The mythical creature that came to life

Sometimes science needs an open mind to make major discoveries

Okapi photo from https://www.zoo-leipzig.de

In the mountainous rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a miniature giraffe with zebra stripes slips silently between the trees, almost never observed by humans. The gentle creature is larger than a man, has horns, and a long blue tongue. When presented with the description of this creature, 19th century Westerners mockingly called it the African unicorn. Too many badly taxidermied hoaxes had jaded biologists, and it was deemed a cryptid.

Okapis had nearly evaded Western discovery due to skepticism and reluctant research.

Amazingly, a 5-foot tall, 8-foot long, 700 pound animal had gone nearly undetected. Okapis are perfectly suited for their jungle environment. Despite their large size and loud striped pattern, they are amazingly well-camouflaged. They produce almost no vocalizations and are endowed with an incredible sense of hearing, thanks to large flexible ears. Wild okapis are only active at dawn and twilight, relying heavily on their excellent night vision.

These solitary creatures, which thrive in some of the densest rainforests in the world, had an advantage over researchers.

Before Western discovery, okapis were well-known to indigenous and native Congolese people, who knew the animal by the name atti. The animals live in the deepest parts of an impenetrable rainforest and are so elusive, however, that face to face encounters were rare.

It wasn’t until Sir Harry Johnston, a British explorer, governor, and colonialist living in Uganda, obtained okapi skins and skulls that research began in earnest. When a complete carcass was returned, European skeptics had to concede.

Okapia johnstoni was born at the turn of the 20th century.

Okapis were originally described as a jungle horse, and biologists were therefore surprised to discover cloven-hoofed tracks. This led to a taxonomic misclassification until it was discovered that okapis were the only living relatives to our familiar giraffes.

These ex-cryptids were a godsend for cryptozoologists. Many other once-mythical animals had been discovered, but none as large and impressive as the okapi. The International Society of Cryptozoology used the okapi as its mascot for years before it was disbanded, reminding its members to keep an open mind and be rigorous in research before concluding something is impossible.

Okapi mother and calf photo from https://www.marwell.org.uk/

Today, okapis are not a myth, but an endangered species. They no longer live in Uganda at all. Habitat destruction has corralled most okapis to Ituri forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are fully protected by Congolese law. Of course, given their rarity and amazing skins, okapis are highly sought after by poachers.

Thanks to breeding programs and strict protections, okapi populations are climbing. Modern schoolchildren around the world can visit okapis at their local zoo. Their sweet faces and striking appearance make them a favorite with kids everywhere.

Scientific discovery is never finished. There are always new discoveries to unearth and more mysteries to explain. Today, okapis are an improbable and adorable addition to the encyclopedia. For cryptozoologists, okapis remain a symbol of the never-ending quest for new species and are an inspiration to never stop researching.

Storyteller. Yarn spinner. sarahczarnecki.com

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