The okapi’s scientific name, Okapia johnstoni, is a combination of the pygmy word, O’Api and a tribute to the okapi’s 1901 western discoverer, Sir Harry Johnston.
The okapi’s scientific name, Okapia johnstoni, is a combination of the Mbuti pygmy word, O’Api, and a tribute to the okapi’s western discoverer, Sir Harry Johnston.
The okapi was not recognized by western scientists until 1901. Until then, the okapi had eluded potential discovery. While exploring the Congo from 1882-1886, Wilhelm Junker deemed a striped piece of animal skin from a Makapi as the skin of a musk deer. In June 1889, Captain Jean Baptise Marchand saw a timid animal that was unidentifiable from zoological literature, which he assumed an antelope.
In 1900, Johnston traveled to the Ituri Forest after hearing rumors of an Abada unicorn and an unusual Atti donkey from explorers such as Sir Henry Morton Stanley, whom had spent many years exploring Africa and published In Darkest Africa. In Africa, Johnston was informed by the Mbuti pygmies that there was a large, donkey-like animal with stripes that inhabited the area, which they called an O’api. Months later at Fort Mbeni in the Semliki Forest, a post commanded by Lieutentant Meura, Johnston was given bandoliers and belts made by the Bambuba tripe from a striped animal which they called an “okapi.”
After organizing an expedition, Johnston began following O’api tracks, led by Mbuti guides. He was surprised by the tracks, expecting the single-hoofed impression of a zebra, donkey, or horse, but instead finding a cloven-hooved footprint possessing two toes on each foot. Later, Lieutenant Meura sent Johnston two pieces of striped skin that Johnston then sent to London. Thus, the okapi was given the species name, Johnstoni in Johnston’s honor.
Sources: (Kingdon 1979; Lindsey, Green, & Bennett, 1999; Palkovacs, 2000; San Diego Zoo Global, 2017)
Image: Bryce Bradford