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Tom Dreyer’s novel concerns a 1912 expedition to the Belgian Congo by two British explorers, Willis Reed and Guy Nichols. They have been commissioned by Antwerp Zoo to capture and bring back the first live specimen of an Okapi, a member of the giraffe family first identified by Sir Harry Johnston in 1902.

As the two men and their entourage set off, leaving behind them the tyranny of the Belgian colonial system, they are enthused by their task. As an entomologist, Nichols is excited by the boundless proliferation of insect species. The zoologist Reed is more romantic and he sees the search for the elusive Okapi as analogous to the medieval quest for the legendary Unicorn.

Unlike the Belgian colonists, Reed and Nichols are not actively malign nor (for the time) overly racist in their attitudes but, as they press on into the interior, their unexamined imperial assumptions and cultural arrogance lead them into disastrous encounters with the inhabitants of the forests, the very people whose help they desperately need if they are to find their quarry. Also, as they gain their first sightings of the Okapi, Reed’s interest in the creature becomes increasingly obsessive and mystical; he is seeking less a flesh and blood creature, more redemption by conquest.

How the expedition ends and with what consequences are best left unstated – suffice it to say that this is a poetic and thought-provoking meditation on discovery and loss, whose message – that in order to possess something fully we must destroy its essence – has deep ecological resonance for our troubled times.

New Internationalist issue 419 magazine cover This article is from the January/February 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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