Sunday, August 5, 2012

Animal Spotlight: The Okapi

For years, Europeans who traveled to Africa heard tell of a mysterious rainforest animal that they came to refer to as the "African Unicorn."  Apparently, Sir Harry Johnston, the British governor of Uganda, rescued a small group of the native inhabitants, often called the pygmies, from a foreign show person, who, sadly, was most likely going to use his abductees for a circus or freak show.  Upon their rescue at Johnston's hand, they repaid him by giving him information about the animal.

Now we know the animal as the okapi, or Okapia johnstoni, named in honor of Sir Harry Johnston.  Despite the zebra-like stripes on its tail, the okapi is not all that closely related to the zebra, and is actually a very close relative of the giraffe.  Although they may not look super similar, they both have ossicones on their head, similar to the base of DEER antlers.  Ossicones are not only possessed by both the okapi and the giraffe, but also by extinct relatives of both, such as Sivatherium and Climacoceras.

The okapi is listed as "NEAR THREATENED" by the IUCN.  Honestly, I was surprised that it wasn't at least listed as "VULNERABLE," and "ENDANGERED" or worse would not have surprised me at all, given its reclusive nature, its beautiful pelt, and the very fact that humans didn't have much proof of its existence until 1901, when Sir Henry Johnston sent back a carcass to England.  I suppose, however, that its reclusive nature likely helps it to evade human influences a great deal, coupled with the fact that the rainforest that it inhabits is not too heavily tread.  And I guess the fact that it was really made known to science only a little more than one hundred years ago couldn't have hurt either, as it would be soon entering into an age when nature was offered greater protection than in the 1800s. 

Like the COELACANTH and THE MOUNTAIN PYGMY POSSUM, the okapi is often referred to as a "LIVING FOSSIL."  Its habitat consists of montane rainforests in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO (DRC).

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