Syndicated from the Web

THE BLOOD-DRINKING ‘DEATH BIRDS’ OF ETHIOPIA – ON SILENT, SINISTER WINGS THEY COME…

by on Sep.02, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Assuming that they do exist, just what ARE the terrifying ‘death birds’ of Ethiopia (© Ben Male)
The little-known cryptozoological case of the Ethiopian ‘death bird’ is unremittingly macabre and horrific, more akin to the gothic outpourings of Poe and Le Fanu than to anything from the dispassionate, sober chronicles of zoology. Yet in spite of this, it is only too real; at the present time, moreover, it is also unsolved. I am most grateful to Queensland zoologist Malcolm Smith for bringing this chilling but hitherto unexamined case to my attention, and for kindly supplying me with a copy of the original source of information concerning it.
It was during an archaeological expedition to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) during the early 1930s, before the country was invaded by Italian troops prior to World War II, that Hungarian/American amateur archaeologist and anthropologist ‘Count’ Byron Khun de Prorok (1896-1954) first learnt of Devil’s Cave, whose grisly secret he subsequently documented in his travelogue Dead Men Do Tell Tales(1933).
Journeying through the province of Walaga, he resided for a time at the home of its governor, Dajjazmac Mariam, and while there he was approached by one of the servants, a young boy who began to tell him about a secret cave situated roughly an hour’s horseback-ride away, near a place called Lekempti. It was known to the local people as Devil’s Cave, and was widely held to be an abode of evil and horror – plagued by devil-men who prowled its darkened recesses in the guise of ferocious hyaenas, and by flocks of a greatly-feared form of bat referred to as the death bird.
No-one had ever dared to penetrate this mysterious cavern, but de Prorok decided to defy its forbidding reputation, because he thought it possible that there would be prehistoric rock paintings inside (especially as its notoriety would have served well in warding off potential trespassers, who might have desecrated any artwork preserved within its stygian gloom).
‘Count’ Byron Khun de Prorok (public domain)
When de Prorok told his young informant of his decision to visit Devil’s Cave, the boy was terrified, but after being bribed with a plentiful supply of gifts he agreed very reluctantly to act as de Prorok’s guide – though only on the strict understanding that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened!
The cave was situated high among rocky pinnacles and jungle foliage, but de Prorok succeeded in scrambling up to it, and in removing the several heavy boulders blocking its entrance. Armed with a gun, and leaving his guide trembling with fear outside, he cautiously stepped inside – and was almost bowled over a few minutes later by a panic-stricken pack of hyaenas hurtling down one of the passages to the newly-unsealed entrance. Seeking to defend himself against a possible attack by them, he shot one that approached a little too close for comfort, and the echoes from the blast reverberated far and wide, ultimately reaching the ears of two goatherds who came to the cave mouth to find out what was happening. Here they were met by de Prorok, who had followed the hyaenas at a respectful distance during their shambolic exit, and was greatly shocked by the men’s pitiful state – they seemed little more than animated skeletons, upon which were hung a few tattered rags.
When, with the boy as interpreter, they learnt that de Prorok planned to go back inside the cave, they implored him to change his mind, warning him of the death birds. De Prorok, however, was not afraid of bats and made his way once more through the cave’s sombre corridors, until he suddenly heard a loud whirring sound overhead. This proved to be a huge cloud of bats, which flew rapidly towards the cave mouth when he fired off a shot in alarm. These, he presumed, must be the dreaded death birds, a line of speculation speedily confirmed when only moments later a rain of bat excrement, dislodged by the shot, began to pelt down upon him from the cave roof, accompanied by an asphyxiating stench that drove him back almost at once to the entrance in search of breathable air.
Outside, he enquired why everyone was so afraid of these bats, to which the two goatherds and the boy all replied that they were blood-suckers – that night after night they came to drink the blood of anyone living near the cave until eventually their unfortunate victims died. This was why the only people living here now were the goatherds (who were forced to do so by the goats’ owners), and was the reason for their emaciated state. The death birds’ vampiresque activities ensured that none of the goatherds lived very long, but they were always replaced by others, thereby providing the goats with constant supervision – and the death birds with a constant supply of their ghoulish nutriment.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales(public domain)
To provide him with additional proof of their statements, the two goatherds took de Prorok to their camp nearby; all of the herders there were equally skeletal – and one was close to death. Little more than a pile of bones scarcely held together by a shroud of ashen skin, this living corpse of a man lay huddled in a cot, with blood-stained rags and clothes on either side, and was so weakened by the nightly depredations of the visiting death birds that he was unable to stand, capable only of extending a wraith-like arm. The goatherds told de Prorok that the death birds settled upon their bodies while they were asleep, so softly that they did not even wake; and that they were sizeable beasts, with wingspans of 12-18 in.
As for physical evidence of the death birds’ sanguinivorous nature, the goatherds showed him their arms, which clearly bore a number of small wounds – the puncture marks left behind by these winged leeches once they had gorged themselves upon their hapless hosts?
Nothing more has emerged concerning this gruesome affair, but for zoologists it would have some significant repercussions if de Prorok’s account could be shown to be accurate. Only three modern-day species of blood-drinking bat are currently known to science – and all three of these are confined exclusively to the Americas!
Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
These are the notorious vampire bats, of which the best-known is the common vampire Desmodus rotundus, whose range extends from northern Mexico to central Chile, northern Argentina, Uruguay, and Trinidad; its numbers have dramatically increased since the introduction of sheep and other livestock to these areas with the coming of the Europeans, serving to expand the diversity and numbers of potential prey victims for it. The other two species are the white-winged vampire Diaemus youngi, recorded from northeastern Mexico to eastern Peru, northern Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad; and the hairy-legged vampire Diphylla ecaudata, ranging from southern Texas to eastern Peru and southern Brazil.
(As a thought-provoking digression, there may also be a fourth, giant vampire bat in existence. Within the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington for 7 December 1988, researchers Drs Gary S. Morgan, Omar J. Linares, and Clayton E. Ray formally described a new species of vampire, 25% larger in size than Desmodus rotundus, based upon two incomplete skulls and skeletal remains found in Venezuela’s famous Cueva del Guácharo – home of the extraordinary radar-emitting oilbird Steatornis caripensis. Dubbed D. draculae, this giant vampire bat’s remains date from the Pleistocene. However, Brazilian zoologists Drs E. Trajano and M. de Vivo, in a Mammalia paper from 1991, noted that there are reports of local inhabitants in southeastern Brazil’s Ribeira Valley referring to attacks upon cattle and horses by large bats that could suggest the continuing survival here of D. draculae, although despite extensive recent searches of caves in this area none has been found…so far?)
Over the years, a great deal of misinformation has been dissipated concerning this nocturnal, terror-inducing trio of micro-bats – including the persistent fallacy that they actively suck blood out of wounds; and the equally tenacious, fanciful misconception that they are enormous beasts with gigantic wings into which they are only too eager to enfold their stricken victims while draining them of their precious scarlet fluid. In contrast, the truth is (as always) far less exotic and extravagant.
Any creature that can subsist entirely upon a diet of blood (sanginivory) must obviously be highly specialised, and the vampire bats are no exception; Canadian biologist Dr Brock Fenton from Young University in Ontario has suggested that they evolved from bats that originally consumed blood-sucking insects attracted to wounds on large animals, but which eventually acquired a taste for the animals’ blood themselves. Yet in overall external appearance these nefarious species are disappointingly mundane – with an unimpressive total length of only 2-3.5 in, a very modest wingspan of 5-6 in, and a covering of unmemorably brown, short fur. Only when they open their mouth to reveal a distinctive pair of shear-like upper incisors do they display the first intimation of their sinister lifestyle.
Head and face of a common vampire bat, revealing its specialised dentition (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA4.0 licence)
These incisors terminate in a central point and have long, scalpel-sharp edges, perfectly adapted for surreptitiously shaving a thin sliver of skin from the body or neck of an unsuspecting (usually sleeping) victim – detected by the vampire’s ultrasonic echo-location faculties. The wound that is produced is sufficiently deep to slice through the skin’s capillaries, but not deep enough to disturb the victim and thereby waken it (or arouse its attention if already awake) – stealth is the byword of the vampire’s lifestyle. Aiding the furtive creation of this finely-engineered wound are the bat’s canine teeth, shorter than the incisors but just as sharp.
Once the wound begins to seep blood in a steady flow, the vampire, delicately clinging to the flank or back of its victim with its wings and hook-like thumbs (not with its sharp claws – yet another fallacy), avidly laps the escaping fluid with its grooved, muscular tongue. It can also suck it up by folding its tongue over a notch in its lower lip to yield a tube, but it only sucks blood that has already flowed out of the wound. In addition, its saliva contains anticoagulants, preventing the blood from clotting, and thereby providing the bat with an ample supply (but causing its victim to lose more than would have been the case if the wound had been inflicted by some other type of sharp cutting implement).
Indeed, one of these anticoagulants, plasminogen activator (Bat-PA for short), shows promise as a powerful drug in the prevention of the severe physiological damage caused by heart attacks in humans, according to a study of its effects by research fellow Dr Stephen Gardell at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania.
The vampire’s teeth, tongue, and thumbs are not the only specialised facets of its anatomy – its gut also exhibits some important modifications. Enabling the bat to gorge itself thoroughly before bidding its victim a silent adieu, its stomach has an enormous extra compartment – a tubular, blind-ending diverticulum unattached to the rest of the digestive tract and capable of prodigious distension, rendering it able to hold a voluminous quantity of blood. Sometimes the bat can scarcely fly after feeding, because it is so heavy with freshly ingested blood. Also, its oesophagus is specialised for efficient water absorption, a necessity for any obligate sanguinivore because blood contains an appreciable proportion of water.
Exclusively sanguinivorous bats, like this common vampire, are known to science only from the New World, not from the Old World as well (© Desmodus/Wikipedia – CC BY SA 3.0 licence)
What all of this means in relation to the Ethiopian death bird is that any bat thriving solely or even predominantly upon a diet of blood is inevitably a much-modified species, rigorously adapted for such a lifestyle – rather than a mere opportunist species that in certain localities has switched (through some unusual set of circumstances) from its normal diet to a sanguinivorous existence. In other words, if de Prorok’s account is a truthful one, then surely the death bird must be a species new to science? After all, there is currently no known species of Old World bat that is a confirmed dedicated blood-drinker. This, then, is plainly one plausible answer to the death bird mystery – but it is not the only such answer.
I am exceedingly grateful to the late John Edwards Hill, bat specialist and formerly Principal Scientific Officer at London’s Natural History Museum, who presented me with a great deal of information that offers a completely different outlook upon this perplexing case. It is well known that the New World vampire bats transmit livestock diseases from one animal victim to another, in a manner paralleling the activities of mosquitoes and other sanguinivorous insect vectors. They also carry rabies to humans, although this is a much rarer occurrence than the more lurid reports in the popular press would have us believe. Moreover, bats of many species all around the world are known to contract many different types of bacterial, viral, and protozoan diseases, which can be spread to other organisms via parasites such as body lice and ticks that live upon the bats’ skin or fur. Relapsing fever in humans, for example, is caused by the bacterium Borrelia recurrentis, carried by lice and ticks that have in turn derived it from former rodent or bat hosts.
Accordingly, during communications concerning the death bird, Hill suggested to me that it is possible that humans venturing in or near a cave heavily infested with bats (like Devil’s Cave, for instance) would become infected with such diseases – if lice or ticks, dropping from the bats as they flew overhead, bit the unfortunate humans upon which they landed. A parasite-borne infection of this nature would account for the bite-like wounds of the goatherds observed by de Prorok; and, depending upon the precise type of infection, could ultimately give rise to the emaciated condition exhibited by these afflicted persons.
Additionally, native superstition and a deep-rooted fear of bats might be sufficient, when coupled with the distressing effects of a parasite-borne infection, to nurture the belief among such poorly-educated people as these that they were the victims of blood-sucking bats – the notion of vampirism is very ancient and widespread in human cultures worldwide (the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica even worshipped the vampire bat as a god – Camazotz).           
Camazotz, as conceived by Hodari Nundu (© Hodari Nundu/Deviantart)
Two other medical explanations for the death bird case were also raised by Hill during our correspondence (although he rated both of these as being less plausible than the likelihood of a parasite-borne disease’s involvement). These are as follows.
As Devil’s Cave contained large quantities of bat excrement, perhaps these droppings harboured the spores of the soil fungus Histoplasma capsulatum (even though this is more usually associated with bird guano). If inhaled, these spores can cause an infection of the lungs known as histoplasmosis, which can prove fatal (but severe cases are not common).
Alternatively, an illness called Weil’s disease again offers some notable parallels with the ‘death bird syndrome’. Also referred to as epidemic spirochaetal jaundice and as leptospirosis icterohaemorrhagica, Weil’s disease is caused by spirochaete bacteria of the genus Leptospira, and is usually spread by rodents, but the bacteria have been found in a few species of bat too. Infection generally occurs through infected drinking water, and among the ensuing symptoms of contraction is the appearance of small haemorrhages in the skin, which could be mistaken for bites. Also, the accompanying damage to the kidneys and liver, jaundice, and overall malaise experienced by sufferers could explain the goatherds’ haggard, wasted form.
Clearly, then, the case of the dreaded death bird and the stricken herders is far from being as straightforward as it seemed on first sight, and may involve any one, or perhaps even more than one, of the above solutions. Also well worth noting is that de Prorok was (in)famous for gross exaggeration and imaginative narratives, so it is by no means evident how much of his testimony concerning his visit and experiences relating to Devil’s Cave can be taken as fact.
Micrograph showing histoplasmosis. Liver biopsy. Periodic acid-Schiff diastase (PAS-D) stain. Histoplasma = clumps of small bright red circles (© Nephron/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
One aspect of the case that is evident, however, is the necessity for a specimen of the death bird to be collected and formally studied. Only then might the resolution of this mystifying and macabre cryptozoological riddle be finally achieved.
Yet in view of the perennially uncertain political climate associated with Ethiopia in modern times, even this is unlikely to prove an easy task to accomplish.
Until then, the secret of this purportedly deadly, unidentified creature will remain as dark and impenetrable as the grim cave from which its winged minions allegedly issue forth each night to perform their vile abominations upon the latest tragic campful of doomed, defenceless goatherds.
This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

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THE BLOOD-DRINKING ‘DEATH BIRDS’ OF ETHIOPIA – ON SILENT, SINISTER WINGS THEY COME…

by on Sep.02, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Assuming that they do exist, just what ARE the terrifying ‘death birds’ of Ethiopia (© Ben Male)
The little-known cryptozoological case of the Ethiopian ‘death bird’ is unremittingly macabre and horrific, more akin to the gothic outpourings of Poe and Le Fanu than to anything from the dispassionate, sober chronicles of zoology. Yet in spite of this, it is only too real; at the present time, moreover, it is also unsolved. I am most grateful to Queensland zoologist Malcolm Smith for bringing this chilling but hitherto unexamined case to my attention, and for kindly supplying me with a copy of the original source of information concerning it.
It was during an archaeological expedition to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) during the early 1930s, before the country was invaded by Italian troops prior to World War II, that Hungarian/American amateur archaeologist and anthropologist ‘Count’ Byron Khun de Prorok (1896-1954) first learnt of Devil’s Cave, whose grisly secret he subsequently documented in his travelogue Dead Men Do Tell Tales(1933).
Journeying through the province of Walaga, he resided for a time at the home of its governor, Dajjazmac Mariam, and while there he was approached by one of the servants, a young boy who began to tell him about a secret cave situated roughly an hour’s horseback-ride away, near a place called Lekempti. It was known to the local people as Devil’s Cave, and was widely held to be an abode of evil and horror – plagued by devil-men who prowled its darkened recesses in the guise of ferocious hyaenas, and by flocks of a greatly-feared form of bat referred to as the death bird.
No-one had ever dared to penetrate this mysterious cavern, but de Prorok decided to defy its forbidding reputation, because he thought it possible that there would be prehistoric rock paintings inside (especially as its notoriety would have served well in warding off potential trespassers, who might have desecrated any artwork preserved within its stygian gloom).
‘Count’ Byron Khun de Prorok (public domain)
When de Prorok told his young informant of his decision to visit Devil’s Cave, the boy was terrified, but after being bribed with a plentiful supply of gifts he agreed very reluctantly to act as de Prorok’s guide – though only on the strict understanding that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened!
The cave was situated high among rocky pinnacles and jungle foliage, but de Prorok succeeded in scrambling up to it, and in removing the several heavy boulders blocking its entrance. Armed with a gun, and leaving his guide trembling with fear outside, he cautiously stepped inside – and was almost bowled over a few minutes later by a panic-stricken pack of hyaenas hurtling down one of the passages to the newly-unsealed entrance. Seeking to defend himself against a possible attack by them, he shot one that approached a little too close for comfort, and the echoes from the blast reverberated far and wide, ultimately reaching the ears of two goatherds who came to the cave mouth to find out what was happening. Here they were met by de Prorok, who had followed the hyaenas at a respectful distance during their shambolic exit, and was greatly shocked by the men’s pitiful state – they seemed little more than animated skeletons, upon which were hung a few tattered rags.
When, with the boy as interpreter, they learnt that de Prorok planned to go back inside the cave, they implored him to change his mind, warning him of the death birds. De Prorok, however, was not afraid of bats and made his way once more through the cave’s sombre corridors, until he suddenly heard a loud whirring sound overhead. This proved to be a huge cloud of bats, which flew rapidly towards the cave mouth when he fired off a shot in alarm. These, he presumed, must be the dreaded death birds, a line of speculation speedily confirmed when only moments later a rain of bat excrement, dislodged by the shot, began to pelt down upon him from the cave roof, accompanied by an asphyxiating stench that drove him back almost at once to the entrance in search of breathable air.
Outside, he enquired why everyone was so afraid of these bats, to which the two goatherds and the boy all replied that they were blood-suckers – that night after night they came to drink the blood of anyone living near the cave until eventually their unfortunate victims died. This was why the only people living here now were the goatherds (who were forced to do so by the goats’ owners), and was the reason for their emaciated state. The death birds’ vampiresque activities ensured that none of the goatherds lived very long, but they were always replaced by others, thereby providing the goats with constant supervision – and the death birds with a constant supply of their ghoulish nutriment.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales(public domain)
To provide him with additional proof of their statements, the two goatherds took de Prorok to their camp nearby; all of the herders there were equally skeletal – and one was close to death. Little more than a pile of bones scarcely held together by a shroud of ashen skin, this living corpse of a man lay huddled in a cot, with blood-stained rags and clothes on either side, and was so weakened by the nightly depredations of the visiting death birds that he was unable to stand, capable only of extending a wraith-like arm. The goatherds told de Prorok that the death birds settled upon their bodies while they were asleep, so softly that they did not even wake; and that they were sizeable beasts, with wingspans of 12-18 in.
As for physical evidence of the death birds’ sanguinivorous nature, the goatherds showed him their arms, which clearly bore a number of small wounds – the puncture marks left behind by these winged leeches once they had gorged themselves upon their hapless hosts?
Nothing more has emerged concerning this gruesome affair, but for zoologists it would have some significant repercussions if de Prorok’s account could be shown to be accurate. Only three modern-day species of blood-drinking bat are currently known to science – and all three of these are confined exclusively to the Americas!
Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
These are the notorious vampire bats, of which the best-known is the common vampire Desmodus rotundus, whose range extends from northern Mexico to central Chile, northern Argentina, Uruguay, and Trinidad; its numbers have dramatically increased since the introduction of sheep and other livestock to these areas with the coming of the Europeans, serving to expand the diversity and numbers of potential prey victims for it. The other two species are the white-winged vampire Diaemus youngi, recorded from northeastern Mexico to eastern Peru, northern Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad; and the hairy-legged vampire Diphylla ecaudata, ranging from southern Texas to eastern Peru and southern Brazil.
(As a thought-provoking digression, there may also be a fourth, giant vampire bat in existence. Within the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington for 7 December 1988, researchers Drs Gary S. Morgan, Omar J. Linares, and Clayton E. Ray formally described a new species of vampire, 25% larger in size than Desmodus rotundus, based upon two incomplete skulls and skeletal remains found in Venezuela’s famous Cueva del Guácharo – home of the extraordinary radar-emitting oilbird Steatornis caripensis. Dubbed D. draculae, this giant vampire bat’s remains date from the Pleistocene. However, Brazilian zoologists Drs E. Trajano and M. de Vivo, in a Mammalia paper from 1991, noted that there are reports of local inhabitants in southeastern Brazil’s Ribeira Valley referring to attacks upon cattle and horses by large bats that could suggest the continuing survival here of D. draculae, although despite extensive recent searches of caves in this area none has been found…so far?)
Over the years, a great deal of misinformation has been dissipated concerning this nocturnal, terror-inducing trio of micro-bats – including the persistent fallacy that they actively suck blood out of wounds; and the equally tenacious, fanciful misconception that they are enormous beasts with gigantic wings into which they are only too eager to enfold their stricken victims while draining them of their precious scarlet fluid. In contrast, the truth is (as always) far less exotic and extravagant.
Any creature that can subsist entirely upon a diet of blood (sanginivory) must obviously be highly specialised, and the vampire bats are no exception; Canadian biologist Dr Brock Fenton from Young University in Ontario has suggested that they evolved from bats that originally consumed blood-sucking insects attracted to wounds on large animals, but which eventually acquired a taste for the animals’ blood themselves. Yet in overall external appearance these nefarious species are disappointingly mundane – with an unimpressive total length of only 2-3.5 in, a very modest wingspan of 5-6 in, and a covering of unmemorably brown, short fur. Only when they open their mouth to reveal a distinctive pair of shear-like upper incisors do they display the first intimation of their sinister lifestyle.
Head and face of a common vampire bat, revealing its specialised dentition (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA4.0 licence)
These incisors terminate in a central point and have long, scalpel-sharp edges, perfectly adapted for surreptitiously shaving a thin sliver of skin from the body or neck of an unsuspecting (usually sleeping) victim – detected by the vampire’s ultrasonic echo-location faculties. The wound that is produced is sufficiently deep to slice through the skin’s capillaries, but not deep enough to disturb the victim and thereby waken it (or arouse its attention if already awake) – stealth is the byword of the vampire’s lifestyle. Aiding the furtive creation of this finely-engineered wound are the bat’s canine teeth, shorter than the incisors but just as sharp.
Once the wound begins to seep blood in a steady flow, the vampire, delicately clinging to the flank or back of its victim with its wings and hook-like thumbs (not with its sharp claws – yet another fallacy), avidly laps the escaping fluid with its grooved, muscular tongue. It can also suck it up by folding its tongue over a notch in its lower lip to yield a tube, but it only sucks blood that has already flowed out of the wound. In addition, its saliva contains anticoagulants, preventing the blood from clotting, and thereby providing the bat with an ample supply (but causing its victim to lose more than would have been the case if the wound had been inflicted by some other type of sharp cutting implement).
Indeed, one of these anticoagulants, plasminogen activator (Bat-PA for short), shows promise as a powerful drug in the prevention of the severe physiological damage caused by heart attacks in humans, according to a study of its effects by research fellow Dr Stephen Gardell at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania.
The vampire’s teeth, tongue, and thumbs are not the only specialised facets of its anatomy – its gut also exhibits some important modifications. Enabling the bat to gorge itself thoroughly before bidding its victim a silent adieu, its stomach has an enormous extra compartment – a tubular, blind-ending diverticulum unattached to the rest of the digestive tract and capable of prodigious distension, rendering it able to hold a voluminous quantity of blood. Sometimes the bat can scarcely fly after feeding, because it is so heavy with freshly ingested blood. Also, its oesophagus is specialised for efficient water absorption, a necessity for any obligate sanguinivore because blood contains an appreciable proportion of water.
Exclusively sanguinivorous bats, like this common vampire, are known to science only from the New World, not from the Old World as well (© Desmodus/Wikipedia – CC BY SA 3.0 licence)
What all of this means in relation to the Ethiopian death bird is that any bat thriving solely or even predominantly upon a diet of blood is inevitably a much-modified species, rigorously adapted for such a lifestyle – rather than a mere opportunist species that in certain localities has switched (through some unusual set of circumstances) from its normal diet to a sanguinivorous existence. In other words, if de Prorok’s account is a truthful one, then surely the death bird must be a species new to science? After all, there is currently no known species of Old World bat that is a confirmed dedicated blood-drinker. This, then, is plainly one plausible answer to the death bird mystery – but it is not the only such answer.
I am exceedingly grateful to the late John Edwards Hill, bat specialist and formerly Principal Scientific Officer at London’s Natural History Museum, who presented me with a great deal of information that offers a completely different outlook upon this perplexing case. It is well known that the New World vampire bats transmit livestock diseases from one animal victim to another, in a manner paralleling the activities of mosquitoes and other sanguinivorous insect vectors. They also carry rabies to humans, although this is a much rarer occurrence than the more lurid reports in the popular press would have us believe. Moreover, bats of many species all around the world are known to contract many different types of bacterial, viral, and protozoan diseases, which can be spread to other organisms via parasites such as body lice and ticks that live upon the bats’ skin or fur. Relapsing fever in humans, for example, is caused by the bacterium Borrelia recurrentis, carried by lice and ticks that have in turn derived it from former rodent or bat hosts.
Accordingly, during communications concerning the death bird, Hill suggested to me that it is possible that humans venturing in or near a cave heavily infested with bats (like Devil’s Cave, for instance) would become infected with such diseases – if lice or ticks, dropping from the bats as they flew overhead, bit the unfortunate humans upon which they landed. A parasite-borne infection of this nature would account for the bite-like wounds of the goatherds observed by de Prorok; and, depending upon the precise type of infection, could ultimately give rise to the emaciated condition exhibited by these afflicted persons.
Additionally, native superstition and a deep-rooted fear of bats might be sufficient, when coupled with the distressing effects of a parasite-borne infection, to nurture the belief among such poorly-educated people as these that they were the victims of blood-sucking bats – the notion of vampirism is very ancient and widespread in human cultures worldwide (the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica even worshipped the vampire bat as a god – Camazotz).           
Camazotz, as conceived by Hodari Nundu (© Hodari Nundu/Deviantart)
Two other medical explanations for the death bird case were also raised by Hill during our correspondence (although he rated both of these as being less plausible than the likelihood of a parasite-borne disease’s involvement). These are as follows.
As Devil’s Cave contained large quantities of bat excrement, perhaps these droppings harboured the spores of the soil fungus Histoplasma capsulatum (even though this is more usually associated with bird guano). If inhaled, these spores can cause an infection of the lungs known as histoplasmosis, which can prove fatal (but severe cases are not common).
Alternatively, an illness called Weil’s disease again offers some notable parallels with the ‘death bird syndrome’. Also referred to as epidemic spirochaetal jaundice and as leptospirosis icterohaemorrhagica, Weil’s disease is caused by spirochaete bacteria of the genus Leptospira, and is usually spread by rodents, but the bacteria have been found in a few species of bat too. Infection generally occurs through infected drinking water, and among the ensuing symptoms of contraction is the appearance of small haemorrhages in the skin, which could be mistaken for bites. Also, the accompanying damage to the kidneys and liver, jaundice, and overall malaise experienced by sufferers could explain the goatherds’ haggard, wasted form.
Clearly, then, the case of the dreaded death bird and the stricken herders is far from being as straightforward as it seemed on first sight, and may involve any one, or perhaps even more than one, of the above solutions. Also well worth noting is that de Prorok was (in)famous for gross exaggeration and imaginative narratives, so it is by no means evident how much of his testimony concerning his visit and experiences relating to Devil’s Cave can be taken as fact.
Micrograph showing histoplasmosis. Liver biopsy. Periodic acid-Schiff diastase (PAS-D) stain. Histoplasma = clumps of small bright red circles (© Nephron/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
One aspect of the case that is evident, however, is the necessity for a specimen of the death bird to be collected and formally studied. Only then might the resolution of this mystifying and macabre cryptozoological riddle be finally achieved.
Yet in view of the perennially uncertain political climate associated with Ethiopia in modern times, even this is unlikely to prove an easy task to accomplish.
Until then, the secret of this purportedly deadly, unidentified creature will remain as dark and impenetrable as the grim cave from which its winged minions allegedly issue forth each night to perform their vile abominations upon the latest tragic campful of doomed, defenceless goatherds.
This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

Leave a Comment more...

THE SIRENS OF ST HELENA

by on Jul.20, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Alongside a manatee statue at Sea World in San Diego, California (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Those highly-modified aquatic ungulates (hoofed mammals) known as the sirenians or sea-cows, represented today by the manatees and dugongs, are already well known in cryptozoological circles by virtue of the extensively documented (yet incompletely verified) claim that they are responsible for many mermaid or siren sightings reported from around the world (hence the sea-cows’ zoological name – ‘sirenian’).
Other sirenian claims upon the cryptozoologist’s attention include: the possibility that the largest of all modern-day species, the supposedly extinct Steller’s sea-cow Hydrodamalis gigas, still survives; the unmasking in 1985 of the ri (an aquatic mystery beast from New Guinea) as the dugong Dugong dugon; the one-time disputed existence of the dugong in Chinese waters; and the likelihood that an unidentified creature reported from various West African lakes and another such animal from eastern South America’s Lake Titicaca may constitute unknown species of sirenian. In addition, there is the case presented here, one that had not been previously documented by cryptozoologists until my own writings on this subject were published.
There are three known species of present-day manatee. The Amazon manatee Trichechus inunguis inhabits the estuaries of the Orinoco and the Amazon; the Caribbean manatee T. manatus is distributed from the coasts of Virginia in the southeastern United States to the West Indies and the northern coasts of Brazil; and the African manatee T. senegalensis frequents the coasts and rivers of West Africa from Senegal to Angola. At one time, moreover, there were also persistent reports of putative manatees around the coasts of St Helena, a small south Atlantic island, almost equidistant from South America and Africa.
In view of the fact that there is a region on the southwestern coast of St Helena that is actually named Manatee Bay (sometimes spelt ‘Manati’), one could be forgiven for assuming that there was never any uncertainty about these creatures’ identity. In reality, however, this entire matter has never been unequivocally resolved, as evinced by the following selection of reports and the highly contradictory opinions that they have elicited.
A melange of manatees exhibiting their varied poses and movements in a vintage engraving (public domain)
As documented in a Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London article from 1935, Cornish traveller Peter Mundy journeyed in 1655 to India on the Aleppo Merchant, and during his return voyage the following year on the same vessel he paid a brief visit to St Helena. While walking along the beach near Chappell Valley, he saw a strange creature lying ashore and apparently severely injured. Mundy went nearer to examine it:
However, when I touched it, [it] raised his forepart, gaping on mee with his wide and terrible jawes. It had the coullor (yellowish) and terrible countenance of a lion, with four greatt teeth, besides smalle, long, bigge smelling hairs or mustaches.
The creature attempted to make its way back to the sea, but Mundy dispatched it with stones. It was evidently very large:
…in length aboutt ten foote and five foote aboutt the middle. Some say it was a seale, others notte. I terme itt a sealionesse, beeing a femall.
In his journal, Mundy included a sketch of this animal (reproduced in Fraser’s account), which leaves no doubt that it was indeed a species of pinniped (seals, sea-lions, walruses).
Peter Mundy: Merchant Adventurer – a modern-day history of Mundy, edited by R.E. Pritchard (© Bodleian Library/R.E. Pritchard, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
As uncovered by St Helena resident G.C. Kitching, the Public Records of Jamestown (this island’s capital) contain many allusions to alleged manatees or sea-cows (including what appears to be the first usage of the name ‘Manatee Bay’, which occurred on 27 January 1679). For example, one such record, for 28 August 1682, listed the capture of “several sea-cows”; and on 20 March 1690, another record noted the following incident:
Tuesday, Goodwin and Coales brought up for killing a Sea-Cow, and not paying the Company’s Royalty. They desire pardon, and say the Sea-Cow was very small; the oyle would not amount to above four or five gallons.
On 11 May 1691, a record mentioned that a sea-cow had appeared on shore at Windward, just a month before traveller William Dampier visited St Helena. Dampier became most intrigued by the alleged existence of manatees around the island’s coasts:
I was also informed that they get Manatee or Sea Cows here, which seemed very strange to me. Therefore inquiring more strictly into the matter, I found the Santa Hellena Manatee to be, by their shapes, and manner of lying ashore on the Rocks, those Creatures called Sea-lyons: for the Manatee never come ashore, neither are they found near any rocky Shores, as this Island is, there being no feeding for them in such places. Besides, in this Island there is no River for them to drink at, tho’ there is a small Brook runs into the Sea, out of the Valley by the Fort.
Returning to the records, on 29 August 1716 they reported that 400 lb of ambergris was found in Manatee Bay, and on 11 September 1739 “A Sea-Cow [was] killed upon Old Woman’s Valley beach, as it was lying asleep, by Warrall and Greentree”.
Steller’s sea-lion bull, exhibiting its characteristically leonine mane (© Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
John Barnes’s A Tour Through the Island of St. Helena(1817) contains a detailed account of these supposed sirenians as described by reliable observer and St Helena resident Lieutenant Thomas Leech, who identified them as sea-lions. Yet in complete contrast, another equally proficient observer, Dr Walter Henry, just as confidently identified them as manatees, stating in the second volume of his Events of a Military Life (1843):
We had sea-cows at St. Helena, the Trichechus Dugong, but they were not common. When shooting near Buttermilk Point with another officer one calm evening, we stumbled on one lying on a low rock close to the water’s edge, and a hideous ugly brute it was, shaped like a large calf, with bright green eyes as big as saucers. We only caught a glimpse of it for a few seconds, for as soon as it noticed us, it jumped into the sea, in the most awkward and sprawling manner.
Note that Henry couched his references to these creatures’ existence around St Helena in the past tense. This is because the last recorded appearance of such animals here took place in 1810, when one came ashore at Stone Top Valley beach, and was duly shot by a Mr Burnham. It measured 7 ft long, and 10 gallons of oil were obtained from it. Another of these creatures was also reported in 1810, this time from Manatee Bay.
Since then, St Helena‘s purported manatee appears to have been extinct, and as is so often the case it was only then that science began to take an interest in it. After reading an account of this creature in J.C. Melliss’s St. Helena: A Physical, Historical, and Topographical Description of the Island (1875), in which Melliss claimed that it belonged either to the African or to the Caribbean species of manatee, on 20 June 1899 English zoologist Dr Richard Lydekker published a short review of the subject in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, which contained a number of the accounts given above in this present ShukerNature article. Although stating categorically that he did not wish to express a definite opinion concerning whether or not the animal could truly be some form of sirenian, Lydekker nonetheless ventured to speculate that if this were indeed its identity, it probably constituted a distinct species (perhaps even requiring a separate genus), as he felt unable to believe that it belonged to either of the manatee species nominated by Melliss.
Cape (brown) fur seal (© Karelj/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
In 1933, the entire matter was the subject of an extensive examination by Dr Theodor Mortensen of Copenhagen‘s Zoological Museum, as published in the journal Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening. After careful consideration of the varied and often conflicting reports that he had succeeded in gathering, Mortensen came out in support of the views of Mundy and Leech – that the St Helena manatee was in reality a sea-lion.
Moreover, Mortensen even boldly identified its species – the Cape (brown) fur seal Arctocephalus pusillus (=antarcticus) – and believed the matter to be closed, reviving it briefly on 17 March 1934 in Nature merely to include mention of Dampier’s account, which he had not seen when preparing his detailed paper. Certain other records, given in this present article of mine but again not seen by Mortensen, were presented as a response to his Nature note in Kitching’s own Naturereport, published on 4 July 1936, but Kitching did not express any opinion regarding the creature’s identity.
By way of contrast, as outlined within his report of Mundy’s sighting, in 1935 F.C. Fraser had leaned very heavily in favour of one specific identity – once again involving a pinniped, but not a sea-lion this time. Instead, Fraser nominated a true (i.e. earless) seal – namely, a young male specimen of the southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina. As its scientific name suggests, this creature does bear a fancied resemblance to a lion-like beast, and is therefore more reminiscent of a sea-lion (albeit one of massive proportions) than are most other true seals. Even so, it bears rather less resemblance to the beast depicted in Mundy’s illustration. Moreover, as revealed in 2005 via a Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals paper jointly authored by Juan José Alava and Raúl Carvajal, this species did historically breed on St Helena, but equally they were readily recognised for what they were.
Since the 1930s, the St Helena manatee – or sea-lion, or elephant seal – seems to have been forgotten, like so many other ‘inconvenient’ animals, but could it really have been a sirenian? Sadly, the reports on file are not sufficient in themselves to provide an unequivocal answer – all that they can do is offer certain important clues.
Male southern elephant seal (© B. Navez/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
For instance, as manatees measure up to 15 ft long the St Helena beasts were evidently large enough, and their description as calf-shaped by Henry also conforms with that identity. Conversely, the saucer-shaped eyes of Henry’s beast conflict markedly with the small, relatively insignificant versions sported by the generally myopic manatees. Large eyes are characteristic of pinnipeds, as are the fearsome jaws and teeth of Mundy’s animal. The same can also be said of the latter’s moustaches – but as manatees have a bristly upper lip too, this feature is less discriminatory.
If the St Helena beasts were sirenians, their presence around this island indicates that they may truly have constituted a species in their own right. After all, as Lydekker pointed out in defence of his belief that they belonged neither to the African nor to the Caribbean species of manatee, although it is conceivable that a specimen or two may occasionally be carried from Africa or America to St Helena this surely could not occur regularly.
As it happens, there is one notable feature mentioned in a number of the reports cited in this chapter and elsewhere that on first sight greatly decreases the likelihood that these animals belonged to anyspecies of manatee – known or unknown. Although they will rest on the surface of the water in shallow stretches when not feeding, manatees do not generally come ashore. Yet according to several independent accounts, the St Helena beasts have frequently been seen resting (even sleeping) on the sands or on rocks, completely out of the water, after the fashion of pinnipeds. Also, the large amount of oil obtained from their carcases is more suggestive of seals than of sirenians.
So are we to conclude that they were not sirenians after all, instead merely large seals or sea-lions? Yet if this is indeed all that they were, why did the islanders refer to them so deliberately as manatees or sea-cows? It is extremely rare for pinnipeds to be referred to anywhere by such names. In addition, as Lydekker judiciously pointed out, just because knownsirenians do not normally come ashore voluntarily, this does not mean that there could not be an unknown distinctive species of sirenian that does (or did) come ashore under certain circumstances.
An early and very charming but thoroughly inaccurate, seal-like portrayal of manatees, from De Nieuwe en onbekende weereld – of Beschryving van America en ‘t zuid-land, by Arnoldus Montanus, 1671, clearly showing a definite confusion back then between sirenians and pinnipeds (public domain)
And this is where we must leave the mystery of St Helena‘s sirenians-that-might-be-seals – still unsolved, and quite likely to remain that way indefinitely, due to the tragic probability that its subject is extinct, lost to science before its identity had even been established.
Finally, there is at least one case on record that constitutes the exact reverse of this one, because it involves some supposed seals that were ultimately revealed to be sirenians. Sea mammals assumed to be seals had been reported from the Red Sea island of Shadwan – but as recorded in 1939 by Paul Budker, when the animals featured in these reports were finally investigated they proved to be dugongs, which are indeed native to the Red Sea.
This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.

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KIPLING AND KARAIT – AN OPHIDIAN BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE BOOK?

by on Jun.28, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Exquisite illustration of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose and an unspecified Indian snake, from a 1924 French edition of The Jungle Book (public domain)
…when Teddy came running down the path, Rikki-tikki was ready to be petted.
But just as Teddy was stooping, something flinched a little in the dust, and a tiny voice said: ‘Be careful. I am death!’ It was Karait, the dusty brown snakeling that lies for choice on the dusty earth; and his bite is as dangerous as the cobra’s. But he is so small that nobody thinks of him, and so he does the more harm to people.
…Karait struck out. Rikki jumped sideways and tried to run in, but the wicked little dusty grey head lashed within a fraction of his shoulder, and he had to jump over the body, and the head followed his heels close…[but] Karait had lunged out once too far, and Rikki-tikki had sprung, jumped on the snake’s back, dropped his head far between his fore-legs, bitten as high up the back as he could get hold, and rolled away. That bite paralysed Karait [killing him].
        Rudyard Kipling – ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, in The Jungle Book
Two of my best-loved books as a child (and still today, for that matter) were The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), both authored by Rudyard Kipling, which I first read at much the same time that Disney’s classic animated movie version was first screened in cinemas (1967), and which I also adored despite its many liberties taken with Kipling’s source material. Although they are most famous for their Mowgli stories, these two books also contained a number of others that did not feature him and were not set in the Indian jungle.
Of these non-Mowgli tales, my own personal favourite was ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, which was included in the first of Kipling’s two Jungle Books. Its eponymous mongoose star (henceforth referred to here simply as RTT for brevity) successfully and successively saved from a series of potentially lethal attacks by Nag and Nagaina – a malign pair of garden-inhabiting Indian (spectacled) cobras Naja naja – the human family that he had ‘adopted’ after their young son Teddy had rescued him from almost drowning in a flood.
The front cover and spine (the latter depicting RTT confronting a cobra) from the hardback first edition of The Jungle Book (1894) (public domain)
However, cobras were not the only snakes that RTT dispatched. He also killed a much smaller but seemingly no less deadly serpentine threat to Teddy and family – namely, the “dusty brown snakeling” Karait, whose meagre description provided by Kipling is quoted in full at the beginning of this present ShukerNature blog article. Even as a child (and nascent cryptozoologist), I was fascinated by Karait, for whereas cobras were readily familiar to me, Karait remained mysterious, because no formal identification of his species was provided by Kipling.
So what was Karait – possibly an inaccurately-described known living species (i.e. a veritable bungle in The Jungle Book), or an entirely fictitious one that Kipling had specifically invented for his RTT story, or conceivably even a real species but one that was either now long-extinct or had still to be formally described and named by science? There was only one way to deal with these and other options on offer. So after watching a cartoon version of it and then re-reading the original story a few months ago, I conducted some investigations into Kipling’s minute but highly mystifying Karait, and here is what I found out.
Adult specimen of the common Indian krait Bungarus caeruleus (© Jayendra Chiplunkar/Wikipedia  CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Naturally, the name ‘Karait’ instantly calls to mind the very similar name ‘krait’, applied both colloquially and scientifically to a number of species of venomous elapid snake native to India and elsewhere in Asia, and belonging to the genus Bungarus – which is why as a child I had simply assumed from his name that Karait had indeed merely been a krait. However, my fascination with Kipling’s diminutive yet deadly dust serpent increased during subsequent years, in tandem with my burgeoning ophidian knowledge, when I realised that what little morphological and behavioural information concerning Karait had been given by Kipling did not accord with any krait species (either in its adult or in its juvenile form) that was known to exist anywhere within or even beyond the Indian Subcontinent.
The most familiar krait species, and also the most abundant, widely distributed one in India, is the common Indian krait B. caeruleus. When adult, however, it can attain a total length of up to 5.75 ft (3 ft on average, but still very much longer than Kipling’s Karait), and its body is handsomely marked with a characteristic banded pattern of light and dark stripes (often black and white, but famously black and gold in the closely-related banded krait B. fasciatus, also native to India and up to 7 ft long). Moreover, when it is a juvenile and therefore much smaller (hence much more comparable in size to Karait than the adult is), its stripes are even more distinct than they are in the adult snake and its background colouration is bluish, not brown.
The banded krait Bungarus fasciatus as depicted in Joseph Ewart’s book The Poisonous Snakes of India (1878) (public domain)
Most other krait species also exhibit striping, albeit of different degrees of vividness. Needless to say, however, any mention of such markings in Kipling’s description of Karait is conspicuous only by its absence, which would be highly unusual for Kipling if he had indeed intended Karait to be a krait, because his knowledge and descriptions of other Indian fauna was always very skilled. True, a few krait species do not possess stripes, but these still tend to have a very bold background body colour, such as shiny brown, glossy black, or even deep blue with a bright red head in one species (B. flaviceps from southeast Asia), so once again they differ substantially from the nondescript appearance ascribed by Kipling to Karait.
It is odd, therefore, that Wikipedia’s entry for the genus Bungarus refers to Kipling’s Karait as “a small sand-colored krait”, apparently unaware of the fundamental morphological flaws in such an identification that I have enumerated above. Similarly unaware, it would seem, is the Kipling Society, because on its official website its brief entry for Karait states: “karait (or krait) A small highly poisonous snake, known to Kipling and common in India“. Common in India it may be (and, indeed, is), but small it certainly is not.
Red-headed krait Bungarus flaviceps (© Touchthestove/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)
No less damaging to a krait identity claim for Karait than incompatible morphology is the notable reluctance of these snakes to bite or strike out at a potential aggressor, preferring to coil up and hide their head within their coils, exposing and lifting up their tail tip instead. This behaviour does not correspond at all with the much more active, antagonistic striking behaviour of Karait, plus their predominantly nocturnal lifestyle means that kraits rarely encounter humans during the daytime anyway, which is when Karait encountered Teddy. Consequently, as the only link between the kraits and Karait is a shared colloquial name, it would seem most parsimonious to assume that Kipling simply selected the name Karait for its sound or familiarity, rather than to indicate any taxonomic affinity between his story’s snake and the genuine kraits.
The website Litcharts offers a very different ophidian identity from a krait for Karait – nothing less, in fact, than an infant cobra. In its list of minor characters that appear in Kipling’s story ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, it describes Karait as:
The young cobra hatchling, implied to be a child of Nag and Nagaina, whom Rikki-tikki battles in the garden early in the story. His small size in fact makes him more dangerous than the older snakes, as he is quicker and harder to catch, but Rikki-tikki defeats him nonetheless.
This entry’s claim baffles me, because nowhere in Kipling’s coverage of Karait and his unsuccessful attack upon RTT can I spot any implication that Karait was a young cobra hatchling, other than perhaps the term ‘snakeling’, which may imply a young snake. Equally, however, it may imply a small adult snake. In any case, even the smallest Indian cobra hatchlings, which still measure a respectable 10 in long, possess their species’ characteristic hood yet which, just like the stripes of kraits, is again conspicuous only by its absence in Kipling’s description of Karait. Furthermore, by specifically stating that Karait’s bite “is as dangerous as the cobra’s”, surely Kipling is actually delineating Karait from the cobra, rather than assimilating it with the latter snake? Certainly, that is how this statement reads to me.
A young Indian cobra Naja najaexhibiting its species’ characteristic hood (© Muhammad Sharif Khan/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
A third snake identity, and one that I feel has much greater plausibility than either of the previous two discussed here, is a species of saw-scaled viper, belonging to the genus Echis, which includes among its number the Indian saw-scaled viper E. carinatus, the best-known representative. Just like Karait, these snakes are small, predominantly brown with only faint patterning sometimes, extremely venomous, notoriously irascible, and often found in dry, dusty, arid terrain, where they are very inconspicuous, frequently burying themselves in sand or dirt until only their head is visible, thereby enabling them to ambush unsuspecting approaching prey. Is it just a coincidence, therefore, that Kipling specifically states that Karait “lies for choice on the dusty earth”?
Moreover, these snakes readily strike out aggressively if threatened, just as Karait did, and so potent is their venom (as was Karait’s) that saw-scaled vipers are one of the most significant snake-bite threats throughout their zoogeographical range, killing many people every year. Yet some such species are no more than 1 ft long even as adults. Clearly, therefore, this type of snake corresponds very closely with Karait across a wide range of different characteristics – morphological, behavioural, and ecological. Also worthy of note here is the hump-nosed viper Hypnale hypnale, which is native to India, greyish-brown in colour with a double row of large black spots, and no more than around 2 ft long (averages 12-15 in). However, it generally frequents dense jungles and hilly coffee plantations, rather than the more arid, dusty terrain favoured by Echis, and spends the day hidden in thick bushes and leaf litter.
Indian saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus (© Saleem Hameed/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)
The fourth identity to be considered here is fundamentally different from the others inasmuch as it is based not upon factual similarities but rather upon fallacious ones. Superstitious, non-scientific traditional native lore in many regions of the world often ascribes all manner of fanciful, often highly venomous attributes to various animal species that in reality are entirely harmless. For instance, there is an Indian lizard known locally as the bis-cobra that for untold ages has been deemed by fearful villagers in rural areas to be totally lethal in every way, yet as confirmed by scientific examination of specimens it is in reality completely innocuous (click hereto read my ShukerNature blog article concerning this unfairly-maligned saurian). Various geckos and chameleons are viewed with comparable yet wholly unwarranted native dread too. Certain equally inoffensive species of worm-like limbless amphibian known as caecilians, various worm-like limbless reptiles called amphisbaenians, and some reclusive fossorial snakes like sand boas and blind (thread) snakes have also suffered persecution due to similarly erroneous layman beliefs.
While investigating the possible taxonomic identity of Karait, I communicated with Mark O’Shea, the internationally-renowned snake researcher and handler from the West Midlands Safari Park, based not very far from where I live, and Mark echoed my own thoughts regarding this identity option, stating: “People fear what they think are dangerous even if they aren’t, i.e. blue-tongued skink or large geckos”. Could it be, therefore, that Karait belongs to one such species, i.e. a very small and thoroughly harmless dust-dwelling serpent (or serpentine herp of some other kind) that has been wrongly deemed to be venomous? But why would Kipling continue to perpetrate such a fallacy? Surely as a keen amateur naturalist he would have preferred to expose it in his story as being nonsensical folklore with no foundation in fact?
Brahminy blind snake Indotyphlops braminus (© Jjargoud/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Also well worth considering is that Karait may have been a total invention on Kipling’s part, created perhaps to add an unexpected, additional element of danger into a plot that already contained the ever-present threat posed by the malevolent pair of cobras Nag and Nagaina (whose evil plan was to kill RTT and the humans, and then move into their house). There is, after all, a notable literary precedent for the incorporation of a deadly but zoologically non-existent Indian serpent into a work of fiction – none other than the lethal Indian swamp adder or ‘speckled band’ that confronted the master detective Sherlock Holmes in a famous short story penned by Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ was first published in 1892 (by London‘s Strand Magazine), i.e. just a couple of years before Kipling’s Jungle Books were published (click hereto see my comprehensive investigation of Conan Doyle’s sinister swamp adder on ShukerNature). Who knows, might it even have directly inspired Kipling to dream up a fictitious death-dealing serpent of his own?
Rather less likely, but by no means impossible, is that Karait represented either a valid species that did exist back in Kipling’s time but has since become extinct without ever having been formally named and described, or one that still exists but is so elusive that it has yet to be officially discovered and recognised by science. With no supportive evidence known to me for either of these two options, however, they must remain for now entirely speculative.
Artistic representation of the possible morphology of Conan Doyle’s fictitious Indian swamp adder (© Tim Morris)
At this stage in my investigation, therefore, the identity for Karait that I personally deemed to be most tenable was that of a saw-scaled viper, but I always greatly value receiving the thoughts, opinions, and possible additional information offered by other interested parties too. Consequently, on 25 March 2019 I posted the following concise summary of the Karait case on my Facebook timeline and also in various snake-relevant FB groups:
Watching the 1974 Chuck Jones cartoon version of Rudyard Kipling’s mongoose-starring story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi recently, I was reminded of a mystery that always puzzled me when reading it as a child. To which species did the extremely venomous but tiny dust-inhabiting, “dusty brown snakeling” Karait belong? As a child, I’d simply assumed that it was a species of krait, on account of the similarity in names and the occurrence of kraits in India. but when I learnt more about such snakes I discovered that young Indian kraits Bungarus caeruleus are actually vividly striped and bluish in colour, not unmarked and dusty brown. And even young kraits seem bigger than Karait was. I’ve since read various alternative suggestions, e.g. that Karait was actually a saw-scaled viper, or even an infant cobra. Or could he have been a wholly fictional species, as apparently the Indian swamp adder that confronted Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes was? There may even be the possibility that it is a real yet totally harmless small species, like one of the Gerrhopilidae blind snakes of India, but which is erroneously deemed in local folklore to be very venomous. There are many such cases on record, from caecilians to an Indian lizard dubbed the bis-cobra, which I have previously documented. Do any of my herpetological friends or those of Indian heritage have any ideas as to Karait’s likely identity? If so, I’d love to read your thoughts! Here is Kipling’s all-too-brief description of Karait’s morphology: [I then quoted the first major paragraph of the excerpt from Kipling’s book that opens this present ShukerNature article.]
The common Indian krait as depicted in Joseph Ewart’s book The Poisonous Snakes of India (1878) (public domain)
I then sat back to await any postings that may be forthcoming. In the event, I received quite a number of comments (including a greatly welcomed, detailed evaluation by American biologist Dr Christopher Mallery that closely echoed my own thought processes regarding the case), which revealed that the overriding opinion concerning Karait’s likely identity was the same as mine – a saw-scaled viper.
However, there was one nagging problem with this identity that I could neither resolve nor overlook. If Karait had truly been based upon a saw-scaled viper, why did Kipling, who was so knowledgeable concerning Indian fauna, give to it a name that is applied locally to the krait? This made no sense at all – until, that is, Robert Twombley, a longstanding Facebook friend who is passionately interested in both herpetology and cryptozoology, and is also the creator of the reptile/amphibian-specific cryptozoological group Ethnoherpetology, posted a brief but remarkable revelation there on 29 March 2019 that was entirely new to me, but which in my opinion provides the long sought-after missing piece of the perplexing Karait jigsaw puzzle. Here is what he wrote:
Bungarus caeruleus (Schneider, 1801) and Bungarus fasciatus (Schneider, 1801), were once placed in the same genus Pseudoboa (Schneider, 1801) same with Echis carinatus (Schneider, 1801).
Johann G.T. Schneider (public domain)
In other words, back in 1801 the Indian (as well as the banded) krait and the Indian saw-scaled viper had been taxonomically lumped together by German naturalist Johann G.T. Schneider within the very same genus, Pseudoboa (which he had officially coined in his 1801 treatise Historiae Amphibiorum Naturalis et Literariae Fasciculus Secundus Continens Crocodilos, Scincos, Chamaesauras, Boas, Pseudoboas, Elaps, Angues, Amphisbaenas et Caecilias), and were therefore viewed scientifically as closely-related, similar serpents. (It was only in later years that they were eventually shown to be quite distinct, both anatomically and genetically, so were duly split not only into separate genera but also into separate taxonomic families – Elapidae for the kraits as well as the cobras, and Viperidae for the vipers.) So it is not unreasonable to assume that back then the colloquial name ‘karait’ had been more inclusive too, all of which could in turn explain why Kipling had applied the latter name to a snake that was quite evidently not a krait but a saw-scaled viper.
My sincere thanks to Robert Twombley, Dr Christopher Mallery, Mark O’Shea, and all of the other correspondents who so kindly responded to my FB enquiry with their greatly-valued thoughts and views.
Photographic portrait of Rudyard Kipling (public domain)
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SHUNKA WARAK’IN, RINGDOCUS, GUYASTICUTUS, ROCKY MOUNTAIN HYAENA – A TANGLE OF TERMS FOR A VERY TAXING TAXIDERM BEAST

by on Jun.24, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Enlargement photograph of a picture postcard of The Beast displayed alongside its glass case (photograph © Shane Lea)
Last month, a friend of mine informed me that just a few years ago he had been fortunate enough to view up close and personal(ly) something truly rare in cryptozoology – an actual physical specimen of a putative cryptid. And not just any cryptid either. Nothing less, in fact, than a suspected shunka warak’in – one of North America‘s lesser-known but no less interesting mystery creatures.
I first documented the shunka warak’in back in 2007, within my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, and I added a very important update to my account when that book was reprinted not long afterwards. So, before I document my friend’s first-hand impressions of the afore-mentioned specimen, here is what I originally wrote 12 years ago concerning this very intriguing New World unknown animal:
The taxiderm ringdocus exhibit (aka The Beast) originally displayed in Sherwood’s store/museum, where it was also labelled as a guyasticutus and a Rocky Mountainhyena (public domain)
Translating as ‘carrying-off dogs’, ‘shunka warak’in’ is the name given by the Ioway and other Native Americans living along the U.S.A.-Canada border to a strange dark-furred creature likened morphologically to a cross between a wolf and a hyaena, which sports a lupine head and high shoulders, but also a sloping back and short hindlimbs – bestowing upon it a hyaenid outline. As its name suggests, the shunka warak’in is said to sneak into the tribes’ camps at night and seize any unwary dogs, and it cries like a human if killed.
Sometime during the 1880s, a mystifying creature fitting this description was shot and killed by the grandfather of zoologist Dr Ross E. Hutchins (who documented the incident in his book Trails to Nature’s Mysteries, 1977) on his ranch in the Madison River Valley north of Ennis, Montana. Unlike so many other cryptozoological corpses, however, this one was actually preserved, becoming a cased taxiderm specimen that was subsequently exhibited for many years by a grocer called Sherwood at his store-cum-museum near Henry Lake, Idaho, Sherwood terming it a ‘ringdocus’. Moreover, a good-quality photograph of this unique specimen was taken, revealing its somewhat composite form – and appears in Hutchins’s book. This is just as well, because the whereabouts of the specimen itself are currently unknown, as it has apparently been moved in recent years to somewhere in the West Yellowstonearea.
After reading Hutchins’s account and seeing the photo, veteran American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman keenly pursued this intriguing subject further, and together with fellow cryptozoologist Mark A. Hall he uncovered other accounts and data concerning odd hyaena-like beasts reported in North America over the years, which he duly collated in an article devoted entirely to the shunka warak’in (Fortean Times, June 1996). One further report dates from as recently as 1991, in Canada, when a peculiar hyaena-lookalike beast was observed by several eyewitnesses near to the Alberta Wildlife Park (Fortean Times, February-March 1992).
A seemingly different, clearer photograph of the taxiderm ringdocus/The Beast specimen (photographer’s identity presently unknown to me, photograph seemingly in the public domain, but in any case reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Moreover, an additional report that may well have bearing upon the shunka warak’in case but which has not been published until now is one that was brought to my attention by cryptozoological artist William Rebsamen in an email to me of 19 May 1998. In it, Bill recalled meeting up a few days earlier with his high school art teacher, Ron Thomas, and had been very surprised to learn that Ron had a longstanding interest in cryptozoology. Described by Bill as a very non-nonsense person with a lifetime’s woodsman experience from growing up on a New Jersey horse ranch and moving to the Oklahoma pan-handle working with horses before finally settling down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to become an art teacher, Ron passed on to Bill some very interesting information:
Ron also asked me if I’d ever heard of a strange predator that was not to be mistaken by locals as a bear or dog. Ron said he did not think much after first hearing about this from an old farmer who lived near him until he heard the same description from a totally unrelated second source near the same area. It is described as massively built in the front of its body while having shorter legs in back and travels in an unusual gait. As though Ron read my mind he next told me it sounds to him like some sort of hyena except that it is coal black in color. This reminded me of an article in Fortean Times (FT 87, page 42) in Loren’s ‘On the Trail’ of the mysterious (but poorly taxidermed) hyena like creature pictured in a photo from the Southwest.
I totally agree with Bill that Ron’s mystery beast certainly recalls Loren’s shunka warak’in – but if such a beast does indeed exist, what could it be? The most conservative notion is that reports of it feature nothing more than freak/deformed wolves or odd feral mongrel dogs. Even the stuffed specimen, sloping back notwithstanding, appears more canine than hyaenine in overall form as depicted in the photo of it. Additionally, an escaped/released genuine hyaena or two may also have been sighted. However, with the exception of the very dark-furred but also very rare brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, modern-day hyaenas are generally light-coloured with distinctive spots or stripes (depending upon the species).
Brown hyaena in the Gemsbok National Park, South Africa (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
As for any possibility that it really is a wolf x hyaena hybrid, this is not tenable, because canids and hyaenids belong to two totally separate taxonomic families. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that a wolf-hyaena mating would even produce offspring at all, let alone viable ones.
Three very dramatic identities that have been proposed [by various cryptozoological investigators] involve the prospect of prehistoric survival. One of these identities is an undiscovered, modern-day borophagine – a superficially hyaena-like subfamily of canids represented by fossils in North America’s Oligocene to Pliocene epochs (34-2.5 million years ago). However, their hypershortened faces differ markedly from the long-snouted profile of the stuffed creature. The second suggestion is a surviving Chasmaporthetes ossifragus, America’s formidable hunting hyaena, which officially became extinct around 10,000 years ago [since revised to around 0.78 million years ago]. And the third is a relict amphicyonid, an identity that has also been applied to another mystery mammalian carnivore reported from North America, the waheela [click here to read more about this cryptid on ShukerNature].
Of course, one of the best possible ways of ascertaining the identity of at least one supposed shunka warak’in is to trace the Sherwood-owned taxiderm specimen, and perform DNA analysis on hair samples taken from it. So if you live in or plan to visit the West Yellowstonearea, and you happen to spot a strange-looking, stuffed ‘hyaena-wolf’ ensconced in a large glass case there, don’t shun it as a freak or a fake. Take some photos, ask its owners as many questions about it as you can, and please send me whatever images and information concerning it and its new location that you are able to. It may indeed prove to be nothing more startling than a shabbily-preserved wolf or dog – then again, it might prove to be a major cryptozoological find.
Cormocyon copei, a species of dog-like borophagine, depicted by Roger Witter in his Turtle Cove mural (public domain, according to Wikipedia – click herefor details)
Not long after my book containing the above account was published, a highly significant rediscovery was made – none other than the seemingly long-lost taxiderm ringdocus itself! Needless to say, I was most anxious to add details of this very important new episode in the history of the shunka warak’in to my earlier documentation of it, so an updated reprint of my book was swiftly published that contained the following additional coverage:
STOP PRESS: The long-lost stuffed ‘ringdocus’ (p. 99), which corresponded well with descriptions of the mysterious shunka warak’in, has been found! After reading a story about it in late October 2007, Jack Kirby, another grandson of Israel Hutchins, tracked down the elusive exhibit to the Idaho Museum of Natural History [IMNH] in Pocatello [where, unbeknownst to cryptozoologists, it had long been in storage together with Sherwood’s other taxiderm specimens, ever since they had all been donated to this museum]. Moreover, the museum agreed to loan it to Kirkby in order for it to be displayed at the Madison Valley History [Association] Museum [MVHAM, in Ennis, Montana]. A new examination of this famous specimen has revealed some previously-undocumented details. It measures 48 inches from the tip of its snout to its rump, not including its tail, and stands 27-28 in high at the shoulder. As portrayed in a photograph accompanying an article concerning its unexpected rediscovery published by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on 15 November 2007 [click here to read this article and view the full-colour photo of it alongside Jack Kirby], its snout is noticeably narrow, and its coat is dark-brown, almost black, in colour, with lighter tan areas, and includes the faint impression of stripes on its flanks. Despite its age and travels around America, this potentially significant taxiderm specimen is in remarkably good condition, with no signs of wear or tear or even any fading of coat colouration. Could it truly be a shunka warak’in? And, if so, what in taxonomic terms is the shunka warak’in? Now that the lost has been found, DNA analyses of hair and tissue from the long-preserved exhibit may at last provide some answers.
More than a decade after I wrote the above stop-press account, however, my hopes and expectations that samples from the stuffed ringdocus (nowadays also known as The Beast) would be submitted for DNA analysis to reveal its taxonomic identity have still to be fulfilled. Apparently, this is or has been due at least in part to legality issues concerning which of the two museums featuring in this specimen’s modern-day history (i.e. the INHM and the MVHAM) has the legal authority to allow such samples to be procured from it and dispatched for testing – click herefor more details regarding this complex matter as contained within a Cryptomundo article authored and posted by Loren Coleman on 27 May 2009. Having said that: according to a noteworthy comment posted below that article on 21 September 2012 by now-retired museum professional/vertebrate palaeontologist Richard S. White, the INHM has deaccessioned the specimen and conveyed ownership of it to the person who had previously borrowed it, i.e. Jack Kirby, which if so presumably means, therefore, that responsibility for permitting or preventing DNA analyses now lies wholly within the MVHAM’s remit.
Meanwhile, I am pleased to be able to present herewith some interesting, hitherto-unpublished Beast data, in the form of first-hand eyewitness information and photographs kindly supplied to me by Shane Lea from Montana, plus details of a second, much more recent Montana mystery canid. Shane is a longstanding cryptozoological correspondent and friend of mine, who specifically visited Ennis’s MVHAM a few years ago in order to observe its most enigmatic exhibit, The Beast, where it has been housed ever since it was originally loaned there from the IMNH in 2007.
Enlargement photograph of a second picture postcard of The Beast (photograph © Shane Lea)
In a series of emails sent to me during May and June 2019, Shane revealed that the MVHAM is a small natural history museum containing a nice collection of familiar North American mammals, plus The Beast, which is contained within a large glass case at the front of the building. Due to a combination of poor lighting and camera-flash reflections off its glass case dooming to inevitable failure any attempt made to photograph this specimen directly, Shane chose instead to photograph in close-up a couple of full-colour picture postcards depicting it that he purchased there, and then print enlargements of his photos on glossy paper in order to exhibit and examine The Beast’s features afterwards in more detail.
When subsequently discussing its possible identity with me via email, Shane stated that he favoured a wolf, whereas I mentioned in reply that I leaned more towards either an exceedingly cross-bred domestic dog or the hybrid offspring of some such dog and a wolf. Both of us readily discounted any hyaena or prehistoric survivor identity, because it clearly was not the former and it appeared far too nondescript in appearance, relatively speaking, for it to be any of the latter options noted earlier here. To quote Shane:
[The] specimen I saw was no larger than an ordinary wolf…As I viewed “The Beast,” the whole time I was thinking in my mind “wolf.” Believe you me, I was looking for any hyena-like characteristics. No-one would love to find something “prehistoric” more than me, but, you have to keep your head on straight and be realistic, otherwise you’ll just end up fooling yourself. You brought up a very valid point that I had not considered before, the cross-breed consideration. One thing that always bothered me about the account of this beast, was that as recalled in the book: “Trails To Nature’s Mysteries,” this animal that was shot and killed, was described as being friendly toward the dogs around the ranch in Montana. Now, why would an animal described as “carrying-off-dogs” be friendly and non-aggressive w/dogs, unless it was actually part dog itself?
Trails To Nature’s Mysteries by Dr Ross E. Hutchins (© Dr Ross E. Hutchins/Dodd, Mead – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only – click here to purchase a copy on Amazon’s USA site)
This latter comment by Shane is a very valid one. For although it is not unknown for a wild canid to lack hostility towards an encountered domestic dog, such encounters generally involve either downright hostility or open avoidance between the two animals.
Equally worthy of note, however, is a comment dated 10 January 2008 and posted underneath a Cryptomundo news item authored on 15 November 2007 by Loren Coleman regarding The Beast’s rediscovery (click hereto read it), in which a reader with the username MustangAppy claimed:
I know for a fact that the previous Mammology [sic] Curator and the current Paleontology Curator at IMNH have both examined this animal and stated that this is a poorly mounted black wolf, period.
John James Audubon’s classic painting of a black wolf (public domain)
Also of interest is that in May 2018 a large canine mystery beast was once again shot in Montana. Here is what I subsequently wrote about it in one of my Alien Zoo cryptozoology news columns of 2018 for Fortean Times:
IS A MONTANACRYPTID CRYING WOLF? Even more perplexing and media headlines-generating is the mystifying canine cryptid that was shot on a private ranch near Denton in the Lewistown area of northcentral Montana, USA, on 16 May 2018. With long greyish-brown fur, a large head, and a definite canine appearance, it superficially recalls a wolf in overall form. Yet according to Ty Smucker, wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), who has examined close-up colour photos of this creature’s body, its feet seem too small, its ears too large, and its body and limbs too short. As to be expected, the story of its procurement and unresolved taxonomic status soon went viral on social media, resulting in a diverse array of identities having been proposed for it, ranging from the mundane to the monstrous. At one end of this taxonomic spectrum are suggestions that it may be a specimen of the elusive dogman, a bizarre entity whose existence remains unconfirmed but is said to be capable of walking bipedally, like a humanoid dog. A related notion, whose seriousness remains as undetermined as the creature’s identity, is that it is a werewolf. No less thought-provoking are opinions that it is nothing less than a dire wolf Canis dirus, a very large, burly New World species believed to have become extinct almost 10,000 years ago. Another postulated cryptozoological connection is one that links it to an equally contentious wolf-like or even hyaena-like American mystery beast known variously as the shunka warak’in or ringdocus, an alleged (but never verified) taxiderm specimen of which is currently on display at the Madison Valley History Association Museum [MVHAM] in Ennis, Montana. And then there is the proposal that it is a young, emaciated grizzly bear – but I have yet to see any young bear, emaciated or otherwise, that has a characteristically canine head and jaws, not to mention a long bushy tail! My own thoughts are that it is a pure-bred wolf, a wolf x domestic dog hybrid, or a pure-bred domestic dog but of decidedly crossbred ancestry in terms of the number and varieties of breeds that may well have contributed to it (i.e. a mongrel or mutt of no recognised heritage). Among domestic species of mammal, the domestic dog is unparalleled in terms of its morphological and genetic diversity, so much so that I have little doubt that this diversity could readily engender the phenotype of the Dentonbeast under consideration here. All too often in cryptozoology, an unusual specimen is procured, only for its remains to be discarded or lost without any samples having been secured from it and subjected to formal scientific examination. Happily, however, in this particular instance that sorry series of events has not occurred. Instead, FWP game wardens went to investigate it after it had been shot, and its entire carcase has been sent to their laboratory at Bozeman for continued study. Bruce Auchly, information manager for Montana FWP, has publicly stated that they are now awaiting a DNA report back from the lab, after which we may finally know whether Denton‘s cryptid was merely crying wolf or whether it really was something out of the ordinary. In mid-June, the results contained in that keenly-awaited DNA report were made public by Montana‘s FWP in an official press release. This revealed that despite the fact that certain investigators had opined that it looked odd, the mystery beast in question was in reality nothing more than a very ordinary adult female grey wolf Canis lupus. In other words, not a dire wolf at all, merely a dire disappointment, at least as far as some cryptozoologists were concerned. [A CBS news report of this specimen’s discovery and denouement that includes photographs of it can be accessed here.]
Conversely, neither of the two cryptozoologically fundamental questions regarding The Beast can be answered conclusively at present. What is its taxonomic identity? And regardless of what it is taxonomically, is The Beast one and the same as whatever the shunka warak’in is? (Always assuming, of course, that the shunka warak’in traditional folklore is actually based upon a real creature, rather than merely a wholly mythical, non-existent one.) Or, to combine the two: assuming once again that it is indeed real and not just a myth, is the shunka warak’in whatever The Beast is?
Digitally-created shunka warak’in image created by ‘69.146.147.248 aka A FANDOM User’ (who states here: “I’m happy to see it still floating around the internet” (© 69.146.147.248 aka A FANDOM User, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Let us hope that whatever legal wrangles may be impeding the prospect of samples from The Beast being made available for DNA analyses can be resolved in the near future, so that at least the first of these two questions can at last be answered. Of course, who can say whether the likelihood that an unidentified mystery beast will always attract more visitors than an identified non-mystery one may also be playing a part in this complex scenario…?
The last words on The Beast, ringdocus, guyasticutus, shunka warak’in, Rocky Mountain hyaena, or whatever else one chooses to term this most taxing of taxiderm specimens belong to Shane, to whom I owe a great debt of thanks for so very kindly providing me with his very informative insights and photographs regarding The Beast, and also for his unfailing support and encouragement that he has always given to me down through our many years of cryptozoological correspondence, which I appreciate most sincerely – thank you so much, Shane!!
For lack of a better name, the cryptid in Montana was also called “Ringdocus,” an unfortunate moniker. But…at least the “Ringdocus” was preserved and can be viewed to this day. That at least is some small consolation for the poor cryptid’s unfortunate demise. R.I.P. “Ringdocus,” whatever you are.
Amen to that!
My book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, in which I first documented the shunka warak’in and The Beast (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press)
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SHUNKA WARAK’IN, RINGDOCUS, GUYASTICUTUS, ROCKY MOUNTAIN HYAENA – A TANGLE OF TERMS FOR A VERY TAXING TAXIDERM BEAST

by on Jun.24, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Enlargement photograph of a picture postcard of The Beast displayed alongside its glass case (photograph © Shane Lea)
Last month, a friend of mine informed me that just a few years ago he had been fortunate enough to view up close and personal(ly) something truly rare in cryptozoology – an actual physical specimen of a putative cryptid. And not just any cryptid either. Nothing less, in fact, than a suspected shunka warak’in – one of North America‘s lesser-known but no less interesting mystery creatures.
I first documented the shunka warak’in back in 2007, within my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, and I added a very important update to my account when that book was reprinted not long afterwards. So, before I document my friend’s first-hand impressions of the afore-mentioned specimen, here is what I originally wrote 12 years ago concerning this very intriguing New World unknown animal:
The taxiderm ringdocus exhibit (aka The Beast) originally displayed in Sherwood’s store/museum, where it was also labelled as a guyasticutus and a Rocky Mountainhyena (public domain)
Translating as ‘carrying-off dogs’, ‘shunka warak’in’ is the name given by the Ioway and other Native Americans living along the U.S.A.-Canada border to a strange dark-furred creature likened morphologically to a cross between a wolf and a hyaena, which sports a lupine head and high shoulders, but also a sloping back and short hindlimbs – bestowing upon it a hyaenid outline. As its name suggests, the shunka warak’in is said to sneak into the tribes’ camps at night and seize any unwary dogs, and it cries like a human if killed.
Sometime during the 1880s, a mystifying creature fitting this description was shot and killed by the grandfather of zoologist Dr Ross E. Hutchins (who documented the incident in his book Trails to Nature’s Mysteries, 1977) on his ranch in the Madison River Valley north of Ennis, Montana. Unlike so many other cryptozoological corpses, however, this one was actually preserved, becoming a cased taxiderm specimen that was subsequently exhibited for many years by a grocer called Sherwood at his store-cum-museum near Henry Lake, Idaho, Sherwood terming it a ‘ringdocus’. Moreover, a good-quality photograph of this unique specimen was taken, revealing its somewhat composite form – and appears in Hutchins’s book. This is just as well, because the whereabouts of the specimen itself are currently unknown, as it has apparently been moved in recent years to somewhere in the West Yellowstonearea.
After reading Hutchins’s account and seeing the photo, veteran American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman keenly pursued this intriguing subject further, and together with fellow cryptozoologist Mark A. Hall he uncovered other accounts and data concerning odd hyaena-like beasts reported in North America over the years, which he duly collated in an article devoted entirely to the shunka warak’in (Fortean Times, June 1996). One further report dates from as recently as 1991, in Canada, when a peculiar hyaena-lookalike beast was observed by several eyewitnesses near to the Alberta Wildlife Park (Fortean Times, February-March 1992).
A seemingly different, clearer photograph of the taxiderm ringdocus/The Beast specimen (photographer’s identity presently unknown to me, photograph seemingly in the public domain, but in any case reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Moreover, an additional report that may well have bearing upon the shunka warak’in case but which has not been published until now is one that was brought to my attention by cryptozoological artist William Rebsamen in an email to me of 19 May 1998. In it, Bill recalled meeting up a few days earlier with his high school art teacher, Ron Thomas, and had been very surprised to learn that Ron had a longstanding interest in cryptozoology. Described by Bill as a very non-nonsense person with a lifetime’s woodsman experience from growing up on a New Jersey horse ranch and moving to the Oklahoma pan-handle working with horses before finally settling down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to become an art teacher, Ron passed on to Bill some very interesting information:
Ron also asked me if I’d ever heard of a strange predator that was not to be mistaken by locals as a bear or dog. Ron said he did not think much after first hearing about this from an old farmer who lived near him until he heard the same description from a totally unrelated second source near the same area. It is described as massively built in the front of its body while having shorter legs in back and travels in an unusual gait. As though Ron read my mind he next told me it sounds to him like some sort of hyena except that it is coal black in color. This reminded me of an article in Fortean Times (FT 87, page 42) in Loren’s ‘On the Trail’ of the mysterious (but poorly taxidermed) hyena like creature pictured in a photo from the Southwest.
I totally agree with Bill that Ron’s mystery beast certainly recalls Loren’s shunka warak’in – but if such a beast does indeed exist, what could it be? The most conservative notion is that reports of it feature nothing more than freak/deformed wolves or odd feral mongrel dogs. Even the stuffed specimen, sloping back notwithstanding, appears more canine than hyaenine in overall form as depicted in the photo of it. Additionally, an escaped/released genuine hyaena or two may also have been sighted. However, with the exception of the very dark-furred but also very rare brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, modern-day hyaenas are generally light-coloured with distinctive spots or stripes (depending upon the species).
Brown hyaena in the Gemsbok National Park, South Africa (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
As for any possibility that it really is a wolf x hyaena hybrid, this is not tenable, because canids and hyaenids belong to two totally separate taxonomic families. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that a wolf-hyaena mating would even produce offspring at all, let alone viable ones.
Three very dramatic identities that have been proposed [by various cryptozoological investigators] involve the prospect of prehistoric survival. One of these identities is an undiscovered, modern-day borophagine – a superficially hyaena-like subfamily of canids represented by fossils in North America’s Oligocene to Pliocene epochs (34-2.5 million years ago). However, their hypershortened faces differ markedly from the long-snouted profile of the stuffed creature. The second suggestion is a surviving Chasmaporthetes ossifragus, America’s formidable hunting hyaena, which officially became extinct around 10,000 years ago [since revised to around 0.78 million years ago]. And the third is a relict amphicyonid, an identity that has also been applied to another mystery mammalian carnivore reported from North America, the waheela [click here to read more about this cryptid on ShukerNature].
Of course, one of the best possible ways of ascertaining the identity of at least one supposed shunka warak’in is to trace the Sherwood-owned taxiderm specimen, and perform DNA analysis on hair samples taken from it. So if you live in or plan to visit the West Yellowstonearea, and you happen to spot a strange-looking, stuffed ‘hyaena-wolf’ ensconced in a large glass case there, don’t shun it as a freak or a fake. Take some photos, ask its owners as many questions about it as you can, and please send me whatever images and information concerning it and its new location that you are able to. It may indeed prove to be nothing more startling than a shabbily-preserved wolf or dog – then again, it might prove to be a major cryptozoological find.
Cormocyon copei, a species of dog-like borophagine, depicted by Roger Witter in his Turtle Cove mural (public domain, according to Wikipedia – click herefor details)
Not long after my book containing the above account was published, a highly significant rediscovery was made – none other than the seemingly long-lost taxiderm ringdocus itself! Needless to say, I was most anxious to add details of this very important new episode in the history of the shunka warak’in to my earlier documentation of it, so an updated reprint of my book was swiftly published that contained the following additional coverage:
STOP PRESS: The long-lost stuffed ‘ringdocus’ (p. 99), which corresponded well with descriptions of the mysterious shunka warak’in, has been found! After reading a story about it in late October 2007, Jack Kirby, another grandson of Israel Hutchins, tracked down the elusive exhibit to the Idaho Museum of Natural History [IMNH] in Pocatello [where, unbeknownst to cryptozoologists, it had long been in storage together with Sherwood’s other taxiderm specimens, ever since they had all been donated to this museum]. Moreover, the museum agreed to loan it to Kirkby in order for it to be displayed at the Madison Valley History [Association] Museum [MVHAM, in Ennis, Montana]. A new examination of this famous specimen has revealed some previously-undocumented details. It measures 48 inches from the tip of its snout to its rump, not including its tail, and stands 27-28 in high at the shoulder. As portrayed in a photograph accompanying an article concerning its unexpected rediscovery published by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on 15 November 2007 [click here to read this article and view the full-colour photo of it alongside Jack Kirby], its snout is noticeably narrow, and its coat is dark-brown, almost black, in colour, with lighter tan areas, and includes the faint impression of stripes on its flanks. Despite its age and travels around America, this potentially significant taxiderm specimen is in remarkably good condition, with no signs of wear or tear or even any fading of coat colouration. Could it truly be a shunka warak’in? And, if so, what in taxonomic terms is the shunka warak’in? Now that the lost has been found, DNA analyses of hair and tissue from the long-preserved exhibit may at last provide some answers.
More than a decade after I wrote the above stop-press account, however, my hopes and expectations that samples from the stuffed ringdocus (nowadays also known as The Beast) would be submitted for DNA analysis to reveal its taxonomic identity have still to be fulfilled. Apparently, this is or has been due at least in part to legality issues concerning which of the two museums featuring in this specimen’s modern-day history (i.e. the INHM and the MVHAM) has the legal authority to allow such samples to be procured from it and dispatched for testing – click herefor more details regarding this complex matter as contained within a Cryptomundo article authored and posted by Loren Coleman on 27 May 2009. Having said that: according to a noteworthy comment posted below that article on 21 September 2012 by now-retired museum professional/vertebrate palaeontologist Richard S. White, the INHM has deaccessioned the specimen and conveyed ownership of it to the person who had previously borrowed it, i.e. Jack Kirby, which if so presumably means, therefore, that responsibility for permitting or preventing DNA analyses now lies wholly within the MVHAM’s remit.
Meanwhile, I am pleased to be able to present herewith some interesting, hitherto-unpublished Beast data, in the form of first-hand eyewitness information and photographs kindly supplied to me by Shane Lea from Montana, plus details of a second, much more recent Montana mystery canid. Shane is a longstanding cryptozoological correspondent and friend of mine, who specifically visited Ennis’s MVHAM a few years ago in order to observe its most enigmatic exhibit, The Beast, where it has been housed ever since it was originally loaned there from the IMNH in 2007.
Enlargement photograph of a second picture postcard of The Beast (photograph © Shane Lea)
In a series of emails sent to me during May and June 2019, Shane revealed that the MVHAM is a small natural history museum containing a nice collection of familiar North American mammals, plus The Beast, which is contained within a large glass case at the front of the building. Due to a combination of poor lighting and camera-flash reflections off its glass case dooming to inevitable failure any attempt made to photograph this specimen directly, Shane chose instead to photograph in close-up a couple of full-colour picture postcards depicting it that he purchased there, and then print enlargements of his photos on glossy paper in order to exhibit and examine The Beast’s features afterwards in more detail.
When subsequently discussing its possible identity with me via email, Shane stated that he favoured a wolf, whereas I mentioned in reply that I leaned more towards either an exceedingly cross-bred domestic dog or the hybrid offspring of some such dog and a wolf. Both of us readily discounted any hyaena or prehistoric survivor identity, because it clearly was not the former and it appeared far too nondescript in appearance, relatively speaking, for it to be any of the latter options noted earlier here. To quote Shane:
[The] specimen I saw was no larger than an ordinary wolf…As I viewed “The Beast,” the whole time I was thinking in my mind “wolf.” Believe you me, I was looking for any hyena-like characteristics. No-one would love to find something “prehistoric” more than me, but, you have to keep your head on straight and be realistic, otherwise you’ll just end up fooling yourself. You brought up a very valid point that I had not considered before, the cross-breed consideration. One thing that always bothered me about the account of this beast, was that as recalled in the book: “Trails To Nature’s Mysteries,” this animal that was shot and killed, was described as being friendly toward the dogs around the ranch in Montana. Now, why would an animal described as “carrying-off-dogs” be friendly and non-aggressive w/dogs, unless it was actually part dog itself?
Trails To Nature’s Mysteries by Dr Ross E. Hutchins (© Dr Ross E. Hutchins/Dodd, Mead – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only – click here to purchase a copy on Amazon’s USA site)
This latter comment by Shane is a very valid one. For although it is not unknown for a wild canid to lack hostility towards an encountered domestic dog, such encounters generally involve either downright hostility or open avoidance between the two animals.
Equally worthy of note, however, is a comment dated 10 January 2008 and posted underneath a Cryptomundo news item authored on 15 November 2007 by Loren Coleman regarding The Beast’s rediscovery (click hereto read it), in which a reader with the username MustangAppy claimed:
I know for a fact that the previous Mammology [sic] Curator and the current Paleontology Curator at IMNH have both examined this animal and stated that this is a poorly mounted black wolf, period.
John James Audubon’s classic painting of a black wolf (public domain)
Also of interest is that in May 2018 a large canine mystery beast was once again shot in Montana. Here is what I subsequently wrote about it in one of my Alien Zoo cryptozoology news columns of 2018 for Fortean Times:
IS A MONTANACRYPTID CRYING WOLF? Even more perplexing and media headlines-generating is the mystifying canine cryptid that was shot on a private ranch near Denton in the Lewistown area of northcentral Montana, USA, on 16 May 2018. With long greyish-brown fur, a large head, and a definite canine appearance, it superficially recalls a wolf in overall form. Yet according to Ty Smucker, wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), who has examined close-up colour photos of this creature’s body, its feet seem too small, its ears too large, and its body and limbs too short. As to be expected, the story of its procurement and unresolved taxonomic status soon went viral on social media, resulting in a diverse array of identities having been proposed for it, ranging from the mundane to the monstrous. At one end of this taxonomic spectrum are suggestions that it may be a specimen of the elusive dogman, a bizarre entity whose existence remains unconfirmed but is said to be capable of walking bipedally, like a humanoid dog. A related notion, whose seriousness remains as undetermined as the creature’s identity, is that it is a werewolf. No less thought-provoking are opinions that it is nothing less than a dire wolf Canis dirus, a very large, burly New World species believed to have become extinct almost 10,000 years ago. Another postulated cryptozoological connection is one that links it to an equally contentious wolf-like or even hyaena-like American mystery beast known variously as the shunka warak’in or ringdocus, an alleged (but never verified) taxiderm specimen of which is currently on display at the Madison Valley History Association Museum [MVHAM] in Ennis, Montana. And then there is the proposal that it is a young, emaciated grizzly bear – but I have yet to see any young bear, emaciated or otherwise, that has a characteristically canine head and jaws, not to mention a long bushy tail! My own thoughts are that it is a pure-bred wolf, a wolf x domestic dog hybrid, or a pure-bred domestic dog but of decidedly crossbred ancestry in terms of the number and varieties of breeds that may well have contributed to it (i.e. a mongrel or mutt of no recognised heritage). Among domestic species of mammal, the domestic dog is unparalleled in terms of its morphological and genetic diversity, so much so that I have little doubt that this diversity could readily engender the phenotype of the Dentonbeast under consideration here. All too often in cryptozoology, an unusual specimen is procured, only for its remains to be discarded or lost without any samples having been secured from it and subjected to formal scientific examination. Happily, however, in this particular instance that sorry series of events has not occurred. Instead, FWP game wardens went to investigate it after it had been shot, and its entire carcase has been sent to their laboratory at Bozeman for continued study. Bruce Auchly, information manager for Montana FWP, has publicly stated that they are now awaiting a DNA report back from the lab, after which we may finally know whether Denton‘s cryptid was merely crying wolf or whether it really was something out of the ordinary. In mid-June, the results contained in that keenly-awaited DNA report were made public by Montana‘s FWP in an official press release. This revealed that despite the fact that certain investigators had opined that it looked odd, the mystery beast in question was in reality nothing more than a very ordinary adult female grey wolf Canis lupus. In other words, not a dire wolf at all, merely a dire disappointment, at least as far as some cryptozoologists were concerned. [A CBS news report of this specimen’s discovery and denouement that includes photographs of it can be accessed here.]
Conversely, neither of the two cryptozoologically fundamental questions regarding The Beast can be answered conclusively at present. What is its taxonomic identity? And regardless of what it is taxonomically, is The Beast one and the same as whatever the shunka warak’in is? (Always assuming, of course, that the shunka warak’in traditional folklore is actually based upon a real creature, rather than merely a wholly mythical, non-existent one.) Or, to combine the two: assuming once again that it is indeed real and not just a myth, is the shunka warak’in whatever The Beast is?
Digitally-created shunka warak’in image created by ‘69.146.147.248 aka A FANDOM User’ (who states here: “I’m happy to see it still floating around the internet” (© 69.146.147.248 aka A FANDOM User, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Let us hope that whatever legal wrangles may be impeding the prospect of samples from The Beast being made available for DNA analyses can be resolved in the near future, so that at least the first of these two questions can at last be answered. Of course, who can say whether the likelihood that an unidentified mystery beast will always attract more visitors than an identified non-mystery one may also be playing a part in this complex scenario…?
The last words on The Beast, ringdocus, guyasticutus, shunka warak’in, Rocky Mountain hyaena, or whatever else one chooses to term this most taxing of taxiderm specimens belong to Shane, to whom I owe a great debt of thanks for so very kindly providing me with his very informative insights and photographs regarding The Beast, and also for his unfailing support and encouragement that he has always given to me down through our many years of cryptozoological correspondence, which I appreciate most sincerely – thank you so much, Shane!!
For lack of a better name, the cryptid in Montana was also called “Ringdocus,” an unfortunate moniker. But…at least the “Ringdocus” was preserved and can be viewed to this day. That at least is some small consolation for the poor cryptid’s unfortunate demise. R.I.P. “Ringdocus,” whatever you are.
Amen to that!
My book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, in which I first documented the shunka warak’in and The Beast (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press)
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BURNHAM’S BEASTS – THE SECRET WILDLIFE OF SENEGAMBIA

by on May.14, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

What strange, secretive, and sometimes even sinister creatures of cryptozoology – or even of something else entirely – might still lurk undetected by science amid the shadowy depths of forbidding forests in the remotest regions of West Africa? (Pixabay/free usage)
Ati, bwana! There is a story you will not believe, because you are a white man. White men laugh at the stories told by the black man. They say this is not so, and that is not so. We have not seen this or that, so how can it be? They say, Ho, Ho! Black men are like little children, telling tales to each other in the dark. But remember, bwana, white men have been in this country for a time that is less than the life of one man, so how can you know all the things that have been known to black men for a hundred lifetimes and more?

   Roger Courtney – A Greenhorn in Africa, quoting an elderly African
                                                                                hunter, Ali
Whereas many mystery animals have been well documented from North, East, Central, and southern Africa, far fewer have been publicised from West Africa – especially from its westernmost corner, constituting The Gambia and its encompassing neighbour, Senegal. Yet these two small countries (sometimes referred to collectively as Senegambia) apparently harbour a sizeable array of bizarre, unidentified beasts rarely if ever brought to widespread cryptozoological attention…until now.
Owen Burnham in Kenya‘s Namanga Hills Forest(© Owen Burnham – photograph kindly made available to me by Owen for use in relation to my cryptozoological writings)
I owe a great debt of thanks to a longstanding colleague, naturalist Owen Burnham, who spent his childhood and teenage years in Senegal, for very kindly supplying me during our longstanding correspondence with information regarding the creatures documented here. While living in Senegal, Owen became formally accepted as an honorary member of the native Mandingo (Mandinka) tribe, and thus learnt much about this land’s mystery animals and also those of Gambia that has remained unknown to other Westerners.
One such creature, the Gambian sea serpent, or Gambo for short, launched my own career in cryptozoology when I investigated its case in detail during the mid-1980s, and has now become very well known and well-documented in the literature (click here to access my extensive coverage of this cryptid on ShukerNature). However, Owen also learnt of several other mystery beasts that have received far less publicity, and so it is with these hitherto little-documented yet no less interesting examples that this present ShukerNature blog article is concerned.
Illustration of Gambo produced by Mark North for publicity material appertaining to the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s 2006 Gambian expedition (© Mark North/CFZ)
MYSTERY STONE PARTRIDGE
This enigmatic Senegalese bird was originally documented by me in a World Pheasant Association News article (May 1991) on gallinaceous mystery birds.
The stone partridge is represented in Senegal by its nominate subspecies Ptilopachus petrosus petrosus – a familiar sight to Owen. However, he remains perplexed in relation to the covey of stone partridges that he spied at Fanda, Senegal, in 1985. Unlike this country’s normal brown-headed, buff-breasted specimens, these were very finely but noticeably mottled with white upon their head and neck, and their breast was whitish. They were also rather smaller in size, but most unexpected of all was their habitat.
A typical stone partridge, in The Gambia, which neighbours Senegal(© Francesco Veronesi/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
Eschewing the rocky terrain or scrubland normally frequented by Ptilopachus, this covey was dwelling within a small but dense area of undergrowth in a rice field, many miles from the nearest expanse of stony ground. Owen saw a second covey of this strange form of stone partridge at Kouniara, and this time they were living in thick woodland, comprising a mixture of real forest and palm trees. Yet despite their radically different habitat, their behaviour was similar to that of typical stone partridges, scurrying rapidly across the ground – though in this case over fallen trees and through the forest, rather than over rocks and through scrub.
Local hunters had informed Owen that such birds existed, but he had not believed this until he had encountered them himself. In view of their morphological differences and markedly distinct habitat, could these stone partridges constitute a separate subspecies, isolated topographically from the nominate race? Bearing in mind, however, the tragic, continuing destruction of Senegal’s wildlife habitats, especially forests, it is to be hoped that this mystifying bird form can be thoroughly investigated in the near future, to enable it (if still surviving) to be saved not only from continued scientific obscurity but also from ensuing extinction. Interestingly, I recently discovered online a vintage colour illustration that portrays a pair of stone partridges closely matching Owen’s description, complete with white mottling upon their head and neck, plus a whitish breast, so clearly such a form has been seen and even depicted in the past.
A pair of stone partridges resembling those seen by Owen Burnham in Senegal – this vintage colour illustration was created some time between 1700 and 1880, and is from Iconographia Zoologica (public domain)
GIANT BUSHBABY
Related to the Madagascan lemurs and the Asian lorises, as well as to Africa‘s own pottos and angwantibos, the bushbabies or galagos constitute 19 currently-recognised species of primitive primate. Nocturnal and arboreal, they are characterised by their large ears, long tail, and fairly small size. Currently, the largest species are the three aptly-named greater bushbabies, with an average total length of 3 ft, of which over half comprises the tail.
Bushbaby – does Senegalharbour an undiscovered giant species? (public domain)
However, Senegal may be harbouring a rather more sizeable surprise. In June 1985, while exploring the heart of the Casamance Forest, Owen spied a mysterious creature resembling a giant form of bushbaby. It was the size of a half-grown domestic cat, with pale grey fur, and was accompanied by two or three young ones. Several years later, a similar animal was also reported from another West African country, the Ivory Coast. And in 1994, an assistant of bushbaby taxonomist Dr Simon K. Bearder, from Oxford Brookes University in England, encountered and even photographed a strange cat-sized creature in Cameroon that once again was superficially reminiscent of a giant bushbaby. Further details concerning these perplexing extra-large prosimians can be found in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals.
HAIRY MAN-BEASTS OF FOREST AND STREAM
Another mystifying entity reported from Senegambia, and also from Guinea, but unrecognised by science is the fating’ho. Although still believed in by the more elderly members of native Senegalese society, younger people here tend to discount them as mere superstition or folklore, but occasionally something happens to make them think again.
For instance: one day in or around November 1992, one of Owen’s longtime Senegalese friends, a youthful native entomological researcher called Malang Mane, was conducting research in a densely forested area of northern Guinea at an altitude of about 3600 ft when he saw something that drove all thoughts of insects far from his mind. Without warning, and completely silently, a man-sized entity stepped out of the undergrowth only a short distance ahead of him. It was covered in long, shaggy black hair, had a noticeably large head, and emitted a guttural grunting sound. Most significant of all, however, was the fact that this veritable man-beast was walking on its hind legs, and was not holding onto any branches or foliage for support, i.e. it was fully bipedal, just like humans. Too shocked and frightened to move, Malang watched it approach to within a few feet of him before it ran away again.
Dramatic artistic representation of a confrontational Australopithecus group, exhibited in Brazil(public domain)
Malang is very familiar with the West African chimpanzee, and he was certain that the creature was not a chimp, bearing in mind that he had observed it in detail at very close range. Nor was it a gorilla, which is not native to this region of West Africa anyway. Only then did he realise that he must have seen one of the elusive, legendary fating’ho.
Similar man-beasts have been reported elsewhere in Africa too, and some cryptozoologists have suggested that they may be surviving australopithecines – primitive hominids that officially became extinct at least a million years ago. Like many West African ‘monsters’, however, the fating’ho seems to inhabit a twilit world midway between mythology and mystery, for it combines various ostensibly physical features with certain purportedly preternatural ones, thus frustrating traditional attempts at cryptozoological classification.
Artistic representation of a living australopithecine, as depicted on the front cover of Dr Bernard Heuvelmans book Les Bêtes Humaines d’Afrique, dealing with sightings of various mystery man-beasts in this continent (© Plon Publishing – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Some eyewitnesses, for example, claim that these entities will sometimes disappear into thin air in full view of their human observers. It is also believed that they can fire arrows at humans that are not tangible, but are ‘spirit arrows’ instead. These reputedly cause disfiguring ulcers to break out on their victims’ skin, which never heal again.
The fating’ho is not the only mysterious man-beast reported from Senegal. Also on file is the wokolo, which is chiefly differentiated from the fating’ho morphologically by its yellow eyes (those of the fating’ho are red) and long pointed beard. However, whereas the fating’ho prefers dense forests, the wokolo is more commonly encountered near streams.
GUIAFAIRO AND KIKIYAON – ENCOUNTERS OF THE EERIE KIND
Two of the weirdest and most grotesque monsters reported from Senegambia – or anywhere else, for that matter – must surely be the guiafairo and the kikiyaon.
Said to remain hidden by day within the hollow trees and cave-ridden rocky outcrops rising above the hot savannahs, it is during the evening that the guiafairo takes to the wing, earning itself a fearful but memorable title – ‘the fear that flies by night’. Few people who have been unfortunate enough to receive a visitation from this dire entity can agree upon its precise appearance. Some claim that it is grey in colour and winged, with a human face and clawed feet – a form of giant bat? Yet others aver that it is phantasmal, with no permanent, corporeal form, and can even materialise through locked doors.
Is the guiafairo some mysterious form of giant bat? (© William M. Rebsamen)
All confirm, however, that its arrival is accompanied by a vile, nauseating smell that engenders a suffocating, mind-numbing fear never forgotten by those who experience it – always assuming that they do survive. Some of the guiafairo’s victims have died soon afterwards from a creeping, paralysing malaise, almost as if their fear has itself acquired a lethal, physical reality.
No less deadly, or dreadful, than the guiafairo is the kikiyaon, which is said by the Bambara tribe to inhabit only the darkest expanses of forest, and rarely emerges from this stygian gloom. On those occasions when it is seen, however, it is likened to a monstrous owl, with a pair of immense wings, huge talons on its feet, and, most notable of all, a razor-sharp spur projecting from the tip of each of its two shoulder joints. Yet whereas its wings are feathered like those of normal owls, the body of this awesome apparition is clothed in short, greenish-grey fur, and it is even said to possess a short tufted tail.
An exercise in imagining what form an encounter with the dreaded kikiyaon might take (Pixabay/free usage)
Most native people believe the kikiyaon to be a truly supernatural creature, rather than merely an elusive natural one. They claim that evil sorcerers utilise this entity to kill people, either physically or spiritually, and can even directly transform themselves into a kikiyaon.
Yet it can give voice to some very substantial cries. These include a deep far-reaching grunting call that has been likened to (albeit not conclusively identified with) that of Pel’s fishing owl Scotopelia peli, a sizeable owl that is native to Senegambia. However, there is another cry that does not seem to resemble that of any known species of owl here, and has been compared to the hideous shrieks of someone being slowly strangled!
Perhaps Pel’s fishing owl will one day prove to be the hitherto-unrevealed identity of the very vocal kikiyaon? This exquisite chromolithograph was produced in 1859 by Joseph Wolf (public domain)
Intriguingly, this is precisely the description applied to the voice of another still-unidentified, exceedingly elusive mystery beast. Namely, the devil bird of Sri Lanka, whose fascinating if highly frustrating case history I examine and document in considerable detail within my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings.
Who knows? Perhaps a real, reclusive creature, possibly even an undescribed species of owl, originally inspired belief in the kikiyaon, but was gradually ‘transformed’ by superstition and folklore into the bizarre monster claimed to exist here today. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a seemingly impossible creature has ultimately been shown to have a somewhat less dramatic and hitherto unrecognised but unequivocally genuine animal at its source.
WERE-HYAENAS AND SABRE-TOOTHS
Another Senegalese mystery beast that may be more substantial than surrealistic is the booa. Although only rarely seen, when it is observed the booa is usually likened to a giant, abnormally-coloured form of hyaena. In contrast, it is very frequently heard, especially at night. Indeed, its name is onomatopoeic, being derived from the hideous screaming cry that reverberates loudly through the still evening air when one of these creatures is in the vicinity.
As with the kikiyaon, some Senegalese people are convinced that the booa is actually a transformed sorcerer, i.e. a were-hyaena. They claim that if a booa is shot and its trail of blood followed, it will surely lead to a human house, inside which a man or woman will be found, bleeding profusely from gunshot wounds. (This scenario closely echoes many medieval Western accounts of werewolves.) There is a similar Senegalese belief regarding the mo solo – said to be a type of were-leopard (not to be confused with the leopard-man cults).
Is the booaa a mysterious giant hyaena, such as the supposedly long-extinct short-faced hyaena Pachycrocuta brevirostris? (public domain)
However, reports of the booa also readily call to mind numerous accounts from East Africa, especially Kenya, of a seemingly allied but corporeal mystery beast variously termed the chemosit, kerit, or Nandi bear.
Many descriptions of this infamously ferocious, forest-dwelling creature have likened it to a huge form of hyaena, of aberrant colouration and with a relatively short face (click here for a recent ShukerNature blog article dealing with the Nandi bear). Perhaps the booaa is an occidental counterpart in Senegal?
Artistic representation of the wanjilanko’s possible appearance (I found this illustration on the Net, but I am currently unaware of the artist’s identity, despite having made extensive online searches in relation to it – consequently I am reproducing it here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Due to poaching and political unrest, in quite recent times some of Senegal‘s forests have been destroyed, and its more exotic, rarer animals have become extinct. In addition, it is possible that some particularly secretive species have actually died out here even before their very existence was recognised by science.
During discussions with native hunters in Senegal‘s depleted Casamance Forest, Owen has learnt that they can still readily recall a huge but very mysterious form of cat, which they refer to as the wanjilanko. According to their descriptions, it was striped, possessed very large teeth, and was so ferocious that it could even kill lions. Tragically, however, it appears to have died out, as have the lions that it allegedly once attacked.
Could sabre-tooth survival be a reality in the most remote regions of West Africa? Meanwhile, here’s one that I made earlier! (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Reports of huge striped cats with very large teeth and savage temperament have also been recorded elsewhere in West Africa. In Chad, for example, such a creature is known as the mountain tiger or hadjel, whereas further east, moving into the Central African Republic, local tribes speak variously of the gassingram or vassoko. Their descriptions invariably recall Machairodus, the officially extinct African sabre-toothed tiger. In addition, when illustrations of this prehistoric stalwart’s likely appearance in life have been shown to native hunters, they have readily identified them as pictures of their lands’ striped, toothy mystery cats (see my books Mystery Cats of the Worldand Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, as well as Still In Search Of PrehistoricSurvivors, for additional details).
The prospect of sabre-tooth persistence into modern times must rate as very slim indeed. Nevertheless, there are few places on earth more capable of sustaining such survival beyond the reach of scientific detection than the remote, little-explored jungle-lands of West Africa.
Proffering a portrait of Senegal‘s red-furred, leonine chakpuar (© Dr Karl Shuker – created by me from a Pixabay/free usage image)
Also needing an explanation are Senegalese stories of a strange long-necked red lion known as the chakpuar, and peculiar ‘cat-wolves’ referred to as the guomna and sing sing. To quote one of Owen’s communications to me concerning the sing sing:
The “cat-wolf” is a strange concept that I have invented really to explain the oddities of the Sing Sing which seems to have the speed and stealth of a cat but the tenacity and stamina of a dog. It appears to have a head like a wolf and non retractable claws. The pelage is said to be somewhat brindled, like that of a laughing hyena [= the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta] without the spots. Its tail is short and ringed. Again, this creature inspires fear in hardy hunters and is rarely talked about in case discussing it causes it to appear suddenly from the depths of the forest.
Except for the short tail, this description recalls the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena, which is indeed native to Senegal. As this species is normally nocturnal, and therefore not readily seen, it may have engendered a heightened, exaggerated sense of fear among the local people, thus explaining their dread of it and its elevation in their minds to the status of a veritable monster – the sing sing.
THE TANTALISING TANKONGH
While visiting Guinea, another West African country that may still contain some intriguing zoological surprises, Owen learnt of yet another unidentified beast, the diminutive tankongh. This extremely shy beast is said by local hunters to resemble a small zebra, yet lives only in the high mountain forests and is rarely seen. However, Owen was once shown a pair of tiny dull grey hooves and some pieces of black and cream mottled skin – the remains of a tankongh that had been killed and eaten.
Owen mentions that according to local reports, this mysterious animal has a pair of small canine tusks, which makes me think of the water chevrotain Hyemoschus aquaticus. This is a small, hornless, but tusked ungulate adorned with stripes and spots, which is native to Guinea’s lowland forests and swamp margins. Could this known but exceedingly elusive mammal be the identity of the tankongh, or could the latter even be a related but scientifically-undescribed species adapted for a montane existence? And what of the un-named, uncaptured toad, also hailing from Guinea, that reputedly gives birth to live young – is this a new form?
Vintage chromolithograph depicting West Africa‘s handsomely-marked but extremely reclusive water chevrotain (public domain)
It was Pliny the Elder who said: “Ex Africa semper aliquod novi” – “There is always something new out of Africa“. Judging from the cryptic creatures documented here, all currently lurking within that dusky borderland between reverie and reality, the intrepid cryptozoologist would do well to heed his words, and pay a keen-eyed visit to this mysterious continent’s all-too-long-overlooked Western quarter. Who knows what extraordinary revelations may still await formal scientific disclosure here?
This ShukerNature blog article is exclusively excerpted from my book Dr Shuker’s Casebook: In Pursuit of Marvels and Mysteries.

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BURNHAM’S BEASTS – THE SECRET WILDLIFE OF SENEGAMBIA

by on May.14, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

What strange, secretive, and sometimes even sinister creatures of cryptozoology – or even of something else entirely – might still lurk undetected by science amid the shadowy depths of forbidding forests in the remotest regions of West Africa? (Pixabay/free usage)
Ati, bwana! There is a story you will not believe, because you are a white man. White men laugh at the stories told by the black man. They say this is not so, and that is not so. We have not seen this or that, so how can it be? They say, Ho, Ho! Black men are like little children, telling tales to each other in the dark. But remember, bwana, white men have been in this country for a time that is less than the life of one man, so how can you know all the things that have been known to black men for a hundred lifetimes and more?

   Roger Courtney – A Greenhorn in Africa, quoting an elderly African
                                                                                hunter, Ali
Whereas many mystery animals have been well documented from North, East, Central, and southern Africa, far fewer have been publicised from West Africa – especially from its westernmost corner, constituting The Gambia and its encompassing neighbour, Senegal. Yet these two small countries (sometimes referred to collectively as Senegambia) apparently harbour a sizeable array of bizarre, unidentified beasts rarely if ever brought to widespread cryptozoological attention…until now.
Owen Burnham in Kenya‘s Namanga Hills Forest(© Owen Burnham – photograph kindly made available to me by Owen for use in relation to my cryptozoological writings)
I owe a great debt of thanks to a longstanding colleague, naturalist Owen Burnham, who spent his childhood and teenage years in Senegal, for very kindly supplying me during our longstanding correspondence with information regarding the creatures documented here. While living in Senegal, Owen became formally accepted as an honorary member of the native Mandingo (Mandinka) tribe, and thus learnt much about this land’s mystery animals and also those of Gambia that has remained unknown to other Westerners.
One such creature, the Gambian sea serpent, or Gambo for short, launched my own career in cryptozoology when I investigated its case in detail during the mid-1980s, and has now become very well known and well-documented in the literature (click here to access my extensive coverage of this cryptid on ShukerNature). However, Owen also learnt of several other mystery beasts that have received far less publicity, and so it is with these hitherto little-documented yet no less interesting examples that this present ShukerNature blog article is concerned.
Illustration of Gambo produced by Mark North for publicity material appertaining to the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s 2006 Gambian expedition (© Mark North/CFZ)
MYSTERY STONE PARTRIDGE
This enigmatic Senegalese bird was originally documented by me in a World Pheasant Association News article (May 1991) on gallinaceous mystery birds.
The stone partridge is represented in Senegal by its nominate subspecies Ptilopachus petrosus petrosus – a familiar sight to Owen. However, he remains perplexed in relation to the covey of stone partridges that he spied at Fanda, Senegal, in 1985. Unlike this country’s normal brown-headed, buff-breasted specimens, these were very finely but noticeably mottled with white upon their head and neck, and their breast was whitish. They were also rather smaller in size, but most unexpected of all was their habitat.
A typical stone partridge, in The Gambia, which neighbours Senegal(© Francesco Veronesi/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
Eschewing the rocky terrain or scrubland normally frequented by Ptilopachus, this covey was dwelling within a small but dense area of undergrowth in a rice field, many miles from the nearest expanse of stony ground. Owen saw a second covey of this strange form of stone partridge at Kouniara, and this time they were living in thick woodland, comprising a mixture of real forest and palm trees. Yet despite their radically different habitat, their behaviour was similar to that of typical stone partridges, scurrying rapidly across the ground – though in this case over fallen trees and through the forest, rather than over rocks and through scrub.
Local hunters had informed Owen that such birds existed, but he had not believed this until he had encountered them himself. In view of their morphological differences and markedly distinct habitat, could these stone partridges constitute a separate subspecies, isolated topographically from the nominate race? Bearing in mind, however, the tragic, continuing destruction of Senegal’s wildlife habitats, especially forests, it is to be hoped that this mystifying bird form can be thoroughly investigated in the near future, to enable it (if still surviving) to be saved not only from continued scientific obscurity but also from ensuing extinction. Interestingly, I recently discovered online a vintage colour illustration that portrays a pair of stone partridges closely matching Owen’s description, complete with white mottling upon their head and neck, plus a whitish breast, so clearly such a form has been seen and even depicted in the past.
A pair of stone partridges resembling those seen by Owen Burnham in Senegal – this vintage colour illustration was created some time between 1700 and 1880, and is from Iconographia Zoologica (public domain)
GIANT BUSHBABY
Related to the Madagascan lemurs and the Asian lorises, as well as to Africa‘s own pottos and angwantibos, the bushbabies or galagos constitute 19 currently-recognised species of primitive primate. Nocturnal and arboreal, they are characterised by their large ears, long tail, and fairly small size. Currently, the largest species are the three aptly-named greater bushbabies, with an average total length of 3 ft, of which over half comprises the tail.
Bushbaby – does Senegalharbour an undiscovered giant species? (public domain)
However, Senegal may be harbouring a rather more sizeable surprise. In June 1985, while exploring the heart of the Casamance Forest, Owen spied a mysterious creature resembling a giant form of bushbaby. It was the size of a half-grown domestic cat, with pale grey fur, and was accompanied by two or three young ones. Several years later, a similar animal was also reported from another West African country, the Ivory Coast. And in 1994, an assistant of bushbaby taxonomist Dr Simon K. Bearder, from Oxford Brookes University in England, encountered and even photographed a strange cat-sized creature in Cameroon that once again was superficially reminiscent of a giant bushbaby. Further details concerning these perplexing extra-large prosimians can be found in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals.
HAIRY MAN-BEASTS OF FOREST AND STREAM
Another mystifying entity reported from Senegambia, and also from Guinea, but unrecognised by science is the fating’ho. Although still believed in by the more elderly members of native Senegalese society, younger people here tend to discount them as mere superstition or folklore, but occasionally something happens to make them think again.
For instance: one day in or around November 1992, one of Owen’s longtime Senegalese friends, a youthful native entomological researcher called Malang Mane, was conducting research in a densely forested area of northern Guinea at an altitude of about 3600 ft when he saw something that drove all thoughts of insects far from his mind. Without warning, and completely silently, a man-sized entity stepped out of the undergrowth only a short distance ahead of him. It was covered in long, shaggy black hair, had a noticeably large head, and emitted a guttural grunting sound. Most significant of all, however, was the fact that this veritable man-beast was walking on its hind legs, and was not holding onto any branches or foliage for support, i.e. it was fully bipedal, just like humans. Too shocked and frightened to move, Malang watched it approach to within a few feet of him before it ran away again.
Dramatic artistic representation of a confrontational Australopithecus group, exhibited in Brazil(public domain)
Malang is very familiar with the West African chimpanzee, and he was certain that the creature was not a chimp, bearing in mind that he had observed it in detail at very close range. Nor was it a gorilla, which is not native to this region of West Africa anyway. Only then did he realise that he must have seen one of the elusive, legendary fating’ho.
Similar man-beasts have been reported elsewhere in Africa too, and some cryptozoologists have suggested that they may be surviving australopithecines – primitive hominids that officially became extinct at least a million years ago. Like many West African ‘monsters’, however, the fating’ho seems to inhabit a twilit world midway between mythology and mystery, for it combines various ostensibly physical features with certain purportedly preternatural ones, thus frustrating traditional attempts at cryptozoological classification.
Artistic representation of a living australopithecine, as depicted on the front cover of Dr Bernard Heuvelmans book Les Bêtes Humaines d’Afrique, dealing with sightings of various mystery man-beasts in this continent (© Plon Publishing – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Some eyewitnesses, for example, claim that these entities will sometimes disappear into thin air in full view of their human observers. It is also believed that they can fire arrows at humans that are not tangible, but are ‘spirit arrows’ instead. These reputedly cause disfiguring ulcers to break out on their victims’ skin, which never heal again.
The fating’ho is not the only mysterious man-beast reported from Senegal. Also on file is the wokolo, which is chiefly differentiated from the fating’ho morphologically by its yellow eyes (those of the fating’ho are red) and long pointed beard. However, whereas the fating’ho prefers dense forests, the wokolo is more commonly encountered near streams.
GUIAFAIRO AND KIKIYAON – ENCOUNTERS OF THE EERIE KIND
Two of the weirdest and most grotesque monsters reported from Senegambia – or anywhere else, for that matter – must surely be the guiafairo and the kikiyaon.
Said to remain hidden by day within the hollow trees and cave-ridden rocky outcrops rising above the hot savannahs, it is during the evening that the guiafairo takes to the wing, earning itself a fearful but memorable title – ‘the fear that flies by night’. Few people who have been unfortunate enough to receive a visitation from this dire entity can agree upon its precise appearance. Some claim that it is grey in colour and winged, with a human face and clawed feet – a form of giant bat? Yet others aver that it is phantasmal, with no permanent, corporeal form, and can even materialise through locked doors.
Is the guiafairo some mysterious form of giant bat? (© William M. Rebsamen)
All confirm, however, that its arrival is accompanied by a vile, nauseating smell that engenders a suffocating, mind-numbing fear never forgotten by those who experience it – always assuming that they do survive. Some of the guiafairo’s victims have died soon afterwards from a creeping, paralysing malaise, almost as if their fear has itself acquired a lethal, physical reality.
No less deadly, or dreadful, than the guiafairo is the kikiyaon, which is said by the Bambara tribe to inhabit only the darkest expanses of forest, and rarely emerges from this stygian gloom. On those occasions when it is seen, however, it is likened to a monstrous owl, with a pair of immense wings, huge talons on its feet, and, most notable of all, a razor-sharp spur projecting from the tip of each of its two shoulder joints. Yet whereas its wings are feathered like those of normal owls, the body of this awesome apparition is clothed in short, greenish-grey fur, and it is even said to possess a short tufted tail.
An exercise in imagining what form an encounter with the dreaded kikiyaon might take (Pixabay/free usage)
Most native people believe the kikiyaon to be a truly supernatural creature, rather than merely an elusive natural one. They claim that evil sorcerers utilise this entity to kill people, either physically or spiritually, and can even directly transform themselves into a kikiyaon.
Yet it can give voice to some very substantial cries. These include a deep far-reaching grunting call that has been likened to (albeit not conclusively identified with) that of Pel’s fishing owl Scotopelia peli, a sizeable owl that is native to Senegambia. However, there is another cry that does not seem to resemble that of any known species of owl here, and has been compared to the hideous shrieks of someone being slowly strangled!
Perhaps Pel’s fishing owl will one day prove to be the hitherto-unrevealed identity of the very vocal kikiyaon? This exquisite chromolithograph was produced in 1859 by Joseph Wolf (public domain)
Intriguingly, this is precisely the description applied to the voice of another still-unidentified, exceedingly elusive mystery beast. Namely, the devil bird of Sri Lanka, whose fascinating if highly frustrating case history I examine and document in considerable detail within my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings.
Who knows? Perhaps a real, reclusive creature, possibly even an undescribed species of owl, originally inspired belief in the kikiyaon, but was gradually ‘transformed’ by superstition and folklore into the bizarre monster claimed to exist here today. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a seemingly impossible creature has ultimately been shown to have a somewhat less dramatic and hitherto unrecognised but unequivocally genuine animal at its source.
WERE-HYAENAS AND SABRE-TOOTHS
Another Senegalese mystery beast that may be more substantial than surrealistic is the booa. Although only rarely seen, when it is observed the booa is usually likened to a giant, abnormally-coloured form of hyaena. In contrast, it is very frequently heard, especially at night. Indeed, its name is onomatopoeic, being derived from the hideous screaming cry that reverberates loudly through the still evening air when one of these creatures is in the vicinity.
As with the kikiyaon, some Senegalese people are convinced that the booa is actually a transformed sorcerer, i.e. a were-hyaena. They claim that if a booa is shot and its trail of blood followed, it will surely lead to a human house, inside which a man or woman will be found, bleeding profusely from gunshot wounds. (This scenario closely echoes many medieval Western accounts of werewolves.) There is a similar Senegalese belief regarding the mo solo – said to be a type of were-leopard (not to be confused with the leopard-man cults).
Is the booaa a mysterious giant hyaena, such as the supposedly long-extinct short-faced hyaena Pachycrocuta brevirostris? (public domain)
However, reports of the booa also readily call to mind numerous accounts from East Africa, especially Kenya, of a seemingly allied but corporeal mystery beast variously termed the chemosit, kerit, or Nandi bear.
Many descriptions of this infamously ferocious, forest-dwelling creature have likened it to a huge form of hyaena, of aberrant colouration and with a relatively short face (click here for a recent ShukerNature blog article dealing with the Nandi bear). Perhaps the booaa is an occidental counterpart in Senegal?
Artistic representation of the wanjilanko’s possible appearance (I found this illustration on the Net, but I am currently unaware of the artist’s identity, despite having made extensive online searches in relation to it – consequently I am reproducing it here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Due to poaching and political unrest, in quite recent times some of Senegal‘s forests have been destroyed, and its more exotic, rarer animals have become extinct. In addition, it is possible that some particularly secretive species have actually died out here even before their very existence was recognised by science.
During discussions with native hunters in Senegal‘s depleted Casamance Forest, Owen has learnt that they can still readily recall a huge but very mysterious form of cat, which they refer to as the wanjilanko. According to their descriptions, it was striped, possessed very large teeth, and was so ferocious that it could even kill lions. Tragically, however, it appears to have died out, as have the lions that it allegedly once attacked.
Could sabre-tooth survival be a reality in the most remote regions of West Africa? Meanwhile, here’s one that I made earlier! (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Reports of huge striped cats with very large teeth and savage temperament have also been recorded elsewhere in West Africa. In Chad, for example, such a creature is known as the mountain tiger or hadjel, whereas further east, moving into the Central African Republic, local tribes speak variously of the gassingram or vassoko. Their descriptions invariably recall Machairodus, the officially extinct African sabre-toothed tiger. In addition, when illustrations of this prehistoric stalwart’s likely appearance in life have been shown to native hunters, they have readily identified them as pictures of their lands’ striped, toothy mystery cats (see my books Mystery Cats of the Worldand Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, as well as Still In Search Of PrehistoricSurvivors, for additional details).
The prospect of sabre-tooth persistence into modern times must rate as very slim indeed. Nevertheless, there are few places on earth more capable of sustaining such survival beyond the reach of scientific detection than the remote, little-explored jungle-lands of West Africa.
Proffering a portrait of Senegal‘s red-furred, leonine chakpuar (© Dr Karl Shuker – created by me from a Pixabay/free usage image)
Also needing an explanation are Senegalese stories of a strange long-necked red lion known as the chakpuar, and peculiar ‘cat-wolves’ referred to as the guomna and sing sing. To quote one of Owen’s communications to me concerning the sing sing:
The “cat-wolf” is a strange concept that I have invented really to explain the oddities of the Sing Sing which seems to have the speed and stealth of a cat but the tenacity and stamina of a dog. It appears to have a head like a wolf and non retractable claws. The pelage is said to be somewhat brindled, like that of a laughing hyena [= the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta] without the spots. Its tail is short and ringed. Again, this creature inspires fear in hardy hunters and is rarely talked about in case discussing it causes it to appear suddenly from the depths of the forest.
Except for the short tail, this description recalls the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena, which is indeed native to Senegal. As this species is normally nocturnal, and therefore not readily seen, it may have engendered a heightened, exaggerated sense of fear among the local people, thus explaining their dread of it and its elevation in their minds to the status of a veritable monster – the sing sing.
THE TANTALISING TANKONGH
While visiting Guinea, another West African country that may still contain some intriguing zoological surprises, Owen learnt of yet another unidentified beast, the diminutive tankongh. This extremely shy beast is said by local hunters to resemble a small zebra, yet lives only in the high mountain forests and is rarely seen. However, Owen was once shown a pair of tiny dull grey hooves and some pieces of black and cream mottled skin – the remains of a tankongh that had been killed and eaten.
Owen mentions that according to local reports, this mysterious animal has a pair of small canine tusks, which makes me think of the water chevrotain Hyemoschus aquaticus. This is a small, hornless, but tusked ungulate adorned with stripes and spots, which is native to Guinea’s lowland forests and swamp margins. Could this known but exceedingly elusive mammal be the identity of the tankongh, or could the latter even be a related but scientifically-undescribed species adapted for a montane existence? And what of the un-named, uncaptured toad, also hailing from Guinea, that reputedly gives birth to live young – is this a new form?
Vintage chromolithograph depicting West Africa‘s handsomely-marked but extremely reclusive water chevrotain (public domain)
It was Pliny the Elder who said: “Ex Africa semper aliquod novi” – “There is always something new out of Africa“. Judging from the cryptic creatures documented here, all currently lurking within that dusky borderland between reverie and reality, the intrepid cryptozoologist would do well to heed his words, and pay a keen-eyed visit to this mysterious continent’s all-too-long-overlooked Western quarter. Who knows what extraordinary revelations may still await formal scientific disclosure here?
This ShukerNature blog article is exclusively excerpted from my book Dr Shuker’s Casebook: In Pursuit of Marvels and Mysteries.

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GAMBO, THE GAMBIAN SEA SERPENT – OR, HOW A VERY MYSTERIOUS STRANGER ON THE SHORE LAUNCHED MY CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL CAREER

by on May.10, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Artistic reconstruction of Owen Burnham’s discovery of the Gambian sea serpent carcase (© William M. Rebsamen)
Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun?! As I write this introduction to the present ShukerNature blog article, I can scarcely believe that over 30 years have gone by since I penned what became my very first investigative cryptozoological article, published as a two-parter in the September and October 1986 issues of a now long-defunct British magazine, The Unknown. And what was my article’s subject? Why, none other than a certain mysterious sea beast found dead a few years earlier on a beach in The Gambia, West Africa – the very same creature whose extraordinary history I am writing about now. Clearly, time not only flies but also on occasion takes delight in looping the loop!
Back in 1986, I became the first cryptozoologist to write about the Gambian sea serpent, and went on to document it further in a number of other publications, including various of my books, but most extensively of all within my two works on putative prehistoric survivors – In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) and Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors(2016). Indeed, it was this remarkable case that single-handedly (or even single-flipperedly!) transformed me into a full-time independent researcher and writer on the ever-fascinating subject of mystery beasts. Although I have since investigated and duly introduced a very sizeable number of other hitherto little-publicised or wholly-unpublicised cryptids to the general international reading public, Gambo (as it was subsequently dubbed, although not by me – see later) remains one of the most intriguing, tantalising, and controversial cryptids that I have ever investigated.
My two books (not shown to scale) documenting putative prehistoric survivors (© Dr Karl Shuker/Blandford Press / (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)
Needless to say, therefore, it came as quite a shock when recently I suddenly realised to my considerable embarrassment that apart from a single exceedingly brief mention of its case in a Loch Ness monster article (click here to read it), I had never documented the Gambian sea serpent on ShukerNature. Consequently, in order to make very belated amends for this major oversight on my part, I have great pleasure in presenting herewith my complete coverage of this thoroughly captivating and still-unresolved cryptid from my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors. Please welcome Gambo, the very mysterious stranger on the shore that launched my cryptozoological career. I’m sure that Mr Acker Bilk would have approved. (You need to be of a certain age and musical persuasion to comprehend that comment!)
Incidentally, the coining of the name ‘Gambo’, by which the Gambian sea serpent is nowadays very commonly referred to colloquially in cryptozoological circles, is often mistakenly attributed to me, but here is the true origin of this famous mystery beast moniker. It made its debut within the title (‘Gambo – The Beaked Beast of Bungalow Beach’) of a three-page Fortean Timesarticle prepared in-house but credited to me as it constituted a condensed version of my two-part article from 1986 in The Unknown, and was published in FT‘s February/March 1993 issue (#67). Significantly, therefore, I did not directly pen either the FT article itself (within whose second paragraph of main text ‘Gambo’ was specifically introduced by whoever did pen it as the name by which this cryptid would be referred to thereafter within the article) or its title. Consequently, whoever the FT person was who did is also, therefore, the person who coined the now-iconic name ‘Gambo’, and, in so doing, serendipitously created a little snippet of cryptozoological history, but their identity has never been disclosed (at least not to me, anyway!).

The Fortean Times article of February/March 1993 on the Gambian sea serpent, credited to me, and whose FT-penned title constitutes the very first, now-historic appearance of the name ‘Gambo’  – please click to enlarge for reading purposes (© Dr Karl Shuker/Fortean Times)
It all began on 12 June 1983, when wildlife enthusiast Owen Burnham and three family members encountered the carcase of a huge sea creature, washed up onto Bungalow Beach in The Gambia, West Africa. Most sea monster remains are discovered in an advanced state of decomposition, greatly distorting their appearance and making positive identification very difficult, but the carcase found by Burnham was exceptional, as apparently it was largely intact, with no external decomposition.
Subsequently reallocating to England but having lived most of his childhood and teenage years in Senegal, Owen was very familiar with all of that region’s major land and sea creatures, but he had never seen anything like this before. Realising its potential zoological significance, he made meticulous sketches and observations of its outward morphology, and noted all of its principal measurements.
My renditions of the Gambian sea serpent, first published in the September and October 1986 issues of The Unknown, and based upon original sketches by Owen Burnham (© Dr Karl Shuker)
In May 1986, BBC Wildlife, a British monthly magazine, published a short account by Owen describing his discovery, and including versions of his original sketches. Greatly interested, I wrote to him, requesting further details, in order to attempt to identify this remarkable creature. During our ensuing correspondence, Owen kindly gave me a comprehensive description (plus his sketches) of its appearance. The following is an edited transcript of Owen’s first-hand account of his discovery, prepared from his letters to me of May, June, and July 1986:
I grew up in Senegal (West Africa) and am an honorary member of the Mandinka tribe. I speak the language fluently and this greatly helped me in getting around. I’m very interested in all forms of life and make copious observations on anything unusual.
In the neighbouring country of Gambia we often went on holiday and it was on one such event that I found this remarkable animal.
June 1983. An enormous animal was washed up on the beach during the night and this morning [June 12] at 8.30 am I, my brother and sister and father discovered two Africans trying to sever its head so as to sell the skull to tourists. The site of the discovery was on the beach below Bungalow Beach Hotel. The only river of any significance in the area is the Gambia river. We measured the animal by first drawing a line in the sand alongside the creature then measuring with a tape measure. The flippers and head were measured individually and I counted the teeth. [In the sketches accompanying his description, Burnham provided the following measurements: Total Length = 15-16 ft; Head+Body Length = 10 ft; Tail Length = 4.5-5 ft; Snout Length = 1.5 ft; Flipper Length = 1.5 ft.]
The creature was brown above and white below (to midway down the tail).
The jaws were long and thin with eighty teeth evenly distributed. They were similar in shape to a barracuda’s but whiter and thicker (also very sharp). All the teeth were uniform. The animal’s jaws were very tightly closed and it was a job to prise them apart.
The jaws were longer than a dolphin’s. There was no sign of any blowhole but there were what appeared to be two nostrils at the end of the snout. The creature can’t have been dead for long because its eyes were clearly visible and brown although I don’t know if this was due to death. (They weren’t protruding). The forehead was domed though not excessively. (No ears).
The animal was foul smelling but not falling apart. I’ve seen dolphins in a similar state after five days (after death) so I estimate it had been dead that long.
The skin surface was smooth, the only area of damage was where one of the flippers (hind) had been ripped off. A large piece of skin was loose. There were no mammary glands present and any male organs were too damaged to be recognizable. The other flipper (hind) was damaged but not too badly. I couldn’t see any bones.
I must mention clearly that the animal wasn’t falling apart and the only damage was in the area (above) I just mentioned. The only organs I saw were some intestines from the damaged area.
The paddles were round and solid. There were no toes, claws or nails. The body of the creature was distended by gas so I would imagine it to be more streamlined in life. It wasn’t noticeably flattened. The tail was rounded [in cross-section], not quite triangular.
Owen Burnham in Kenya‘s Namanga Hills Forest (© Owen Burnham – photograph kindly made available to me by Owen for use in relation to my Gambo writings)
I didn’t (unfortunately) have a camera with me at the time so I made the most detailed observations I could. It was a real shock. I couldn’t believe this creature was laying in front of me. I didn’t have a chance to collect the head because some Africans came and took the head (to keep skull) to sell to tourists at an exorbitant price. I almost bought it but didn’t know how I’d get it to England. The vertebrae were very thick and the flesh dark red (like beef). It took the men twenty minutes of hacking with a machete to sever it.
I asked the men on the scene what the name of this animal was. They were from a fishing community and gave me the Mandinka name kunthum belein. I asked around in many villages along the coast, notably Kap Skirring in Senegal where I once saw a dolphin’s head for sale. The name means ‘cutting jaws’ and is the term for dolphin everywhere. Although I gave good descriptions to native fishermen they said they had never seen it. The name kunthum belein always gave [elicited] a dolphin for reply and drawings they made were clearly that. I also asked at Kouniara, a fishing village further up the Casamance river but with no success. I can only assume that the butchers called it by that name due to its superficial similarities. In Mandinka, similar or unknown animals are given the name of a well known one. For example a serval is called a little leopard. So it obviously wasn’t common. I’ve been on the coast many times and have never seen anything like it again.
I wrote to various authorities. [One] said it was probably a dolphin whose flukes had worn off in the water. This doesn’t explain the long pointed tail or lack of dorsal fin (or damage).
[Another] decided it could be the rare Tasmacetus shepherdi [Shepherd’s beaked whale] whose tail flukes had worn off. This man mentioned that the blow hole could have closed after death. Again the tail and narrow jaws seem to conflict with this. Tasmacetus‘s jaws aren’t too long and the head itself seems to be smaller than my animal’s. Tasmacetushas two fore flippers and none in the pelvic region. The two flippers are quite small in relation to body size and pointed rather than round. Tasmacetushas a dorsal fin and ‘my’ animal didn’t seem to have one or any signs of one having once been there. Tasmacetus even without tail flukes wouldn’t have a tail long enough or pointed enough. The tail of the animal I saw was very long. It had a definite point and didn’t look suited for a pair of flukes. Apparently, Tasmacetus is brown above and white below and this seems to be the only link between the two animals. I’ve been to many remote and also popular fishing areas in Senegal and I have seen the decomposing remains of sharks and also dead dolphins and this was so different.
[A third] said it must have been a manatee. I’ve seen them and believe me it wasn’t that. The skin thickness was the same but the resemblance ended there.
Other authorities have suggested crocodiles and such things but as you see from the description it just can’t have been.
After I think of the coelacanth I don’t like to think what could be at the bottom of the sea. What about the shark (Megachasma) [megamouth shark] which was fished up on an anchor in 1976?
I looked through encyclopedias and every book I could lay hands on and eventually I found a photo of the skull of Kronosaurus queenslandicus which is the nearest thing so far. Unfortunately the skull of that beast is apparently ten feet long and clearly not of my find.
The skeleton of Ichthyosaurus (not head) is quite similar if you imagine the fleshed animal with a pointed tail instead of flukes. I spend hours at the Natural History Museum [in London, England] looking at their small plesiosaurs, many of which are similar.
I’m not looking to find a prehistoric animal, only to try and identify what was the strangest thing I’ll ever see. Even now I can remember every minute detail of it. To see such a thing was awesome.
Presented with such an amount of morphological detail, quite a few identities can be examined and discounted straight away – beginning with Tasmacetus shepherdi. Although somewhat dolphin-like in shape, this is a primitive species of beaked whale, described by science as recently as 1937, and known from only a handful of specimens, mainly recorded in New Zealand and Australian waters, but also reported from South Africa. Whereas all other beaked whales possess no more than four teeth (some only have two), Tasmacetushas 80, and its jaws are fairly long and slender.
Line drawing of Shepherd’s beaked whale Tasmacetus shepherdi, showing its general shape, plus its size relative to an average human (© Chris huh/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
However, the Gambian beast’s two pairs of well-developed limbs effectively rule out allmodern-day cetaceans as plausible contenders, because these species lack hind limbs. They also eliminate those early prehistoric cetaceans the archaeocetes – even Ambulocetus. For although this palaeontologically-celebrated ‘walking whale’ did have two well-formed pairs of limbs, unlike the Gambian sea serpent its teeth were only half as many in number, yet of more than one type. The Gambian beast’s long tail and dentition effectively ruled out pinnipeds and sirenians from contention too.
Many ‘sea monster’ carcases have proved, upon close inspection, to be nothing more exciting than badly-decomposed sharks, but as the Gambian beast apparently displayed no notable degree of external decomposition, this ‘pseudoplesiosaur’ identity was another non-starter.
Artistic reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of Kronosaurus queenslandicus(public domain)
Indeed, after studying his detailed letters and sketches, it became clear that, incredibly, the only beasts bearing any close similarity to Owen’s Gambian sea serpent were two groups of marine reptilians that officially became extinct 66 million years (or more) ago.
One of these groups consisted of the pliosaurs – thus including among their number the mighty Australian Kronosaurus that Owen himself had mentioned. Yet whereas their nostrils’ external openings had migrated back to a position just in front of their eyes, those of the Gambian sea serpent were at the tip of its snout
Artistic reconstructions of the likely appearance in life, plus total size relative to an average human, of four thalattosuchian genera (© Mark T. Young et al., PLoS ONE 7(9): e44985/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)
The other group constituted the thalattosuchians – always in contention here on account of their slender, non-scaly bodies, paddle-like limbs, and terminally-sited external nostrils. True, their tails possessed a dorsal fin, but a thalattosuchian whose fin had somehow been torn off or scuffed away would bear an amazingly close resemblance to the beast depicted in Owen’s sketches. Alternatively, assuming that a thalattosuchian lineage has indeed persisted (and continued to evolve accordingly) into the present day, its members may no longer possess such a fin anyway.
Without any physical remains of the beast available for direct examination, however, its identity can never be categorically confirmed. In 2006, using a map that Owen had prepared for them, a team from the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) that included British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman visited the site in The Gambia where, 23 years earlier, the headless carcase had apparently been buried shortly after Owen had viewed it – but to their horror they discovered that a nightclub had since been built upon that exact same spot! Nevertheless, the team did attempt to do some digging as close as possible to the nightclub, but they did not uncover any remains.
Richard Freeman (left) and other team members from the CFZ’s 2006 Gambian expedition digging in search of Gambo’s carcase near the nightclub on Bungalow Beach (© CFZ)
As for myself, more than three decades on from my first article on this subject I remain totally open-minded as to what Gambo was. Contrary to a number of claims or assumptions made by others over the years, I have never stated that I believe it to have been a modern-day descendant of a prehistoric reptilian lineage. I have merely stated that, based upon Owen’s verbal description and sketches, this is what it most closely resembles – but as the saying goes, appearances can (and often do) deceive. Consequently, without having first examined physical evidence it would be ridiculous to make any firm assertion as to this animal’s taxonomic identity – which is why I have never done so.
After all, it is possible (although in my opinion unlikely) that Owen’s account and drawings are not very accurate, in which case Gambo may have been nothing more than some ordinary, known species of cetacean after all; or, at most, a previously unknown cetacean species – in which latter case I propose Gambiocetus burnhami gen. nov. sp. nov. (‘Burnham’s Gambian whale’) as a suitable scientific name for it, based upon the detailed morphological description presented by me above. In any event, here’s to one record finally – and very firmly – set straight, I trust!
Artistic reconstruction of Gambo’s possible appearance in life (© Tim Morris)
Finally, for those younger readers who may still be perplexed by my oblique reference at this present ShukerNature blog article’s onset to Mr Acker Bilk: notable for always including ‘Mr’ as part of his official stage name, he was a very popular British clarinettist who had many hit singles and albums during the 1960s and 1970s, of which the most famous was his original recording of a certain track that very swiftly became not only his signature tune but also an internationally-successful instrumental standard – ‘Stranger on the Shore’.
Written by Bilk for his daughter Jenny, it stayed in the UK singles chart for over a year following its initial release in 1961, was the first British single to hit the number one spot in the modern-day version of the USA’s Billboard Hot 100 (which it achieved in 1962), and went on to become the biggest-selling instrumental single of all time. So now you know!
Mr Acker Bilk in the 1960s performing ‘Live In The Clarence Ballroom’ (formerly The Duke Of Clarence Assembly Rooms) (© Marquisofqueensbury/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
I wish to take this opportunity to thank Owen Burnham most sincerely for so kindly making available to me such a vast quantity of information and other materials concerning Gambo and also a number of other West African cryptids, as well as for his much-valued friendship down through the many years that have passed since our first communications to one another way back in the mid-1980s.
The CFZ’s official, published report of their 2006 expedition to The Gambia (© CFZ Press)
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GAMBO, THE GAMBIAN SEA SERPENT – OR, HOW A VERY MYSTERIOUS STRANGER ON THE SHORE LAUNCHED MY CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL CAREER

by on May.10, 2019, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from ShukerNature | Go to Original Post

Artistic reconstruction of Owen Burnham’s discovery of the Gambian sea serpent carcase (© William M. Rebsamen)
Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun?! As I write this introduction to the present ShukerNature blog article, I can scarcely believe that over 30 years have gone by since I penned what became my very first investigative cryptozoological article, published as a two-parter in the September and October 1986 issues of a now long-defunct British magazine, The Unknown. And what was my article’s subject? Why, none other than a certain mysterious sea beast found dead a few years earlier on a beach in The Gambia, West Africa – the very same creature whose extraordinary history I am writing about now. Clearly, time not only flies but also on occasion takes delight in looping the loop!
Back in 1986, I became the first cryptozoologist to write about the Gambian sea serpent, and went on to document it further in a number of other publications, including various of my books, but most extensively of all within my two works on putative prehistoric survivors – In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) and Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors(2016). Indeed, it was this remarkable case that single-handedly (or even single-flipperedly!) transformed me into a full-time independent researcher and writer on the ever-fascinating subject of mystery beasts. Although I have since investigated and duly introduced a very sizeable number of other hitherto little-publicised or wholly-unpublicised cryptids to the general international reading public, Gambo (as it was subsequently dubbed, although not by me – see later) remains one of the most intriguing, tantalising, and controversial cryptids that I have ever investigated.
My two books (not shown to scale) documenting putative prehistoric survivors (© Dr Karl Shuker/Blandford Press / (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)
Needless to say, therefore, it came as quite a shock when recently I suddenly realised to my considerable embarrassment that apart from a single exceedingly brief mention of its case in a Loch Ness monster article (click here to read it), I had never documented the Gambian sea serpent on ShukerNature. Consequently, in order to make very belated amends for this major oversight on my part, I have great pleasure in presenting herewith my complete coverage of this thoroughly captivating and still-unresolved cryptid from my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors. Please welcome Gambo, the very mysterious stranger on the shore that launched my cryptozoological career. I’m sure that Mr Acker Bilk would have approved. (You need to be of a certain age and musical persuasion to comprehend that comment!)
Incidentally, the coining of the name ‘Gambo’, by which the Gambian sea serpent is nowadays very commonly referred to colloquially in cryptozoological circles, is often mistakenly attributed to me, but here is the true origin of this famous mystery beast moniker. It made its debut within the title (‘Gambo – The Beaked Beast of Bungalow Beach’) of a three-page Fortean Timesarticle prepared in-house but credited to me as it constituted a condensed version of my two-part article from 1986 in The Unknown, and was published in FT‘s February/March 1993 issue (#67). Significantly, therefore, I did not directly pen either the FT article itself (within whose second paragraph of main text ‘Gambo’ was specifically introduced by whoever did pen it as the name by which this cryptid would be referred to thereafter within the article) or its title. Consequently, whoever the FT person was who did is also, therefore, the person who coined the now-iconic name ‘Gambo’, and, in so doing, serendipitously created a little snippet of cryptozoological history, but their identity has never been disclosed (at least not to me, anyway!).

The Fortean Times article of February/March 1993 on the Gambian sea serpent, credited to me, and whose FT-penned title constitutes the very first, now-historic appearance of the name ‘Gambo’  – please click to enlarge for reading purposes (© Dr Karl Shuker/Fortean Times)
It all began on 12 June 1983, when wildlife enthusiast Owen Burnham and three family members encountered the carcase of a huge sea creature, washed up onto Bungalow Beach in The Gambia, West Africa. Most sea monster remains are discovered in an advanced state of decomposition, greatly distorting their appearance and making positive identification very difficult, but the carcase found by Burnham was exceptional, as apparently it was largely intact, with no external decomposition.
Subsequently reallocating to England but having lived most of his childhood and teenage years in Senegal, Owen was very familiar with all of that region’s major land and sea creatures, but he had never seen anything like this before. Realising its potential zoological significance, he made meticulous sketches and observations of its outward morphology, and noted all of its principal measurements.
My renditions of the Gambian sea serpent, first published in the September and October 1986 issues of The Unknown, and based upon original sketches by Owen Burnham (© Dr Karl Shuker)
In May 1986, BBC Wildlife, a British monthly magazine, published a short account by Owen describing his discovery, and including versions of his original sketches. Greatly interested, I wrote to him, requesting further details, in order to attempt to identify this remarkable creature. During our ensuing correspondence, Owen kindly gave me a comprehensive description (plus his sketches) of its appearance. The following is an edited transcript of Owen’s first-hand account of his discovery, prepared from his letters to me of May, June, and July 1986:
I grew up in Senegal (West Africa) and am an honorary member of the Mandinka tribe. I speak the language fluently and this greatly helped me in getting around. I’m very interested in all forms of life and make copious observations on anything unusual.
In the neighbouring country of Gambia we often went on holiday and it was on one such event that I found this remarkable animal.
June 1983. An enormous animal was washed up on the beach during the night and this morning [June 12] at 8.30 am I, my brother and sister and father discovered two Africans trying to sever its head so as to sell the skull to tourists. The site of the discovery was on the beach below Bungalow Beach Hotel. The only river of any significance in the area is the Gambia river. We measured the animal by first drawing a line in the sand alongside the creature then measuring with a tape measure. The flippers and head were measured individually and I counted the teeth. [In the sketches accompanying his description, Burnham provided the following measurements: Total Length = 15-16 ft; Head+Body Length = 10 ft; Tail Length = 4.5-5 ft; Snout Length = 1.5 ft; Flipper Length = 1.5 ft.]
The creature was brown above and white below (to midway down the tail).
The jaws were long and thin with eighty teeth evenly distributed. They were similar in shape to a barracuda’s but whiter and thicker (also very sharp). All the teeth were uniform. The animal’s jaws were very tightly closed and it was a job to prise them apart.
The jaws were longer than a dolphin’s. There was no sign of any blowhole but there were what appeared to be two nostrils at the end of the snout. The creature can’t have been dead for long because its eyes were clearly visible and brown although I don’t know if this was due to death. (They weren’t protruding). The forehead was domed though not excessively. (No ears).
The animal was foul smelling but not falling apart. I’ve seen dolphins in a similar state after five days (after death) so I estimate it had been dead that long.
The skin surface was smooth, the only area of damage was where one of the flippers (hind) had been ripped off. A large piece of skin was loose. There were no mammary glands present and any male organs were too damaged to be recognizable. The other flipper (hind) was damaged but not too badly. I couldn’t see any bones.
I must mention clearly that the animal wasn’t falling apart and the only damage was in the area (above) I just mentioned. The only organs I saw were some intestines from the damaged area.
The paddles were round and solid. There were no toes, claws or nails. The body of the creature was distended by gas so I would imagine it to be more streamlined in life. It wasn’t noticeably flattened. The tail was rounded [in cross-section], not quite triangular.
Owen Burnham in Kenya‘s Namanga Hills Forest (© Owen Burnham – photograph kindly made available to me by Owen for use in relation to my Gambo writings)
I didn’t (unfortunately) have a camera with me at the time so I made the most detailed observations I could. It was a real shock. I couldn’t believe this creature was laying in front of me. I didn’t have a chance to collect the head because some Africans came and took the head (to keep skull) to sell to tourists at an exorbitant price. I almost bought it but didn’t know how I’d get it to England. The vertebrae were very thick and the flesh dark red (like beef). It took the men twenty minutes of hacking with a machete to sever it.
I asked the men on the scene what the name of this animal was. They were from a fishing community and gave me the Mandinka name kunthum belein. I asked around in many villages along the coast, notably Kap Skirring in Senegal where I once saw a dolphin’s head for sale. The name means ‘cutting jaws’ and is the term for dolphin everywhere. Although I gave good descriptions to native fishermen they said they had never seen it. The name kunthum belein always gave [elicited] a dolphin for reply and drawings they made were clearly that. I also asked at Kouniara, a fishing village further up the Casamance river but with no success. I can only assume that the butchers called it by that name due to its superficial similarities. In Mandinka, similar or unknown animals are given the name of a well known one. For example a serval is called a little leopard. So it obviously wasn’t common. I’ve been on the coast many times and have never seen anything like it again.
I wrote to various authorities. [One] said it was probably a dolphin whose flukes had worn off in the water. This doesn’t explain the long pointed tail or lack of dorsal fin (or damage).
[Another] decided it could be the rare Tasmacetus shepherdi [Shepherd’s beaked whale] whose tail flukes had worn off. This man mentioned that the blow hole could have closed after death. Again the tail and narrow jaws seem to conflict with this. Tasmacetus‘s jaws aren’t too long and the head itself seems to be smaller than my animal’s. Tasmacetushas two fore flippers and none in the pelvic region. The two flippers are quite small in relation to body size and pointed rather than round. Tasmacetushas a dorsal fin and ‘my’ animal didn’t seem to have one or any signs of one having once been there. Tasmacetus even without tail flukes wouldn’t have a tail long enough or pointed enough. The tail of the animal I saw was very long. It had a definite point and didn’t look suited for a pair of flukes. Apparently, Tasmacetus is brown above and white below and this seems to be the only link between the two animals. I’ve been to many remote and also popular fishing areas in Senegal and I have seen the decomposing remains of sharks and also dead dolphins and this was so different.
[A third] said it must have been a manatee. I’ve seen them and believe me it wasn’t that. The skin thickness was the same but the resemblance ended there.
Other authorities have suggested crocodiles and such things but as you see from the description it just can’t have been.
After I think of the coelacanth I don’t like to think what could be at the bottom of the sea. What about the shark (Megachasma) [megamouth shark] which was fished up on an anchor in 1976?
I looked through encyclopedias and every book I could lay hands on and eventually I found a photo of the skull of Kronosaurus queenslandicus which is the nearest thing so far. Unfortunately the skull of that beast is apparently ten feet long and clearly not of my find.
The skeleton of Ichthyosaurus (not head) is quite similar if you imagine the fleshed animal with a pointed tail instead of flukes. I spend hours at the Natural History Museum [in London, England] looking at their small plesiosaurs, many of which are similar.
I’m not looking to find a prehistoric animal, only to try and identify what was the strangest thing I’ll ever see. Even now I can remember every minute detail of it. To see such a thing was awesome.
Presented with such an amount of morphological detail, quite a few identities can be examined and discounted straight away – beginning with Tasmacetus shepherdi. Although somewhat dolphin-like in shape, this is a primitive species of beaked whale, described by science as recently as 1937, and known from only a handful of specimens, mainly recorded in New Zealand and Australian waters, but also reported from South Africa. Whereas all other beaked whales possess no more than four teeth (some only have two), Tasmacetushas 80, and its jaws are fairly long and slender.
Line drawing of Shepherd’s beaked whale Tasmacetus shepherdi, showing its general shape, plus its size relative to an average human (© Chris huh/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
However, the Gambian beast’s two pairs of well-developed limbs effectively rule out allmodern-day cetaceans as plausible contenders, because these species lack hind limbs. They also eliminate those early prehistoric cetaceans the archaeocetes – even Ambulocetus. For although this palaeontologically-celebrated ‘walking whale’ did have two well-formed pairs of limbs, unlike the Gambian sea serpent its teeth were only half as many in number, yet of more than one type. The Gambian beast’s long tail and dentition effectively ruled out pinnipeds and sirenians from contention too.
Many ‘sea monster’ carcases have proved, upon close inspection, to be nothing more exciting than badly-decomposed sharks, but as the Gambian beast apparently displayed no notable degree of external decomposition, this ‘pseudoplesiosaur’ identity was another non-starter.
Artistic reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of Kronosaurus queenslandicus(public domain)
Indeed, after studying his detailed letters and sketches, it became clear that, incredibly, the only beasts bearing any close similarity to Owen’s Gambian sea serpent were two groups of marine reptilians that officially became extinct 66 million years (or more) ago.
One of these groups consisted of the pliosaurs – thus including among their number the mighty Australian Kronosaurus that Owen himself had mentioned. Yet whereas their nostrils’ external openings had migrated back to a position just in front of their eyes, those of the Gambian sea serpent were at the tip of its snout
Artistic reconstructions of the likely appearance in life, plus total size relative to an average human, of four thalattosuchian genera (© Mark T. Young et al., PLoS ONE 7(9): e44985/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)
The other group constituted the thalattosuchians – always in contention here on account of their slender, non-scaly bodies, paddle-like limbs, and terminally-sited external nostrils. True, their tails possessed a dorsal fin, but a thalattosuchian whose fin had somehow been torn off or scuffed away would bear an amazingly close resemblance to the beast depicted in Owen’s sketches. Alternatively, assuming that a thalattosuchian lineage has indeed persisted (and continued to evolve accordingly) into the present day, its members may no longer possess such a fin anyway.
Without any physical remains of the beast available for direct examination, however, its identity can never be categorically confirmed. In 2006, using a map that Owen had prepared for them, a team from the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) that included British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman visited the site in The Gambia where, 23 years earlier, the headless carcase had apparently been buried shortly after Owen had viewed it – but to their horror they discovered that a nightclub had since been built upon that exact same spot! Nevertheless, the team did attempt to do some digging as close as possible to the nightclub, but they did not uncover any remains.
Richard Freeman (left) and other team members from the CFZ’s 2006 Gambian expedition digging in search of Gambo’s carcase near the nightclub on Bungalow Beach (© CFZ)
As for myself, more than three decades on from my first article on this subject I remain totally open-minded as to what Gambo was. Contrary to a number of claims or assumptions made by others over the years, I have never stated that I believe it to have been a modern-day descendant of a prehistoric reptilian lineage. I have merely stated that, based upon Owen’s verbal description and sketches, this is what it most closely resembles – but as the saying goes, appearances can (and often do) deceive. Consequently, without having first examined physical evidence it would be ridiculous to make any firm assertion as to this animal’s taxonomic identity – which is why I have never done so.
After all, it is possible (although in my opinion unlikely) that Owen’s account and drawings are not very accurate, in which case Gambo may have been nothing more than some ordinary, known species of cetacean after all; or, at most, a previously unknown cetacean species – in which latter case I propose Gambiocetus burnhami gen. nov. sp. nov. (‘Burnham’s Gambian whale’) as a suitable scientific name for it, based upon the detailed morphological description presented by me above. In any event, here’s to one record finally – and very firmly – set straight, I trust!
Artistic reconstruction of Gambo’s possible appearance in life (© Tim Morris)
Finally, for those younger readers who may still be perplexed by my oblique reference at this present ShukerNature blog article’s onset to Mr Acker Bilk: notable for always including ‘Mr’ as part of his official stage name, he was a very popular British clarinettist who had many hit singles and albums during the 1960s and 1970s, of which the most famous was his original recording of a certain track that very swiftly became not only his signature tune but also an internationally-successful instrumental standard – ‘Stranger on the Shore’.
Written by Bilk for his daughter Jenny, it stayed in the UK singles chart for over a year following its initial release in 1961, was the first British single to hit the number one spot in the modern-day version of the USA’s Billboard Hot 100 (which it achieved in 1962), and went on to become the biggest-selling instrumental single of all time. So now you know!
Mr Acker Bilk in the 1960s performing ‘Live In The Clarence Ballroom’ (formerly The Duke Of Clarence Assembly Rooms) (© Marquisofqueensbury/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
I wish to take this opportunity to thank Owen Burnham most sincerely for so kindly making available to me such a vast quantity of information and other materials concerning Gambo and also a number of other West African cryptids, as well as for his much-valued friendship down through the many years that have passed since our first communications to one another way back in the mid-1980s.
The CFZ’s official, published report of their 2006 expedition to The Gambia (© CFZ Press)
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