The okapi was known to the ancient Egyptians; shortly after its discovery by Europeans, an ancient carved image of the animal was discovered in Egypt. Although the okapi was unknown to the Western world until the 20th century, it was possibly depicted 2,500 years ago on the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis, as a gift from the Ethiopian procession to the Achaemenid kingdom.
For years, Europeans in Africa had heard of an animal that they came to call the ‘African unicorn’. In his travelogue of exploring the Congo in 1887, Henry Morton Stanley mentioned a kind of donkey that the natives called the ‘Atti’, which scholars later identified as the okapi. Explorers may have seen the fleeting view of the striped backside as the animal fled through the bushes, leading to speculation that the okapi was some sort of rainforest zebra.
When the British governor of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, discovered some pygmy inhabitants of the Congo being abducted by a German showman for exhibition in Europe, he rescued them and promised to return them to their homes. The grateful pygmies fed Johnston’s curiosity about the animal mentioned in Stanley’s book. Johnston was puzzled by the okapi tracks the natives showed him; while he had expected to be on the trail of some sort of forest-dwelling horse, the tracks were of some cloven-hoofed beast.
Though Johnston did not see an okapi himself, he did manage to obtain pieces of striped skin and eventually a skull. From this skull, the okapi was correctly classified as a relative of the giraffe; in 1901, the species was formally recognized as Okapia johnstoni.
Today there are approximately 10,000 – 20,000 okapi in the wild and as of 2011, 42 different zoological institutions display them worldwide.
The generic epithet Okapia derives from the Lese Karo name o’api, while the specific epithet (johnstoni) is in recognition of the explorer Sir Harry Johnston, who organized the expedition that first acquired an okapi specimen for science from the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The name “okapi” is a portmanteau of two Lese words, oka a verb meaning to cut and kpi which is a noun referring to the design made on Efe arrows by wrapping the arrow with bark so as to leave stripes when scorched by fire. The stripes on the legs of the okapi resemble these stripes on the arrow shafts. Lese legend says the okapi decorates itself with these stripes, adding to the okapi’s great camouflage.
Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
Walker’s Mammals of the World
Okapi – Between Legend & Science, Zoo-E News March 2007
American Museum of Natural History – Congo Expedition