Heart of Darkness

We’ve had a few theme weeks here on The Quantum Biologist: Shark Week, Ant Week, and Vice Week. Today we begin a new theme week: Old Dead White Naturalist Guy Week! This week is an homage to the courageous, pith-helmeted, mustachioed white men of the 19th century who ventured to the far corners of the globe in the name of science, enlightenment, empire, or just adventure, along with the fascinating animals they “discovered.” (Sir Pilkington-Smythe should be pleased.) I’ll avoid the obvious names, like Darwin and Wallace and Audubon, in order to give credit to those whose names are less-remembered by the modern public. Whether for brilliance, bravado, or simply eccentricity, these are men I believe deserve greater fame.

Or, in this case, infamy.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley was not a naturalist. He was an explorer, and probably the model for exactly what you imagine when you think of the phrase “pith-helmeted, mustachioed white men.” Welsh-born and American-raised, Stanley was a hard-pressed foreign correspondent for a New York newspaper when he was tapped to head the expedition to find rock star Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone, last seen gadding about the Dark Continent. It was Stanley who coined the phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, though there is no evidence that he ever uttered the phrase when he finally found Dr. Livingstone in Tanzania. (Livingstone does not mention it, and for reasons mysterious to the world, Stanley tore out the pages of his diary detailing the encounter.)

Real men keep diaries.

That phrase is the most the average modern person knows about Sir Henry Morton Stanley. You can vaguely conjure an image of him in his khakis, bushwhacking his way through cannibal territory, hacking snakes with a machete and waxing his mustache with his free hand. What people forget is the utter, unmitigated brutality of this man, who was really nothing more than a flag-planting pawn for European powers carving up the African continent for their own appetites. Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone was half media event, half mission of conquest; his 7,000 mile route from Zanzibar to Tanzania was claimed by England, while Stanley’s New York Herald sold record papers. After another newspaper-financed expedition down the River Congo, during which he lost 242 of the 356 members of his entourage — a full 2/3rds, he was commissioned by King Leopold II to map out the Congo and claim it for Belgium. Leopold II’s conquest of the Free State of Congo is one of the most brutal in modern times, amounting to nothing less than enslavement and genocide, with over half the Congolese dying under Belgium’s rubber bootheel. Stanley’s baggage train traveled in long routes through Africa to claim the greatest amount of land, spreading disease and violence where ever they went. Stanley himself was said by one peer to “shoot negroes as if they were monkeys.”

So why is Stanley the subject of my post? Following yesterday’s essay on cryptozoology, I wanted to write on a mammal that Stanley didn’t find himself, but “discovered” through local rumor. It is one of the most elusive mammals in the world for its size — so elusive that it was not scientifically described until the 20th century and was not photographed alive in the wild until 2008. It’s the okapi.

In his 1890 book The Darkest Africa, Stanley wrote that the local pygmies of the Congo “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.” Those last two sentences were added as a point of mystery, as donkeys — like all equids — are not partial to forests, and are grazers rather than browsers. But the report echoed earlier claims by Portuguese explorers of a rare “forest zebra” in the middle of the continent, based on fleeting sightings in dark jungles.

The okapi is not a donkey, zebra, or any equid at all, but a giraffid… in fact, the only relative of the giraffe. Like its taller cousin, it has cloven hooves, a long neck, skin-covered horns, and a long, prehensile purple tongue for grasping branches. They are largely solitary and territorial, with males marking their territory with scent glands in their feet. Despite being displayed in zoos worldwide, they are one of the least-studied large mammals in situ, as they are nearly impossible to find in their dark rainforest habitat. With large ears capable of detecting approaching leopards, and a quick but quiet gait, they have eluded mankind so well that they were not seen alive in the Congo for nearly fifty years during the 20th century. For this reason, the okapi was the symbol of the International Society of Cryptozoology.

Its scientific name, Okapia johnstoni, is in honor of the actual Old Dead White Naturalist Guy of the Day, Sir Harry Johnston. A naturalist, explorer, artist, botanist, and Special Administrator to the Protectorate of Uganda, he was sort of the lighter side of European Imperialism in Africa, compared to Stanley. Yes, he claimed an area of Central Africa twice as large as the modern United Kingdom for the crown. Yes, one of his books was titled The Backward Peoples and Our Relations with Them. But he believed in governance over brute force, and promoted the idea that an empire should endeavor to understand its subjugated people’s culture and work with them rather than beating them with croquet mallets, a worldview so radical for Victorian England that he was more or less considered a pot-smoking Communist hippie.

The Dennis Kucinich of the British Empire.

His interest in the okapi began with that passage in Stanley’s In Darkest Africa and the previous rumors by other explorers. The story goes that Johnston found a tribe of pygmies being kidnapped by a German circus for exhibition in Europe, and rescued them. In exchange for his heroism, the pygmies agreed to help Johnston find the “forest zebra.” Though he never saw a live okapi himself, Johnston and his guides were able to find a leopard-eaten carcass with shreds of skin and a complete skull, which was all Johnston needed to identify the okapi as a giraffe relative. His discovery in 1901 became a small media sensation.

Of course, violence in the Congo didn’t end with Sir Stanley, or King Leopold. Whatever misery might have been visited on one tribe by another before European occupation was amplified a hundredfold by it. Stanley’s expeditions set in motion a chain of civil wars that continues today, with the latest claiming over 5.4 million lives. Cannibalism has returned as a war tactic. Native tribes are hunted like animals and exterminated to gain control of forest sitting on Congo’s vast diamond and copper deposits. In the heart of that forest, hiding from poachers and soldiers, is the okapi, a rumor in the flesh. Shy and peaceful, it is adept at disappearing when it hears the footfalls of men. Given the forest fires and violence on all sides, we can only hope that it does not disappear forever.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

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