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Story Of The Wapi

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

On the Semliki River, near the borders of the great Congo forest, I first heard of and later saw one of the queerest animals in the known world. The natives called it the wapi, but a naturalist of the present day, who has learned much about it, has given it the name of okapi.

A little to the east end of the middle of Africa is a chain of lakes running nearly north and south. The great Lake Tanganyika is the southernmost, north of this is Lake Kivu, whose waters flow south into Tanganyika, end then passing over a high volcanic range we come to the lake known as the Albert Edward Nyanza, stretching northward from the shores of which are Mountains of the Moon, the Rewrenzori range. Keeping in the valley to the west of this range the traveler passes along the Semliki River, whose waters flow northward, and eventually reaches the Albert Nyanza, the source of the Nile.

The region of the Semliki River is in many respects a most remarkable one. A few miles east from its banks are snow mountains 25,000 feet high. At no great distance on the west are sources of the Aruwimi, the great tributary of the Congo River. To its west, also, for hundreds of miles, stretch the northeastern extensions of the great Congo forest. Along the shores of the Semliki the British protectorate of Uganda and the Congo Free State meet one another. It is here that Stanley and I saw the distant Rewrenzori range and heard from natives of the existence in the forest of a large quadruped, neither antelope nor zebra, and as large as a horse.

It is to this region that Sir Harry Johnston, High Commissioner of Uganda, traveled in the autumn. of 1900 in order to explore the confines of his protectorate before returning home. Sir Harry is an ardent naturalist, a really great collector, an observer, and an artist. Many a new bird, beast and plant from Kilimanjaro, Nyassaland and Uganda do men of science owe to him. On the present occasion he was eager to obtain new things and was well equipped for the purpose and well provided with men. He has sent rich collections to the Natural History Museum as a result of this journey. He was especially anxious to see and if possible secure the enigmatical quadruped which I had reported to exist in these forests.

It must be borne in mind that the larger quadrupeds live in the open prairie or frequent only the borders of the African forests, and, further, that few of the natives excepting the peculiar dwarfs, the Akkas, penetrate far into the gloomy depths of these vast tree-grown regions. Sir Harry himself traveled for a week in the dark, steamy recesses of this equatorial forest. He describes the sense of mystery and oppression with ,which the solemn gloom, the choking heat, and strange silence filled him as well-nigh overpowering. It is not to be wondered at that the blacks avoid these primeval fastnesses.

It is among the trunks of these forests trees, whose foliage is densely woven overhead so as to exclude the light of day, that the strange animal of which Sir Harry was in search lives, coming here and there to "clearings" due to the decay and fall of the trees, in order to feed on the foliage.

It might well be that this dark vapor-laden forest had persisted from remote geologic ages, and that strange animals, survivors of pliocene and miocene times, still harbored there unknown to man, unchanged, cut off from the struggles of the outer world.

Sir Harry failed to get a sight of the animal, but he obtained from natives two bands made from its skin, and learned that the animal was called by them "okapi." The pieces of skin had the hair preserved, and this was colored very dark brown and white in alternate bands, like the pelt of a zebra. They were sent home and were considered by Dr. P. L. Sclater, the secretary of the Zoological Society of London, to indicate a new kind of zebra, to which he gave the name Equus Johnstoni.

At a station of the Congo Free State, not far from the Semliki River, Sir Harry Johnston met the officer in charge, a Mr. Ericsson. This gentleman promised to do all in his power to obtain a specimen or specimens of the okapi for Sir Harry from the natives of his district. Some months later, when Sir Harry Johnston had returned to the more civilized portion of the Uganda protectorate, he received by messengers from Mr. Ericsson a complete skin, including the hoofs, and two skulls of the okapi.

One of the most remarkable facts in this story is that Sir Harry, without access to books and specimens for comparison, such as men of science have at their command in European museums, immediately determined with complete accuracy the nature of the okapi. He made and has recently published a sketch of the animal, showing it as he supposed, from the examination of skin and skull, it would have appeared when living. Its cloven hoofs showed that it was not of the zebra tribe, but related to the antelopes and giraffes; and Sir Harry went so far as to say that it was a short-necked hornless giraffe similar to the Helladotherium, the bones of which have been found at Pikermi, near Athens, and were reconstructed as a complete skeleton by Professor Gaudry, of Paris. Sir Harry suggested that the okapi must be considered as a living survival of that animal, and assigned it to the genus Helladotherium.

This was extraordinarily correct and sound reasoning. It has been abundantly confirmed by careful study of the specimen sent to London excepting that it has seemed necessary to separate the okapi, on account of some minor features in the structure of the skull, from Helladotherium. The okapi is now known as Ocapia Johnstoni.

Sir Harry Johnston at once dispatched the okapi's skin and two skulls to the Natural History Museum.

He rightly declared this to be the most remarkable discovery in the zoology of Africa made in the last hundred years.

The photographs here reproduced show the animal as set up by Mr. Ward and an enlarged view of the head. The shoulder is higher as compared with the rump than in Sir Harry's restoration, and the neck is some-what longer than it seemed to him, and straight as is that of a giraffe. Probably the okapi, like the giraffe, carries its neck habitually sloping forward so as to give a continuous straight line from the back of the head to the root of the tail. A very interesting feature is the presence of two little tufts on the forehead, which correspond to and represent the horns of the giraffe, though they cannot themselves be called horns. An examination of the skulls of the okapi show that there is no bony outgrowth corresponding to these knobs, although the skull is raised on each side above the orbit into a small domelike eminence.

The coloring and marking of the hairy hide of the okapi is very peculiar. Its pattern is well shown in our illustration. The body is of a rich maroon-brown color.

The tract of forest inhabited by the okapi is about as big as the principality of Wales, and there may be some 2,000 or 3,000 head living there. It is undoubtedly a true inhabitant of the forest, elusive and difficult to discover. Probably we shall soon hear more of it and receive additional specimens, though it is not likely, on account of its frequenting the forest depths, to be threatened or exterminated by too eager sportsmen for long years to come.

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