
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a number of globally important flagship species, the best known being the pygmy chimpanzee, the eastern lowland gorilla, the Congo peafowl, the fishing genet, the northern white rhino, and the okapi, all of them endemic and of great international significance.
The almost 2 000 000 square kilometers of tropical rainforest in the DRC and Cameroon rank second only to Brazil in size. Flowing through this vast forest is the second largest river system on earth, the mighty Congo. The Congo has one of the largest drainage systems in Africa which has yielded a number of major evolutionary discoveries.
In the northeast of the DRC there is a dense and verdant rainforest described by early explorers and natural scientists as the original Eden. The Ituri Forest, one of the great rainforest wildernesses of the world, lies on the Equator, west of Lake Albert and overlooked by the lofty snow-range of the Mountains of the Moon.
Since ancient times, in the Ituri forest, there lived a mythical creature known only to the forest dwellers. An inhabitant of dense forest where they lived a secluded life, this creature's acute hearing and effective camouflage enabled it to move about in the wild undetected by man. This creature later became known to the world as the okapi.
Nineteenth century explorers sometimes caught a fleeting glimpse of the okapi's striped backside as the animal fled through the bushes, leading to speculation that the okapi was some sort of rainforest zebra. The word okapi was derived from the pygmy word O'Api, which sounded like 'okapi' to the explorers. It was known to the Pygmy as a sacred animal.
In 1889, Henry Stanley set out to confirm the existence of this secretive and elusive creature. In 1890 he became the first Westerner to report the existence of an animal known to the Wambutti pygmies as the O'api, which he misheard as "atti."
The Wambutti pygmies, who inhabit the dense Ituri Forest, would occasionally capture an O'api in their hunting pits. In his travelogue of exploring the Congo, Stanley mentioned the 'atti', which scholars later identified as the okapi.
Okapi first became known to the scientific community through the British explorer and author Sir Harry Johnston at the turn of the century when he undertook a journey into the Congo to discover more about this mysterious creature.
Sir Harry was subsequently appointed as the British governor of Uganda. In the course of his duties, he came across some Wambutti pygmy inhabitants of the Congo who were being abducted by a German showman for exhibition in Europe. He rescued them and promised to return them to their homes. He befriended the Wambutti and learned more about the O'api from them. The grateful Wambutti fed Johnston's curiosity about the animal mentioned in Stanley's book. Sir Harry obtained two headbands fashioned from okapi skins which he sent to the Zoological Society of London in 1900.
Initially Sir Harry thought the okapi to be an unknown species of forest zebra because of its stripes, but, in fact, it bears a remarkable resemblance to primitive ancestors of the giraffe, known only from fossils.
The Wambutti also showed him tracks which they said were those of the okapi. Sir Harry was puzzled by the tracks. While he had expected to be on the trail of some sort of forest-dwelling horse, the tracks were of a cloven-hoofed animal and therefore could not be from a member of the horse family.
Later Karl Eriksson, the commandant of the Belgian Fort Mberi, sent Sir Harry a complete skin and two skulls. These were dispatched to the Zoological Society of London. The skulls proved that the okapi was not a new species of horse but instead a kind of forest giraffe. Although Sir Harry never saw an okapi himself, the okapi was given the scientific name Okapia johnstoni (Johnston's horse) in his honour. It was only later, when a complete skin and some bones were examined, that it was found that the okapi was not, in fact, related to the horse.
Shortly after its discovery by Europeans, an ancient carved image of the animal was discovered in Egypt, which proved that the okapi was known to the ancient Egyptians.
Half of Africa's tropical forests lie within the DRC's lush Congo River basin. Amid these vast equatorial rainforests, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which occupies about one fifth of the Ituri Forest, protects plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, as well as Pygmy people whose rare unbroken relationship to the environment depends upon the forest's survival.
The Reserve contains threatened species of primates and birds, an immensely diverse flora, and dramatic scenery including waterfalls on the Ituri and Epulu rivers. The Reserve is also home to the most important population of okapi (more than 4 000) which is locally and internationally recognized as the flagship species for the conservation of the entire Ituri ecosystem. In fact, it is the national symbol of all the protected areas of the Congo.
But despite the forest's bounty, humans and wildlife in the Reserve face serious threats. Elephants are poached for ivory; habitat is cleared for farming; and gold, diamonds, and coltan (a mineral used in cellular phone technology) are mined more and more aggressively.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, one year after receiving World Heritage status, due to reports that the armed conflict, which spread to the eastern parts of the country in early 1997, had led to the looting of facilities and the killing of elephants in this site. In the latter part of 1998, as a result of renewed fighting in the area, equipment donated by international conservation NGOs has been looted and the staff who were in the process of reviving conservation activities had to be evacuated.
The World Conservation Union, IUCN ascribes habitat loss as a major threat to the continued survival of okapi in their natural environment. The habitat loss is brought about by the clearing of the forests for agriculture and infrastructure development for human settlements. Okapi are also subjected to the trade in bushmeat. It is estimated that there are only about 10 000 okapis left in the wild in the DRC, and their numbers are dwindling rapidly.
In the heart of the Ituri Forest, is one of the last remaining Pygmy villages. The pygmy groups in the forest are the Efe and Mbuti. Mbuti Pygmy have lived in the Ituri Forest for centuries, perhaps millennia.
The 'Pygmy' peoples know the forest, its plants and its animals intimately. Pygmies excel in the use and identification of wild plants. They live by hunting animals such as antelopes, pigs and monkeys, fishing, and gathering honey, wild yams, berries and other plants. For them, the forest is a kindly personal god, who provides for their needs. They are the smallest people on earth with men averaging 4'8" and women 4' 6".
The different Pygmy groups speak different languages, mostly related to those of neighbouring non-Pygmy peoples. However, there are a few words which are shared between even widely separated Pygmy tribes, suggesting they may have shared a language in the past. One of these shared words is the name of the forest spirit, Jengi.
Until 2000 the human population in the forest was relatively low, with few permanent settlements, mostly along the roads, and with some gold-mining in the interior. But since the disturbances in Kivu to the south, Nande and urban Bantu immigrant cultivators are increasingly encroaching on the forest from the southeast.
In 2000-2001, due to a brief ten-fold increase in the world price of coltan, there was an inrush of 4,000 coltan miners needing meat. With the accompanying Rwandan Interahamwe and Congolese Mayi-Mayi armed militias these wiped out the animals around their camps, threatening the Mbutu pygmy way of life.
During the DRC's civil war years marked by mass murder, rampant rape, and widespread destruction, the pygmies risked their life to protect this extraordinary wilderness. As the Reserve's habitat was destroyed and animals were killed, they led animals, including the okapi, into the densest parts of the forest to prevent them from being slaughtered.
Okapi are unmistakable. Although it bears striped markings reminiscent of the zebra, it is most closely related to the giraffe. Also known as forest giraffes, their build is similar to that of a giraffe but with shorter necks. They have relatively long legs. Striking features include their large ears and a long blue-black tongue that is used to strip the leaves off branches. Their colouring is very distinctive with short, dark chestnut hair with bold horizontal white stripes on the upper front legs and the flanks of the animal. These markings are thought to be "follow me" markings intended to help young follow their mothers through the dense rainforest, and also serve as camouflage. Unlike giraffes, only the males have skin-covered horns.
The okapi is the most unique of all the flagship species of the DRC. At 14 inches, the okapi's tongue is so long that it can lick its eyelids and ears to clean them. It is one of the few mammals that can lick its own ears. The okapi keeps itself very clean by licking its body. Zoo keepers take advantage of this habit when an okapi needs medication by pouring it over the animal's back. The okapi licks it off at once and ingests the medicine.
Their dark brown velvety coat and zebra striped legs serve as camouflage in the dense rainforest. The okapi's unusual coloration helps to break up the shape of the animal in the dense rainforests where the canopy breaks up the sunlight into shifting patterns barely penetrating to the forest floor. A cryptic coloration, quiet demeanor, and excellent senses of smell and hearing, help the okapi to avoid detection by humans and predators alike.
Where optimal habitat exists, the okapi occurs in fairly high densities. Females occupy home ranges averaging two square kilometers; males wander over as much as five square kilometers. The biology of the okapi has evolved to help protect it from predation. For a quite large animal, it is seldom encountered in its forest home.
In their native habitat okapis are wary and elusive.
They live a solitary existence, coming together only to mate. After a gestation period of between 14 and 15 months, the female gives birth to a solitary calf. The young okapi suckles for up to 10 months and is not fully developed until 4 or 5 years of age.
They feed on leaves, buds and shoots of trees, which they can reach with their long tongues, and on grass, ferns, fruit, fungi and manioc. They forage along fixed, well-trodden paths through the forest. Many of the plant species fed upon by the okapi are known to be poisonous to humans.
Okapi's natural enemies include leopard and the youngsters fall prey to serval cat and the golden cat.
Okapis have several methods of communicating their territory, including scent glands on each foot that leave behind a tar-like substance which signals their passage, as well as urine marking. Males are protective of their territory, but allow females to pass through their domain to forage.
Symbol of cryptozoology
The okapi is the symbol of cryptozoology - the search for animals that are rumoured to exist, but for which conclusive proof is missing. This includes the search for living examples of animals that are known to have existed at one time, but are widely considered to be extinct today.
For years, Europeans in Africa had heard of an animal that they came to call 'the African unicorn'. The story of the okapi shows that a legendary animal known only to native peoples can exist.
Also read: National Zoo gets rare okapis