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The Okapi

The Okapi
Mysterious Animal of Congo-Zaire
Foreword by Jane Goodall; illustrated by Mary Neel Green

In this popularly written book, three long-time observers of the okapi present a complete, contemporary natural history of this appealing relative of the giraffe.

April 1999
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
147 pages | 6 x 9 | 105 line drawings |

Congo-Zaire contains Africa's largest remaining tracts of intact rain forest, making it one of the most important regions for biodiversity conservation. Its Ituri Forest is home to plants and animals native to nowhere else on earth, including the elusive and little-known okapi.

In this popularly written book, three long-time observers of the okapi present a complete, contemporary natural history of this appealing relative of the giraffe. They recount its discovery by European explorers and describe its appearance and life cycle. They also discuss current efforts to preserve the species, both in the wild and at zoos around the world.

Illustrated with charming line drawings, The Okapi will be a valuable resource for conservationists and zoo visitors alike-indeed anyone fascinated by the mysterious animal of Congo-Zaire.

  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Description of the Okapi
  • 3. Captivity
  • 4. Field Studies
  • 5. Conservation
  • How Can You Help?
  • Selected Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Index

Susan Lyndaker Lindsey is Executive Director of the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center in St. Louis. Mary Neel Green is a docent and artist specializing in public education at the Dallas Zoo, where Cynthia L. Bennett is Curator of Research.


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Emerald foliage hangs like a thick textured curtain, making it difficult to enter, but once one is within the rain forest, the shade provides a welcome relief from the equatorial sun. Ground vegetation thins and movement becomes easier. High overhead, the leaf canopy spreads, resembling a shimmering stained-glass window held in place by thick, tall tree trunks. Smaller young trees reach up toward the distant sun. An earthy, rich smell dominates the stagnant, humid air, but every so often, there is the faint, sweet fragrance of a nearby blooming plant.

The rain forest is alive with the varied sounds of many birds, the whirr of insects, and the calls of unseen primates. At the base of a huge tree a large russet-colored animal silently browses, using its long tongue to reach up into the trees for leaves. Suddenly the animal freezes as if listening to something. With a crash, a large branch falls from an adjacent tree, and instantly the animal disappears into the Ituri Forest.

For decades stories circulated about unusual animals in the dark jungle at the center of Africa. Such lore was probably inspired by Phillip Gosse's book, The Romance of Natural History, published in 1861. He speculated that those animals yet to be discovered would be found in central Africa. Gosse thought that this might include the unicorn because natives in the Congo had told him about a horned animal they called "abada." Imaginations were stirred. It would be two decades before this particular mystery would be solved.

While exploring the Congo between 1882, and 1886, Wilhelm Junket, a wealthy physician, received an unusual piece of striped skin from an animal the people of the area called "makapi." Not realizing the importance of the unidentified skin, he decided that this animal must be a musk deer.

In June of 1889, a French army officer's journal of a trip in central Africa described in detail a beautiful animal seen along a river bank. Captain Jean Baptise Marchand saw a timid animal that appeared ready to run at any second, while other animals nearby were only curious. The captain did not find this animal mentioned in any zoological literature; he decided that it might be an antelope.

The most authentic information about the mystery animal came from Sir Henry Morton Stanley. He had made his first trip to Africa in 1871 for the New York Herald in order to search for Dr. David Livingston, a missionary who had disappeared three years earlier. Following his famous encounter with Dr. Livingston, Stanley spent many years exploring Africa, commissioned by King Leopold II of Belgium. In his book In Darkest Africa, published in 1890, Stanley wrote in an appendix, "The Wambutti (these dwarfs) knew a donkey and called it 'Atti.' They say that they sometimes catch them in pits. What they can find to eat is a wonder. They eat leaves." Although Stanley had never seen an "atti," his brief mention of the creature became a fortuitous step toward solution of the mystery when it attracted the attention of Sir Harry Johnston. Prior to assuming the office of governor of the British Protectorate of Uganda in 1899, Johnston spoke with Stanley in person about his interest in the "atti." Stanley related to Johnston that he and his men had only occasionally caught a glimpse of the animal while traveling in the Congo on the west side of the Semliki River, which flows from Lake Albert to Lake Edward. Johnston was determined to obtain a skin and learn as much about the "atti" as he could.

In 1900 several Mbuti pygmies (a term often used for the world's shortest people, derived from a Greek word meaning "half an arm's length") were kidnapped by a German impresario who wanted to display them at the Paris World's Fair. The Belgian government of the Congo sought Johnston's help when the smugglers fled to Uganda. Johnston agreed to see that the Mbuti hunters were returned to their home in the Ituri Forest. While they were in his care, he talked to them about Stanley's "atti." The natives told Johnston that there was a large animal in their forest that looked like a donkey with stripes. They called it "o'api." Johnston wondered, since it had stripes, if this was a forest zebra.

It was several months before Johnston was able to return the Mbuti to their home in the Ituri. On the way, he stopped at Fort Mbeni in the Semliki Forest, a post commanded by Lieutenant Meura. When questioned about this animal, the Belgian told him that there was a skin somewhere in the camp. It had been cut up by the soldiers of the Bambuba tribe to make bandoliers and belts. Two of the bandoliers were given to Johnston. The Bambuba called the striped animal "okapi."

Johnston was so excited about finding additional evidence that this animal existed that he organized an expedition immediately. Some of the Mbuti were his guides. As they traveled the forest paths, the Mbuti would point out the tracks of the "o'api." They were not at all what Johnston expected. Zebras, donkeys, and horses had one toe or hoof on each foot, but this animal was cloven-hooved, possessing two toes on each foot. He suspected the Mbuti might be misleading him intentionally.

After a few days, Johnston had to abandon his search because his party came down with malaria. Belgian soldiers assisted Johnston's expedition in their return to Uganda. He was very disappointed that he had not seen or caught an "o'api." Lieutenant Meura promised to send him a whole skin. Immediately upon returning to Uganda, Johnston sent the pieces of skin (the bandoliers) he had received at Fort Mbeni to Europe for identification. It was October, 1900.

Sometime in November, Dr. P L. Sclater, secretary of the Zoological Society of London, opened a diplomatic bag. It held a letter and two strips of brown and white striped skin. The letter stated that the "bandoliers" were made by native soldiers from the skin of an unknown animal. Dr. Sclater had never before seen such a skin. He immediately examined the strips under a microscope and found that the hair appeared to be similar to that of the zebra and the giraffe, but different from that of the antelope. Intrigued, he first exhibited them at the December 18, 1900, meeting of the London Zoological Society.

Newspapers soon circulated the news that evidence of a new, large, living animal had been discovered in Africa. Rumors and speculations began to fly across Europe and America. Was this a concocted tale? Was this animal a hoax? How could an animal this large go undetected for so long?

If the stories were true, what kind of an animal could it be? It was supposed to have ears like a donkey. Perhaps it was a type of horse or donkey? It was said to have stripes. Maybe it was a forest zebra? Others thought that it could be a type of antelope or musk deer. Could it be the fabled unicorn, mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman writings? Some thought it might be a "missing link" to an ancient animal that lived thousands of years ago.

Europe, deep in its colonial heritage, was enthralled with the idea of new exotic lands, people, plants, and animals. What were their explorers and merchants going to bring home next for them to see and buy? When would they get to see this new sensation?

The new animal was named Equus johnstoni at a February 5, 1901, meeting of the Zoological Society of London because scholars thought it was most likely a new zebra species.

Meanwhile back in Uganda, Johnston waited for more information from Lieutenant Meura about the "o'api." Unfortunately, shortly after making his promise to Johnston, the lieutenant died of black-water fever. However, the second-in-command, Lieutenant Karl Erikson, a Scandinavian, followed through, and in February 1901 sent Johnston a skin and skull from one animal, plus an additional smaller skull. In the enclosed note he described the hooves as being bluish-black in color, like those of an antelope-and cloven.

When Johnston received the skulls in April, he made a fascinating discovery. To his surprise the "o'api" was not a horse, zebra, or antelope. From the shape of the skull and teeth, its nearest relative appeared to be the giraffe. He thought perhaps it was a descendant of an ancient giraffid, such as the Helladotherium that lived in Asia and Europe several million years ago. Apparently, no one had thought that this secretive resident of the Ituri Forest could be a giraffe. The skin and skulls were sent to England accompanied by a letter and a watercolor of what Johnston thought two living "o'api" would look like—even though he had yet to see one.

Sir Harry Johnston's second package arrived in London, causing as much excitement as the first. At the May 7, 1901, meeting of the Zoological Society, the two skulls and the skin were displayed. Johnston was present at the June 8, igoi, meeting to give a narrative of the discovery of the "o'api." He suggested that its scientific name be Helladotherium tigrunum; tigrunum because of the animal's white stripes. Later that year and after much study, Sir E. Ray Lankester, director of the British Museum of Natural History, proposed that this newly revealed animal's scientific nomenclature be Okapia johnstoni; Okapia because he felt that it should have its own genus, since the head and teeth differed significantly from the Helladotherium, and johnstoni in honor of Johnston's contribution. It would become known by its generic name, okapi.


The Ituri Forest, in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Zaire), is home to the okapi and numerous other species of animals and plants. Located in the center, or heart, of Africa along the equator, it covers approximately 23,000 square miles (60,000 km2), which is about the size of the states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined. The climate is quite mild, having an average temperature of 75.9°F (24.4°C). Temperatures seldom range below 70°F (21.1°C) or above 90°F (32.2°C). The Ituri experiences no drastic change of seasons although there are two distinctive rainy seasons, with April and November being the wettest months. It rains almost every day, although somewhat less rain falls in January, the driest month. The average rainfall is 78.56 inches (200 cm) and the relative humidity stays fairly constant at 95 percent. Comprising lowlands, hills, and swamps, the Ituri is very much like other rain forests of the world where the trees remain green year round. Shedding and growing new leaves continuously, a tree may have flowers and fruit at the same time. Although the soil is shallow, the nutrients are constantly being recycled. The vegetation of the forest is arranged in layers, or tiers, with certain plants and animals living within each level.

The forest is not silent. During the day, the vocalizations of birds and monkeys echo through the dense atmosphere. At night insects such as crickets and cicadas produce their characteristic sounds by rubbing their rear legs together. A tree hyrax gives its startling, screaming alarm call. Running water of meandering streams can be heard in the distance. Periodically storms stir the forest with their winds and heavy rain. The trees sway and creak, leaning upon one another in the violence. Each deluge leaves behind the smell of freshly washed nature.

On quiet days, a colorful flash of a bird is glimpsed as it flits from limb to limb looking for nesting material or something tasty to eat. Slowly, a bright swallowtail butterfly flutters by in its continuing search for nectar. The young terminal leaves of some of the bushes show a reddish color against the vivid green background. Here and there, about halfway up some tree trunks, epiphytes have attached themselves as shaggy, green, decorative bracelets in order to catch as much moisture and light as possible. Orchids and ferns also are attached to the trunks for support. Lying on the ground are the faded hues of petals that have fallen from blossoms high in the trees. Moss covers some of the tree trunks and buttress roots with a soft, thick, green carpet. Liana vines climb upward, leaning on the giant trees for support. Only plants that have evolved to tolerate dim sunlight can survive; these include the stout palms, lacy ferns, and delicate fungi. Grass is found only in breaks in the forest caused by fallen trees weakened by decay or storms. Only here is the sun bright and unfiltered. A few old narrow paths made centuries ago by traveling animals and humans run through the Ituri.

Every level of this rain forest has its own active, busy birds. Parrots such as the African grays, which are considered to be the best of all mimics, live here. Their ability to mimic sounds was even noted in ancient writings. African grays were kept as pets by the natives long before their discovery by Europeans. About thirteen inches (33 cm) long, this parrot appears to have an overall color of soft pastel gray except for its bright scarlet tail and black wingtips. The breast feathers have whitish margins, giving them a scalloped appearance. A bare, white facial area extends past the eyes. Seed eaters, the African grays assist in the propagation of the next generation of plants when they drop seeds onto the forest floor while feeding in the tree tops. Parrots usually travel in large flocks, making a screeching, chattering blur of color at dawn and dusk as they fly to and from their feeding areas.

A black-billed turaco might be seen running along a tree limb, almost like a squirrel, foraging through the foliage for fruit and berries. The only green turaco in the Ituri, they possess unique pigments in their feathers. Bright red flight feathers contain a pigment called turacin that is about 5 percent copper and soluble in water. The vivid green they wear is also a pure pigment-the only true green pigment found in birds. Most bird coloration is due to refraction of light. The black-billed turaco's head is topped with a short, rounded crest edged in white. The bird is about sixteen inches (41 cm) in length, including its long tail.

Searching the forest floor for food, usually under fruit trees, is a rare member of the pheasant family, the Congo peacock. The quiet ways of this secretive bird made its detection difficult, and it remained unknown outside Africa until the early twentieth century. Dr. James Chapin got his first clue of its existence in 1913 when he collected only a single feather from a native's hat while traveling with Herbert Lang in the Ituri Forest in search of the okapi. Later, Chapin saw a bird mounted and incorrectly identified in a Belgian museum. On another expedition to the Congo in 1937, he was able to obtain some specimens. Pheasants are usually found only in Asia and Malaysia; this species is the only pheasant in Africa. The male is black with iridescent green, violet, and blue feathers and a crown of black and white bristle feathers on its head. A brown-and-white crown and iridescent green feathers are found on the predominantly brown, and well camouflaged, female. Although ground feeders, Congo peacocks roost in trees at night. A monogamous pair will perch on a tree limb facing one another and bow deeply while spreading their tails in a courtship display.

Fifteen primate species live in this forest; two species are nocturnal. The Angolan black-and-white colobus monkey, which is also known as the white-epauletted black colobus, lives high in the canopy and seldom comes to the ground. This agile animal's body is black except for its white, fluffy facial whiskers and shoulders covered with a shawl of long, white plumes of hair. Its tail is long, black, and ends in a large tuft of white. The colobus babies are all white at birth and gradually become darker as they age. The colobus's long, plumed shawl was used by African tribesmen for ceremonial capes, headdresses, and shields. Legends that the colobus monkeys were messengers of the gods arose from their habit of sitting high in the treetops at sunrise and sunset as if they were in prayer. Arab traders carried their furs to Asia, where they were prized possessions. Some furs found their way to Venice. In the nineteenth century, the furs became very popular in Europe; by 1892, 175,000 skins were exported to Europe alone. Luckily, this fur went out of style—probably saving the colobus from extinction.

Chimpanzees travel the trees in the rain forest, swinging from one to another. They also move swiftly on land with a loping, three-legged gallop. A large, complex range of vocalizations and facial expressions are important in their day-to-day communication within the social groups in which they live. Some chimpanzees have been observed using tools, such as sticks, to fish termites from their mounds. Chimpanzees may also use stones to crack nuts, and where rocks are scarce they will retrieve those they used previously. Tool-use techniques and information regarding edible plants are passed on from adult to offspring.

Rain forests harbor natural wonders such as medicinal plants. Some are discovered when observers note their use by birds and mammals. A female chimp, while suffering from an intestinal ailment, was observed to search out a rarely eaten plant, Vernonia amugdaine, and chew its leaves. According to the observer, she swallowed only the bitter juice. She fully recovered from her ailment, and this recovery was attributed by the observer to the medicinal properties of the ingested plant—one which natives used for a similar purpose.

A nighttime arboreal feeder in the Ituri Forest is the dwarf galago, or bush baby. Smallest of all primates, it is only about eight inches (ao cm) long. Large eyes and ears and a tiny face give it an endearing expression. Its cry sounds very much like that of a human baby, hence the name "bush baby." The dwarf galago rests by day in dense foliage, hollow trees, or abandoned bird nests. During the day, it appears lethargic. At night, however, the dwarf galago is extremely active and agile as it leaps from limb to limb looking for insects, spiders, flowers, honey, fruit, or bird eggs to eat.

The largest animal residing in the Ituri is the forest elephant, a subspecies of African elephant. While about two feet (61 cm) shorter than the more-common savanna or bush elephant, the forest version has more hair and is darker in color. It carries its head lower to the ground, and its slender tusks, composed of harder ivory, closer to its knees than does its savanna relatives. One easy way to identify a forest elephant is by observing its feet. It has five toenails on the forefeet and four on the hind feet, whereas the bush elephant has four on the forefeet and three on the hind feet. Like all elephant populations, their numbers have been greatly reduced by ivory poachers.

The bongo, weighing about 500 pounds (227 kg), is the largest antelope in the Ituri. Its coat is a bright chestnut red with broadly spaced, narrow white stripes that transverse its back from the shoulders to the hindquarters. Bongo horns are large, beige, and slope backward with a slight twist. Browsers, the bongo prefer the dense forest cover, especially during the hotter part of the day.

Six species of forest duikers inhabit the Ituri. Duiker (pronounced "diker") is a Dutch word that means "dive." When alarmed, these small antelope dive into the underbrush of the forest to hide. They can also move swiftly through the forest. Because their slender forelegs are slightly shorter than their hind legs, duikers appear to stand with their backs hunched and their heads to the ground. The largest species is the yellowbacked duiker, which may stand 33 inches (84 cm) at the shoulder and weigh 100 to 140 pounds (45.4-63.5 kg). On its head is a small rufous crest, and on its back the characteristic triangular yellow stripe starts at the middle and broadens over the rump. The blue duiker, the smallest in the Ituri, weighs between 8.8 and 13.2 pounds (4-6 kg) and is slate gray in color.

The epiphytes that decorate the trees thirty to forty feet (9-12 m) above the ground may house a sleeping African tree pangolin. This unusual looking animal has large overlapping scales that cover most of its body. For this reason, it is sometimes called the scaly anteater. Although it is not related to anteaters, they do share a similar diet. A pangolin will dig into cement-hard ground termite mounds but can also break into termite tree nests by using the long claws on its forefeet while bracing with its hind legs and prehensile tail. When a cavity is made in the nest, the pangolin's sticky, wormlike tongue moves quickly to catch the escaping termites. Ants also are a preferred food item. A pangolin's enemies include man, leopards, and pythons. To escape predators it may climb the nearest tree lineman fashion, using its four feet and long muscular tail, or it may protect itself by rolling into a hard, spiky ball. The ball posture is also assumed while the pangolin sleeps high above the floor of the rain forest.

Perhaps the best-known predator in the Ituri is the leopard. Relatively small, weighing between 100 and 150 pounds (45-68 kg), this feline is strong for its size. The leopard is usually solitary and nocturnal. Its black rosettes, or rings of spots, and tawny color camouflage it well as it waits on a tree branch for prey to pass underneath. Dropping upon its chosen victim, it administers a killing bite to the neck. The leopard has the strength to nimbly climb high up into a tree while carrying captured prey, which often matches it in weight. Once its meal is treed and secured from scavengers, the cat can eat at its leisure. Nearby farmers have an unusual ally in leopards, since they prey upon bushpigs and monkeys that raid crops. Leopards are strong swimmers that love the water and often hunt prey which frequent the streams and creeks. The feline's vocalizations, which sound like rasping coughs, communicate territorial presence, as do clawing, rubbing their cheeks, or spraying urine on trees. The leopard, aside from humans, is the primary predatory threat to the okapi.



“This book will have long-lasting effects on conservation of the okapi and preservation of the forest: the authors’ research will heighten awareness of the plight of the okapi, and their royalties will go directly to helping . . . the Ituri Forest conservation program. You will be helping if you buy this book and encourage your friends to do the same. Okapis have a special place in the natural world, and it is up to us to ensure that they and their forests survive.”
Jane Goodall


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