Sir Harry Johnston was the very model of a late nineteenth-century African explorer. During the Scramble for Africa – the invasion, colonisation and annexation of African territory by European powers – Sir Harry became well-known as a linguist, botanist, mountain climber, animal collector and colonial administrator. During his time in Africa, Sir Harry came across some Wambutti pygmies, who were being abducted by German showmen for exhibition back in Europe. He rescued the pygmies and befriended them, learning about a strange animal from them that they called the o’api.
This wasn’t the first time that this mysterious animal had reached the ears of a European. In fact, for years they had heard tales of a creature that they came to know as the ‘African unicorn’, known only to the native dwellers of the Congo Rainforest. Ten years prior to Sir Harry Johnston rescuing the pygmies, a journalist and explorer called Sir Henry Morton Stanley (who became famous for his search of Scottish missionary, David Livingstone), set out to confirm the existence of the ‘African unicorn’. Though he did not see the animal, he described it as some sort of forest donkey and learned its name from the natives.
Sir Harry Johnston, a decade later, was also unlucky not to see the o’api (which sounded like ‘okapi’ to the Europeans), but he did obtain two headbands fashioned from the skin of the animal in 1900, given to him by the grateful pygmies. Assuming the animal to be some sort of forest zebra due to its partially striped hide, Sir Harry quickly sent the skins back to the Zoological Society of London.
Shortly afterwards, Sir Harry also acquired a complete skin and two skulls of the creature, which were once again dispatched to London. The skull in particular proved that the creature was not a new type of horse but in fact a forest-dwelling relative of the giraffe. In 1901, the animal was officially described. It was known as the okapi and its scientific name was Okapia johnstoni, in honour of Sir Harry Johnston.
The okapi became something of a sensation in the early twentieth century. Zoos clamoured to collect okapis from the wild and showcase them in their collection, although initial attempts were largely unsuccessful thanks to high mortality rates. It is easy to understand their excitement, though; at the turn of the twentieth century, scientists believed they had discovered all of the big animals in the world, but the okapi proved otherwise (and, in the next ten years, the mountain gorilla and the Komodo dragon followed suit).
Even today, animal species are being discovered all the time. That’s possibly to be expected from very small creatures such as insects, but how can larger species still go undetected? The fact that only a few days ago scientists announced they had discovered a new relative of the raccoon in South America, the olinguito, shows that the world hasn’t been so sufficiently explored that there aren’t still a few surprises out there waiting for us.