I Remember Okapi, First Epulu, Next Lomami

On his trip up the Lomami, Ashley found Okapi where no one imagined they could be – as far south as the Luidjo tributary .
Mysterious animals! Solitary, cryptic giants of the forest.
Kim Gjerstad okapi 4
Okapi at the Epulu Station in the Okapi Reserve of the Ituri Forest

In the 1980s neither John nor I (this is Terese writing, John’s wife and Ashley’s collaborator) thought Okapi were west of the Congo/Lualaba. But did we even think about it ? Probably not. We were completely concentrated on the okapi in the Ituri forest. By the third year of study, 1988, we had put radio collars on more than 20 okapi. Based at a remote research camp, we had a team of nearly 30 Mbuti pygmies and Bantu villagers. We followed these okapi daily over a grid of narrow foot paths laid out over a study area of more than 50 sq miles.
John on Afarama trail
Earlier this year, John on the trail out to Afarama camp, the remote base set up for the okapi study in the 1980s

So we just assumed, like everyone else, that okapi were only on the right bank of the Congo – BUT ANCIENT reports from the center of the Congo basin said otherwise:

  1. thongs made of okapi hide were sported by local hunters near Lodja,
  2. a dead okapi was butchered south of Opala

but, hey, that was the colonial era. No photos , no instamatic, let alone digital! And what did a strap of okapi hide mean? It could have been like a cowry shell, a currency of trade that traveled kilometers. Besides, the 1920’s and the 1930’s are a long time ago.

But then again , the 1980’s are a long time ago too – so why remember our okapi study now? — Just reminiscing.
carrying forage to okapi
Pygmies carrying forage to the okapi in captivity at the station just as they have done since the first okapi were captured back in the 1950s

My youngest daughter, Eleanor, now in college, was born in the Ituri at the end of the okapi study. She asks if we will put radio collars on the okapi of the Lomami.
Eleanor on Edoro bridge
Eleanor on the bridge we built across the Edoro on the study area where we collared okapi in the 1980s when she was a baby
eleanor on Edoro bridge
a day later, after a heavy rain

My eldest daughter, Sarah, now in journalism school, and 6 when we started collaring okapi says she will write about the Ituri.
Kim Gjerstad photo- Lenda
Sarah with Eleanor and Gaston preparing tea in the Ituri on a visit a couple years ago
Kim Gjerstad photo - Epulu
Sarah with two friends of many years: Masudi (household manager) and Gaston (playmate)

The middle daughter, Rebekah Sylvia, most Mbuti of them all, born in the village of Epulu on the Epulu river, is not pictured here. She returned to work in the Ituri. Forest nymph, she has her own story.
Eleanor and Sofi
Sofi with Eleanor the youngest of the three Hart girls, all of whom she took care of as infants and youngsters
Dancing at Kenge’s camp. Sofi in blue top.

They are giraffe. They really don’t look like giraffe. Marching through the Ituri in the 1880’s H.M. Stanley wrote about a strange “forest donkey” the Pygmies described. But okapi are giraffe and when you see one up close, you see giraffe in the shape of the head, the short thick horns, and the incredible tongue.
Kim Gjerstand photo -- okapi 3
Okapi cleaning its shoulders or maybe killing a fly

The real mystery of the okapi is the long muscular tongue. It even cleans its ears with its tongue. And to eat, it lassos small branches with its tongue and pulls off all the young leaves. It is the only ruminant eating understory leaves of the forest. The antelope eat fallen fruit, the forest buffalo graze in grassy openings and swampy glades.
Kim Gjerstad photo -- okapi 2
This view of its head shows okapi grace and giraffe lineage (and thanks to Kim Gjerstad for this and the other excellent okapi photos)

Ashley’s discovery adds a new piece to the Okapi story.
We can now pencil in the new findings to the most recent map we have below (from Bodmer and Rabb 1992) .
OKAPI range with new locations
Okapi sign (dung, prints) were found by WWF last year in the Semiliki forest of the Virungas (circle in the east). This year an okapi skin was reported by BCI near Lodja reconfirming the old Belgian sightings that up to now were “uncertain”, and now Ashley has found okapi up the Lomami (central circle).

It is our hope – all of ours– that these findings are not the marking of a range just before it contracts and disappears but rather a staking out for real conservation. And we know – all of us – that we have to make it happen.
sunset over Epulu
A magical moment over the Epulu River — may there be many in many Okapi forests


  1. Posted 2007-09-17 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Terese. I had no idea that okapi are giraffids. Loved the history of your work and the photos, too. Thanks for taking time to put it all together.


  2. Posted 2007-09-17 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Terese here: it was a special pleasure for me — glad you liked it!

  3. Samantha (WildlifeDirect)
    Posted 2007-09-17 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful photos. I had never quite realized the extent of the okapi’s tongue. Kim is certainly a great photographer.

  4. Lisa
    Posted 2007-09-17 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed this piece very much. Wow, I wouldn’t have believed that any animal could actually clean its ears with its tongue. I am amazed. They are beautiful animals. Thank you for sharing the photos of your girls, I bet they had magical childhoods. Lisa, California

  5. Ann
    Posted 2007-09-17 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    thanks for the post, the pictures are beautiful. hope the okapi can be conserved in your areas.

  6. michael
    Posted 2007-09-17 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    i enjoy this mix of infos with your personal experiences. When i saw my first (and only) okapi in the zoo, i was so surprised how big and beautiful they are.
    The animals of congo are very fascinating for most people. Why? Possibly because our roots are from there?

  7. Terese
    Posted 2007-09-18 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    They are big and seen alone the okapi’s coloring is so striking but in the forest , even very close, they disappear in the sun and shadows. Amazing.

  8. Christine C.
    Posted 2007-09-21 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful background and pictures Terese…you children must be very special…having grown up in such a wild, intersting place.

  9. chris
    Posted 2008-02-19 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    i like this animal so mush i’d like to see it somedays a gain. Do you think these animals are still alive or there is still a lot of them.

  10. Posted 2008-02-19 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    What part of Africa that this animal lives.

  11. genna anderson
    Posted 2011-10-08 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m late to this conversation.For me seeing Sara and Becca and Eleanor, for the first time was so rewarding ,even if the photos are 4 years old.
    I remember my first Okapi at the station in ,Epuulu,early in the morning and a little monkey jumped on my shoulder and began “fingering” my earings.
    Becca is in Zaire? (DRC-bogus name)Maybe I should use Congo?

One Trackback

  1. […] and John and I were doing our PhD research in the Ituri. Later, Nobirabo joined our project to study Okapi in the wild. Okapi, a horse-size forest “giraffe”, at the GIC project in Epulu. Photo […]

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