A Living Fossil - The first Okapi at the London Zoo

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19350925-52-1

Tales of a strange donkey like creature with zebra stripes had long been told in the Congo. Explorers tried to seek out the strange creature the local people called 'Okapi'. By 1901 samples of the animal's skin and bones had been bought back to England by Sir Harry Johnston who presented his findings to the Zoological Society of London

 There was a very full attendance of the members of the Zoological Society at the meeting on Tuesday last, in anticipation of seeing the skin and skull of the okapi, forwarded to England by Sir Harry Johnston, who was present, and gave a most interesting account of all that was known respecting this remarkable mammal, a previous notice of which appeared in our issue of May 11. The details which were given in that account were fully borne out by the examination of the entire skin and skull, which were exhibited for the first time.

The skull was obviously not that of an equine animal, which the okapi was first supposed to be, but a ruminant.- There were no incisor teeth in the upper jaw, but they were replaced. as in all ruminants, by a fleshy pad, the remains of which still existed on the bones. Mr Oldfield Thomas, of the British Museum, who exhibited the skin and skull, maintained that the characters shown were those of a giraffe-like animal, differing essentially from the lopes or the bovine ruminants. It was, however, destitute of the long neck of the giraffe, and obviously would form the type of a new genus, to which it was proposed to give the name Okapia, with the addition johnstoni

 Sir Harry Johnston stated that the first person to draw attention to this newly-discovered mammal, although he had never seen a specimen, was Stanley, who heard of it from the dwarfs inhabiting the Semliki district. This animal the natives regarded as an equine animal, comparing it with the young zebra that Sir Harry Johnston had with him. Anxious to secure a specimen, he. spent several days in the unhealthy district of the Semliki Forest searching for the okapi, but was never successful in securing one of them.

His efforts to purchase a skin only resulted in procuring the striped pieces from the hind quarters, the natives neglecting all the self coloured parts, which constitute the covering of the greater part of the animal. His ultimate success in obtaining an entire skin was due to the exertions of Mr Karl Ericsson, of the Congo Free State, who furnished him with the specimen exhibited. Sir Harry ascertained from the dwarfs that the okapi usually went in pairs, and were only to be found in the deepest recesses of this forest, which lies to the south-west of the Albert Nyanza Lake.

The preservation of this remarkable form from extermination was dependent on the total absence of large carnivora, and on the forest being exceedingly unhealthy, owing to which it is little visited by man. The dwarfs have no firearms, and secure the specimens that they obtain by digging large pitfalls, and killing the captured animal with spears. The forest region was apparently uninhabited until the more powerful negroes, by their persecution, necessitated its occupation, by the dwarfs.

Otago Witness 21 August 1901

In 1935 an Okapi was presented by the King of Belgian to the Prince of Wales. The animal was given by the Prince to the London Zoo. A living Okapi seen for the first time outside of its natural habitat in England caused a world wide sensation. News soon reached the New Zealand print media. The Evening Post reported:-

 An okapi, a rare animal from Belgian Congo, described as a cross between a giraffe, a deer, and a zebra, has arrived at the London Zoological Gardens. It is said to be the only living example of the species that has reached England.

  It has been given to the gardens by the Prince of Wales, who received it as a gift from the King of the Belgians.

 Officials of the gardens went to Antwerp to supervise transport.
Evening Post 2 August 1935  

By November 1935 unfortunate news of the Okapi's sudden death due to an unknown cause was soon over the wireless and reported in the news of the day

 The okapi which was given in July to the London Zoo by the Prince of Wales, who received it as a gift from the King of the Belgians, died suddenly today.

 The cause is at present unknown, but the loss is much regretted as there are only two other specimens in captivity in Europe.

Evening Post 6 November 1935


"Okapi at London Zoo" The Weekly News 25 September 1935 ( Courtesy of Sir George Grey Special Collection - Auckland Libraries)
Evening Post 2 August 1935
Evening Post 6 November 1935
Otago Witness 21 August 1901
"Okapi" authored by Brent Huffman August 2004 www.ultimateungulate.com