Giraffids--extinct and extant (painting by Mauricio?)

Giraffids–extinct and extant (painting by Mauricio?)

The Giraffoidea are a superfamily of artiodactyl mammals. They first evolved in the Miocene and they share a common ancestor with the deer and antelopes (and a slightly more distant common ancestor with hippos, pigs, and cows). Once the giraffes were numerous and mighty—twenty different genuses of these huge long-necked grazers spread throughout Eurasia and Africa. There were giraffids of all sizes and sorts—magnificent creatures bristling with hornlike ossicones and flourishing their long black tongues! But in the modern world the once-great family has shrunk down to two single species. The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is well known and features prominently in all sorts of cartoons and literature. The other last giraffe—the forest giraffe (more commonly known as the okapi) is much more obscure and was not known to science until 1901.

A male okapi (Okapia Johnstoni) at the Dublin zoo

A male okapi (Okapia Johnstoni) at the Dublin zoo

Legends existed of a shadowy unicorn-like beast which lived deep in the jungle. Horse-crazed European adventurers and administrators tended to imagine it as a sort of jungle zebra. Although ethereal rumors and sightings of this creature were reported, no western zoologist or biologist succeeded in finding out more about it until a strange meet-up between master trackers and a European colonial official took place late in the nineteenth century. According to the story, an evil impresario had abducted a group of pygmies in order to exhibit them in a circus (which does not make me feel any better about human nature). When the British colonial administrator of Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston, found out about this cartoonishly evil plot, he rescued the forest people and sent them home. In gratitude, the pygmies became his friends and shared their forest-lore with Sir Harry, showing him the tracks of an okapi. The hoofprint which was distinctly cloven—as a equine print would not be. Johnston doggedly pursued the furtive creatures through the Ituri forest and he eventually obtained a bit of striped hide and a skull. Today the Okapi’s scientific name is Okapia johnstoni (although it sounds like it should really be Okapia pygmidae).

Okapi and calf at San Diego Zoo

Okapi and calf at San Diego Zoo

 

Of course this latter name would not really fit Okapis—which are fairly large creatures. Adults stand 1.5 to 2.0 meters (4.9 to 6.6 ft) tall at their shoulders—and they have long necks. For such graceful animals they are also muscular and heavy–weighing from 200 to 350 kilograms (440 to 770 pounds). They live in the watery mountain rainforests in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (and perhaps slightly into Uganda). [Coincidentally, I’m sorry that I am continuing Congo week for one extra day, but I could not resist adding the okapi] Because their habitat is so constantly rainy, they have oily waterproof coats. Their distinctive brown, white, and red color pattern allows them to melt into the shadowy rainforests like wraiths.

An okapi in a rainforest

An okapi in a rainforest

Okapis are herbivores. They do not just graze on leaves but they also eat berries, shoots, fruits, and fungi (many of which are toxic to humans). They are solitary animals which wander alone along narrow forest trails. Sadly (but unsurprisingly) okapis are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Interestingly, although it took Europeans a long time to discover the forest giraffe, it was seemingly known to ancient civilization. There is a carving of one of the creatures in Persepolis—being presented as tribute from a delegation of Ethiopians.

sculpture from the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis

sculpture from the facade of the Apadana, at Persepolis