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Creation 44(1):28–31, January 2022

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The elusive Okapi, ‘living fossil’ of the Congo


Isselee © 123rf.com – markusbeck @123rf.comokapi

When Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, he was unaware of the okapi. Indeed, the elusive creature was at that time almost certainly unknown to anyone outside its limited range in hot, steamy African jungles. How it came to be ‘discovered’ by Europeans makes for a fascinating account of international intrigue, kidnapping, diplomatic rescue, and wrong conclusions in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

In 1871, Welsh-American adventurer Henry Morton Stanley succeeded in his well-publicized search for ‘missing’ Scottish missionary/explorer David Livingstone. After their famous encounter in what is now Tanzania, Stanley accepted a commission from the notorious King Leopold II of Belgium to explore the Congo region. During his explorations Stanley heard of a strange and large forest animal the local pygmy tribespeople called atti, or o’api. They told Stanley they would sometimes find this leaf-eating animal caught in their 2-m (7′)–deep pit traps. Although he never saw one himself, Stanley mentioned the creature in his 1890 book In Darkest Africa. From the Mbuti tribes’ descriptions, he thought it was a donkey. Intrigued, the High Commissioner of neighbouring Uganda, British colonial administrator and keen amateur naturalist Sir Harry Johnston, met with Stanley in 1899 and they discussed the mysterious animal.1

Tribespeople abducted

In 1900, a German entrepreneur kidnapped some Mbuti pygmy tribespeople from their Ituri Forest village in the Congo. His plan was to display them as live exhibits at the Paris Exhibition. Although Belgian soldiers stationed in the Congo gave chase, the showman managed to flee with his human cargo across the border into Uganda. But the Belgian government requested Sir Harry Johnston’s intervention. He duly freed the abductees “and sent the evildoer back to Germany”.2 While in Uganda’s capital Entebbe awaiting repatriation to the Congo, the grateful rescued Mbuti answered the curious governor’s questions about the o’api (soon anglicized as okapi).

Johnston resolved to accompany the rescued Mbuti back into the Belgian Congo, in hopes of seeing an okapi himself.

Shy and quiet

In hindsight, we can say that unless Johnston’s visit happened to coincide with an okapi falling into one of the natives’ pit traps, the chance of his expedition party observing an okapi was remote. They are incredibly shy and elusive. Their large ears can detect the slightest sound. It was not until 2008 that a photograph of an okapi in the wild was obtained. This was from a camera trap placed in the forest by the Zoological Society of London.3,4 Studies of captive okapis in various zoos around the world have shown that while they can vocalize (bleats and whistles), okapis are mostly quiet. They can apparently communicate with one another with infrasonic (low frequency) sounds. These are beneath the range of human hearing, and presumably also that of their main predator, the leopard.3

Doubted knowledgeable advice; didn’t follow the evidence

As Johnston and his expedition party were tramping wearily through the jungle in July 1900, the Mbuti guides suddenly became excited, pointing out okapi tracks in the wet earth. But these were of a cloven-hoofed animal, whereas from Stanley’s account Johnston was expecting a donkey. So he refused to follow them.5 (Supporters of evolutionary theory make a similar error. They doubt the most reliable eyewitness testimony (the Bible) and are very selective about what physical evidence they will follow.)

Johnston and his group were soon badly affected by illness and the oppressive jungle humidity. So they turned back to Fort Mbeni, an outpost on the fringe of the Ituri Forest. The Belgian commander there, Lieutenant Meura, had seen okapi carcasses and skins. He gave Johnston a pair of okapi-skin bandoliers (soldiers’ shoulder-belts with pockets for ammunition). The bandoliers had been made from the portion of skin on the rear legs of the okapi which are striped like a zebra’s.

Lieutenant Meura also promised that he would try to procure a complete okapi skin and send it to Johnston.

“An apparently new species of zebra”

Arriving back in Uganda, Governor Johnston sent the two bandoliers to the London Zoological Society for identification. English zoologist Philip Sclater examined the two pieces of skin and found the hairs to be structurally indistinguishable from that of a zebra. The bandoliers were exhibited at meetings of the London Zoological Society in late 1900 and early 1901. At the 5th February 1901 meeting, Sclater declared the skin pieces were from “an apparently new species of zebra”.6

Wrangel @123rf.comokapi-male
The male has two horns on its forehead, but they can look like one horn if glimpsed from the side—which might explain the Victorian-era claims of unicorn sightings in Africa. Like giraffes, okapis have a long, purple, flexible tongue that can strip leaves from branches. (So long in fact, that okapis also use it to clean their eyes and ears!)

Meanwhile, back in the Congo, Lieutenant Meura died of blackwater fever. However, his second-in-command, a Swede named Karl Eriksson, was able to follow up on his late commander’s promise. He duly sent to Johnston in Uganda a complete okapi skin, two skulls, and some hooves. Unfortunately, Johnston never got to see the hooves as they were somehow lost in transit. But Eriksson’s accompanying letter described the hooves as cloven. Upon reading this, and seeing the complete skin and the two skulls, Johnston finally realized that the okapi could not be a donkey or zebra.

Like an extinct giraffid

Johnston recognized the giraffe-like characteristics of the knob-like hair-covered horns (ossicones) on one of the skulls. (Mostly only male okapis have horns.) But from the skin Johnston could see that the neck wasn’t long. So Johnston concluded that the okapi was from the giraffe family (Giraffidae) and was most like the extinct Miocene fossil genus Helladotherium. He sent the skulls and skin on to England, suggesting the name Helladotherium tigrinum.

When the London Zoological Society at their 7 May 1901 meeting exhibited the skulls and skin of the creature that would become known as the ‘forest giraffe’, it caused a sensation. Later that year, zoologist Sir E. Ray Lankester assigned the okapi to its own genus, Okapia johnstoni, honouring Johnston.1

Evolutionary ideas led to wrong conclusions

Dubbed a ‘living fossil’,7 the okapi was hailed as being “one of the survivors of the giraffine group, … flourishing in southern Asia and Europe during Miocene ages, several million years ago. The okapi had found a safe retreat in the heart of Africa, in the gloom of the Congo forests.”8 (About 30,000 okapis are found in the wild today. They live only in the tree-covered mountainous areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire).3

Sportactive @ 123rf.comgiraffe
A giraffe splays its legs to drink at a waterhole, in like manner to the okapi, its giraffid cousin. An adult male okapi stands about 1.5 metres (5 ft) tall, while an adult male giraffe can reach almost four times that height.

Some labelled the okapi as being “more primitive” than the fossil Giraffidae, as it has a shorter neck than the fossil forms.7,9 Modern evolutionists however have abandoned that notion, instead saying that the okapi and the giraffe shared a common ancestor.10 On the basis of mitochondrial DNA comparisons, evolutionists concluded that the okapi and the giraffe split from that common ancestor 16 million years ago. But a subsequent DNA study came up with an estimate “substantially less”, i.e., 11.5 million years ago.11

Creationists would agree that giraffes and okapis had a common ancestor (being of the same created ‘kind’).12 But we would put the timeline at only about 4,500 years ago, thanks to the Bible’s reliable historical account of Noah’s Ark and the Genesis Flood. The starkly different neck lengths are readily explained by in-built variation. The okapi and the giraffe both have the same number of cervical vertebrae (neck bones), i.e., seven. The increase in giraffe neck length is primarily due to an increased rate of growth in that dimension of all its neck vertebrae. Most of that growth takes place after birth. But a giraffe could not freely move about the dense jungles of the Congo as the okapi can. Inasmuch as natural selection might have been a factor in ‘selecting’ the okapi and its short neck for its rainforest environment, creationists have no problem with that. Natural selection can only remove individuals from a population; it could never have turned microbial ooze into the okapi, no matter how long the claimed timeline.

Incidentally, the (probably juvenile) giraffid pair aboard the Ark most likely had an intermediate neck length. In contrast to various comical depictions of giraffe necks protruding through portholes often seen in children’s books, there would have been no problem fitting them within the Ark and its three decks.

Ideas have consequences … beyond academia!

We have seen how wrong ideas about the okapi, evolutionary or otherwise, adversely affected the pursuit of scientific knowledge about it. (It probably also didn’t help Johnston that until the idea that the okapi was horse-like had been definitively ruled out, whispers of its existence had led to people in Europe referring to it as the ‘African unicorn’.)13

But evolutionary ideas adversely affect not only academic pursuits, but people and society. The German showman’s intent to display the Mbuti as live exhibits in Paris would have almost certainly been in line with Darwinian notions of, and Europeans’ curiosity about, the ‘lesser evolved races’ of the world. Johnston’s interception of the German kidnapper did not stop Mbuti man Ota Benga from the Congo being displayed at New York’s Bronx Zoo, in a cage he shared with an orangutan.14 The public interest was immense. Clearly Darwinian ideas of racial superiority/inferiority were widespread—ideas foundational to the later racist horrors of Nazi Germany.15

Despite Johnston’s rescue of the abducted natives, there are evolutionary undertones apparent in his recounting of the okapi expedition:

The atmosphere of the forest was almost unbearable with its Turkish-bath heat, its reeking moisture, and its powerful decay of rotting vegetation. We seemed, in fact, to be transported back to Miocene times, to an age and a climate scarcely suitable for the modern type of real humanity.5

One has to wonder if Johnston included the Mbuti tribespeople in his modern type of ‘real’ humanity.5

Other hidden creatures?

Noting the discovery of the okapi, many have wondered if there might be other ‘hidden creatures’ lurking in the Congo. E.g., for some time, there was interest in expeditions pursuing reports of a sauropod-like animal known as ‘mokele-mbembe’.16 Both creationists and evolutionists pretty much agree today that the chance of finding a living dinosaur is remote.17 But the primary reason that evolutionists give—that dinosaurs have been extinct for about 65 million years—is seriously flawed. The coelacanth fish18 and the Wollemi pine,19 for example, were both previously known only from ‘dinosaur-age’ fossils. Evolutionists have still not been able to provide a satisfactory explanation of how these can be living today and yet be completely absent as fossils in rocks ‘dated’ as being younger than 60 million years.

The reality is that supposed ‘dino-age’ fossils are not millions of years old, but date from the Flood of Noah’s day, only about 4,500 years ago. So, unlike evolutionists, creationists should not be at all surprised if some ‘living fossil’ or ‘Lazarus taxon’ creatures20 are found to be sharing their steamy Congo Forest habitat with that other elusive ‘living fossil’, the okapi.

Posted on homepage: 30 January 2023

References and notes

  1. The Okapi, theokapi.org, acc. 21 Jun 2021. Return to text.
  2. Peterson, D., Where have all the animals gone?: My travels with Karl Ammann, Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, NH, USA, 2015. Return to text.
  3. McLendon, R., 8 extraordinary facts about the elusive okapi, treehugger.com, 2 Dec 2020. Return to text.
  4. Zuckerbrod, N., Photos of okapi in wild a first, experts say: Species inspired unicorn sightings, boston.com, 12 Sep 2008. Return to text.
  5. Peterson, D., Giraffe reflections, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, USA, 2013. Return to text.
  6. Sclater, P., On an apparently new species of zebra from the Semliki Forest, Proc. Zoological Soc. London 1:50–52, 1901. Return to text.
  7. Colbert, E., The relationships of the okapi, J. Mammalogy 19(1):47–64, 1938. Return to text.
  8. Slack, G., The elusive okapi Okapia johnstoni, American Museum Congo Expedition 1909–1915, amnh.org, Jan 2003. Return to text.
  9. There was something of an initial academic tussle between zoologists who regarded the okapi as a “degenerate giraffe”, versus these who viewed the okapi as a “rather primitive giraffid”. Ref. 7. Return to text.
  10. Bradford, A., Okapi: Facts about the forest giraffe, livescience.com, 23 Sep 2016. Return to text.
  11. Agaba, M., and 15 others, Giraffe genome sequence reveals clues to its unique morphology and physiology, Nature Communications 7:11519, 17 May 2016. Return to text.
  12. Lightner, J., Samotherium fossils and variation in the neck within the giraffe kind (Giraffidae), J. Creation 30(2):6–7, 2016; creation.com/giraffe-neck-variations. Return to text.
  13. Bittel, J., A New Deal for the Okapi, Africa’s ‘Unicorn’, nrdc.org, 13 Dec 2019. Return to text.
  14. Bergman, J., Ota Benga: The man who was put on display in the zoo! Creation 16(1):48–50, 1993; creation.com/ota-benga. Return to text.
  15. Sarfati, J., The Darwinian roots of the Nazi tree (Weikart review), creation.com/weikart, Sep 2005. Return to text.
  16. Mokele-mbembe: a living dinosaur? Creation 21(4):24–25, 1999; creation.com/mokele-mbembe-a-living-dinosaur. Return to text.
  17. Carter, R., Bates, G., and Sarfati, J., Dinosaurs are almost certainly extinct: It is time to let go of the idea of ‘living dinosaurs’, creation.com/dinos-extinct, 22 Feb 2018. Return to text.
  18. Correcting the headline: ‘coelacanth’ ‘yes; ‘ancient’ no, creation.com/coelacanth, 13 Jul 2007. Return to text.
  19. Sensational Australian tree … like ‘finding a live dinosaur’, Creation 17(2):13, 1995; creation.com/woll. Return to text.
  20. Catchpoole, D., The ‘Lazarus effect’: rodent ‘resurrection’!, 2006, creation.com/lazarus. Return to text.