Okapia johnstoni. Also forest giraffe. Mbau, Kivu, Zaire, now Congo. 1910.
When these two okapis went on display at the NHM in 1910, the discovery of the species was still quite sensational in Europe. To this day, okapis are rarely seen at museums.
SENSATION CIRCA 1900
Despite its striking appearance, because of its secluded lifestyle the okapi is one of the last large mammals to be discovered by Europeans. The species was not scientifically described until 1901 and was considered all over the world to be one of the great zoological sensations of the turn of the century. The indigenous people of Congo were naturally familiar with these shy forest creatures, which they caught in pit traps or with a noose.
Okapis are most closely related to the giraffe. They can stand 1.5 meters high at the shoulder and weigh up to 250 kilograms. The two animals on display are not full-grown; on the male to the left of the showcase, the hair-covered horns typical of male okapis are not developed.
Okapis are ideally adapted to life in the thick tropical rainforests of Central Africa. The color and marking of their fell provide perfect camouflage in the undergrowth of the jungle. With their long, extremely flexible tongues they can also reach leaves up to three meters up. Their blue-black colored tongues can be as long as 25 centimeters when stretched out, and can also be used to clean the animal’s eyes and nostrils.
It is estimated that there are currently 10,000 to 35,000 okapis living in the wild. Their only enemy – other than man – is the leopard. The greatest threat to the okapi lies in its restricted home range. They occur in a relatively small region in the northeast of Congo, part of which is designated as a national park or game reserve, but other parts of which are being destroyed.