Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Johnstonian Jaunt for a Cryptic Creature

                          Sir Henry ‘Harry’ Hamilton Johnston was one of those remarkable Victorian explorers who ‘discovered’ Africa (which was undoubtedly quite a revelation to those people already living there) in the latter parts of the nineteenth century. In 1882-83, Harry visited Henry Morton Stanley at Stanley Pool on the River Congo, and during his stay Stanley told him about a strange, gigantic, striped pig of six feet in length he had glimpsed in the jungle. Later, on reading Stanley’s In Darkest Africa, Harry’s eye was drawn to a single sentence in Appendix B, which read, 
The Wambutti 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,” 
and this reminded him of their earlier conversation. Harry decided he would, if possible, investigate this odd creature. 

H M Stanley - In Darkest Africa - Appendix B

 In 1899, he was in Uganda, acting as a special commissioner of the British government, when he heard tales of a German adventurer who intended to ‘recruit’ some of the local pygmies to exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exhibition (the so-called ‘Human Zoo’ was a popular feature of these shows at the time). Harry sent word to various local commandants to keep a lookout for the German and to apprehend him, which was eventually done. The remaining pygmies with him were freed and he was fined for kidnapping them, and seven of them were sent to Entebbe, where Harry questioned them about the strange creature. They told him tales of a horse-like animal, like a zebra but with three toes, which was hunted and caught in pits. He accompanied them back to their homes to ensure that they were properly repatriated, and from there he made an expedition into the forest, guided by the locals, determined to solve the mystery. In an isolated village he came across some local soldiers who were wearing bandoliers made from the striped hide of an unknown animal. He bought these from them, determined to prove he had found at least some slight evidence of a new species, even if it was only a form of forest zebra. 

Striped bandoliers bought by Johnston

In 1901, whilst at Ravine Station, his Lieutenant Meura sent him, via a Swedish officer in the Belgian service, Karl Eriksson, the complete skin (minus the feet) and two skulls of this elusive beast. Harry examined the skulls closely and determined from the bi-lobed lower canines that they came from an animal closely related to the giraffe, and duly sent the specimens to the Natural History Museum in London, on receipt of which Professor Sir E Ray Lankester and Dr Phillip Sclater gave it the name Okapia johnstoni in his honour. 

Skull set to London by Johnston

The okapi caused quite a stir in zoological circles; one professor wrote an angry letter to a London journal declaring that the okapi’s existence was nothing in importance when compared to the discovery of a death-dealing microbe, a nutritive fish or a new fossil bird. One American gentleman complained in Notes and Queries (Aug 1903) that the word 'Okapi' did not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary in spite of it being “… a name which appeared in almost every periodical in 1901 or thereabouts,” to which the OED’s editor John Murray waspishly replied that the word was unknown prior to 1901, and so would therefore appear in the supplement. 

The mounted skin of Johnston's okapi (1902)

Colour of okapi - from Lankester - Monograph on the Okapi 1910

Lankester started to produce a monograph on the okapi but the text took far longer than was expected and as the lithographic plates had already been made, these were published as an Atlas in 1910. Soon, other expeditions departed for the Congo looking for other examples, including one led by Walter Doggett, Johnston’s former naturalist, a report of which appeared in The Ibis 1903. 

Notice of Doggett's expedition - The Ibis 1903

As late as 1908, A F R Wollaston, in From Ruwenzori to Congo, wrote “…it seems very doubtful whether any European has yet seen, much less shot, an okapi in the wild state,” adding that a Congolese official had told him that he had shot three okapi, although his detailed description of the magnificent horns of these animals negates his claim as okapi do not have large horns (he had probably shot bongos, a horned antelope with a striped rump). Like giraffes, okapi are ruminants, with a long, blue-black prehensile tongue (long enough that they can lick their own ears – inside and out – and their eyes), their body shape is similar to the giraffe, broad and strongly muscled. They are an attractive dark chocolate-brown colour, with creamy stripes on the rump and legs, and the head is the same cream colour, with small horns in the male. The female, unusually for mammals, is larger than the male. 


The okapi has been called a ‘living fossil’ as it is an early member of the giraffe family, related even more closely than the giraffe to palaetragines, creatures that lived over 15 million years ago in Africa. It is thought that some palaetragines lived on the savannah, where they developed the long necks of the giraffe, whereas others evolved into the okapi when they moved into forests and did not need a longer neck to reach foliage. 

Baby okapi

The okapi is something of a poster-child for cryptozoologists, as it is a perfect example of a large mammal that remained unknown to ‘science’ until the 20th century, amply demonstrating that such a thing is possible and therefore opening up the possibility that other ‘unknown’ animals might yet be found – which is great, as I like (some) cryptozoology, although I do have to add that we should be more concerned about the species (known and unknown) that are being driven into extinction on a daily basis, rather than speculating about what might, hypothetically, still be out there.

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