My previous post in this series details the reasons why there might be at least one so-called “monster” (well, unknown animal) in one of the most impenetrable regions of the world: Mokele-mbembe, in Central Africa. If it accomplished anything, however, all it did was open the door and display the Congo Basin as a good hiding spot for a large animal. Here, I hope to highlight the evidence that suggests this hiding spot indeed harbors an unknown species.
Important Caveat: I will be upfront and admit this current presentation is less organized than I would like it to be. Certainly nothing compared to the tight argumentation provided by Max Hawthorne in the other post I published today. Sometimes I have been unable to track down the photographs I hoped to link to or include in this post, or was unable to reach some key people, but hopefully that will change very soon. If you’d like to learn more, I have a bibliography and weblinks at the end of this post.
First will come the reports of physical traces, which help as tangible indications that something big, rare, and unknown to science resides in the Congo Basin. Secondly, there will be a brief recap of anecdotal evidence.
Due to the difficulties mentioned in the first “Plausible Monster” post, I wouldn’t be surprised if a creature of unknown classification lives in the Congo Basin, yet visiting tourists/biologists/explorers have not gathered physical evidence. Nevertheless, there is one incident that stands out above others.
The following information comes from William J. Gibbons’ books “Mokele-Mbembe: Mystery Beast of the Congo Basin” and “The Official Mokele-Mbembe Factbook” and from correspondence with my close friend Robert Mullin, who has been on three trips to Cameroon to attempt to gather information on this animal and search for it (in that country it’s known as La Kila Bembe, along with several other tribal names).
As one expedition in 2004 (members included Brian Sass, Peter Beach, and local guide and hunter Pierre Sima) traveled by boat down the Dja River, they came across a little spit of land known locally as “Swamp Island.” There, the jungle’s normally dense shroud of overhanging vines had been stripped away by an herbivore, to a height of eighteen feet. Large tracks were present on the ground, about the size of an elephant’s, but with prominent claws on the toes. Neither elephants nor hippos nor rhinos have these claws.
According to the local guides they hired (whose livelihood, it’s worth pointing out, depends on their expertise at tracking animals and discerning their behavior from the traces they leave behind), the footprints came from two adult animals and a juvenile, who were moving side to side and grazing on the vines hanging above the bank. The toe of one of those footprints was made into a plaster cast, but unfortunately not enough plaster was available to cast the entire foot (I’ll be happy to post a picture of this cast and/or footprints, as soon as I can obtain one).
Near the area of stripped vegetation were several caves in the ground. Caves like this, according to the natives in Congo and Cameroon, are used by Mokele-mbembes to estivate during the dry season (estivation is like hibernation when water is scarce, and is practiced by lungfish and certain frogs on the African savannah). A plaster cast of what looked like a claw mark was allegedly extracted from the surrounding mud by Peter Beach.
If the natives desired to fool the Western explorers, this would seem an unnecessarily elaborate hoax. Perhaps they could fake stripped vines or a footprint or two or put some scratch marks on the walls of an already existing cave. But when the area can only be reached by canoe, to do all three may demand too much time and effort from the natives’ most immediate concern: hunting and gathering to feed their tribe.
What if another large herbivore, already classified by science, could explain what was at the riverbank? Obviously a hippo or rhinoceros does not reach a grazing height of eighteen feet. Giraffes can, but they do not live in this part of Africa — the Congo Basin’s riverbanks might as well be quicksand to any large animal without wide feet to distribute its weight over the soft earth. The best candidate among known animals would be the forest elephant. I’d be willing to allow the possibility of a pair of forest elephants (of unusually great size) with a juvenile, rearing up on their hind legs, and plucking leaves at eighteen feet, if their trunks were extended. The main problem with this alternative is the prominent claws on the footprints, and the fact that the native guides didn’t just identify them as elephant tracks.
Given the details of what was found in this area, the simplest explanation appears to be this: the members of this expedition came across the grazing area of an unclassified species, and arguably the largest to live in the Congo Basin.
Any “cryptid” can boast of stories and sightings, no matter how unlikely their existence or how bizarre/supernatural the creature. But the general pattern of Mokele-mbembe sightings does appear to match the pattern of seeing a rare animal. First, consider the people claiming they see Mokele-mbembe: native tribes that have little to no contact with each other (several of which have never seen a white man until recent times). Yet they all describe a creature with an elephantine body and four legs with stout digging claws, a small head, long neck and tail, dark and dull coloration, and iguana-like spines running along its vertebrae.
Without a real animal to account for these sightings there would have to be an impressively extensive (and impressively hidden) conspiracy among the tribes to “get their story straight” to fool any explorers who ask them about unusual animals in the region. And given that many particular tribes go without contact for decades by white explorers with an interest in this long-necked animal, they would have to maintain this little conspiracy among their own people for years and years, without any gullible foreigners to string along. Human nature simply doesn’t work like that.
There’s a surprising amount of biological plausibility in their description, as well. For example, the creature’s alleged vocalizations are deep and rumbling, said to be the product of a dewlap they can inflate like a bullfrog. Another example is their tail being used as a weapon to kill hippos or crocodiles straying into their territory. Some tribes in Congo do regard it as a spirit or god, with fantastic attributes (read Rory Nugent’s book Drums Along the Congo for a wealth of details), but in Cameroon the creature is almost always treated as natural, neither mythical nor supernatural.
The alternative hypotheses to explain these facts (the natives are just messing with visitors; it’s only folklore; the natives are describing rhinos or giraffes; natives are misidentifying known animals, etc.) do not even come close to explaining the full picture that has been forming in the heart of Africa. Take the earlier post’s explanation of why the Congo Basin is still largely a blank space on the map, and couple it with the lines of evidence stated in this post (with more to come, I pray). A pattern of ripples starts to form, which seems to point to one explanation above all others:
An unclassified animal species, critically endangered and with reclusive habits, is likely to reside in the river systems and swamps of the Congo Basin.
Alternative explanations have largely focused on trying to wave off or ridicule this hypothesis rather than seriously consider it. These will be dealt with in the final post.
“Mokele-Mbembe: Mystery Beast of the Congo Basin” by William J. Gibbons
“The Official Mokele-Mbembe Factbook” by the Cameroon Discovery Team
“A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe” by Roy P. Mackal, PhD
“Drums Along the Congo: On the Trail of Mokele-Mbembe, the Last Living Dinosaur” by Rory Nugent