Unknown creatures of great size and wonderment
continue to turn up, such as the "megamouth" shark, which was first identified
as recently as 1976.
by Peter Tyson
The first evidence that a fabled donkey-like creature existed in the heart of
the Congo appeared in Henry Morton Stanley's 1860 book In Darkest
Africa. Stanley wrote that the Wambutti pygmies, who lived in the Ituri
forests, "knew a donkey and called it 'atti.' They say that they sometimes
catch them in pits. What they can find to eat is a wonder. They eat leaves."
But no one had ever heard of asses in the Congo. The only member of the horse
family known from the region was the zebra, and zebras don't live in forests,
especially the deep jungle where the pygmies hunted.
Intrigued by Stanley's report, Sir Harry Johnston, then Governor of Uganda,
questioned some pygmies he met in 1899. "They at once understood what I meant,"
he wrote, "and pointing to a zebra-skin and a live mule, they informed me that
the creature in question . . . was like a mule with zebra stripes on it." When
they showed him the elusive creature's cloven-footed tracks, Johnston changed
his mind. "I disbelieved them," he wrote, "and imagined that we were merely
following a forest-eland." (The eland is a large African antelope.) Finally,
when he got hold of a skin, Johnston changed his mind yet again: "Upon
receiving this skin, I saw at once what [it] was—namely, a close relation to
From that skin, a pair of skulls, and the pygmies' tales, Johnston was able to
conceive what the mysterious animal must look like. It was a strange beast. As
the zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans has noted, it reminded one of those mythical
creatures comprised of the body parts of various animals. It was like a large
antelope but with no visible horns; it had ears similar to but larger than a
donkey's; its hindquarters were striped like those of a zebra; and it had an
anteater's long tongue.
antelope - donkey - anteater - giraffe, otherwise known as the okapi.
Could a more fantastical beast be imagined? Few Europeans believed it existed,
but Johnston's persistence paid off. In the early part of this century, the
animal finally became known to science as the okapi. Named for Johnston,
Okapia johnstoni is a heavy-bodied animal with a coat of reddish
chestnut, yellowish-white cheeks, and thighs ringed with alternating stripes of
cream and purplish black. Johnston's last guess about this oddball creature was
right—it is related to the giraffe. To bring to light a huge, unknown mammal
in this century astounded the world. As one scientist has written, we today
have no idea of "the romance surrounding the discovery of the Okapi, nor of the
excitement caused in natural history circles, first by the vague reports of its
presence, and later by its actual finding."
Those who disbelieve in the Loch Ness monster and other fabulous creatures
would do well to remember the okapi, as well as certain points surrounding its
discovery. To wit:
Legends often hold some truth. In the Middle Ages, ivory horns
supposedly taken from unicorns were peddled to European royalty for 20 times
their weight in gold. Few if any collectors knew that these long, spiraled
tusks came from an actual animal, the narwhal, a cetacean that lives in the
Arctic. Scholars believe that the
remarkably human aspect that the heads of seals and manatees rising above the
waves can take on may have given rise to tales of the mermaid, the fabled
half-woman, half-fish of the deep. While traveling across Arabia on his return
from China in 1294, Marco Polo heard of a bird on Madagascar that was so large
it could carry elephants aloft in its talons. Baseless? Nope. Until they went
extinct about 1,000 years ago, Madagascar's elephant birds were the largest
birds that ever lived. Though they couldn't lift an elephant, they did stand
ten feet tall and weigh close to half a ton.
For centuries savvy merchants sold narwhal
tusks as the horns of the fabled unicorn.
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