Hunting for Mokele Mbembe

Hunting for Mokele Mbembe

by Per Borgaard

Who hasn’t dreamt of going big game hunting? Who hasn’t read Rider Haggard’s novels or the Tarzan books and dreamt of going to the wild Africa? While it may at present become less and less mysterious, there are still virtually unexplored spots. In 1981, three Americans travelled to the jungles of Congo – or rather, to a huge swamp area, where Mokele Mbembe is said to live. Mokele Mbembe? It’s a real, live dinosaur, extinct 60 million years ago. Except, perhaps, in Congo.

A brief telegram from AP in the Schenectady “Gazette”, September 7th, 1981, states that Herman and Kia Regusters left their home in Los Angeles to seek the legendary Mokele Mbembe in a 140,000 square kilometer large swamp area in Congo.

The former space scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, USA, and his wife, were meeting with the third expedition member, Judy Benjamin. The Regusters financed the four month stay in the jungle themselves.

They brought 320 kilos of baggage and scientific equipment, when they flew out of Los Angeles International Airport, AP said.

For more than 200 years, pygmies living near the swamp have told stories of a Apatosaurus-like animal, supposedly living in the huge desolated area. All the way back in 1776, a missionary reported that he had seen tracks of 36 inches in diameter.

Several researchers have come back from the area with only new stories about the monster. One claimed to have photographed Mokele Mbembe, but the animal was difficult to spot, even though it seemed to have a long, snakelike neck, sticking up from the middle of a river.

Hagenbeck’s Tale

The great German animal collector Carl Hagenbeck writes in the book “Savages and Beasts” about an animal he has heard described as “chipweken”:

I have received independent reports of the existence of a completely unknown animal…My two countrymen have had no possibility of exchanging letters, but their accounts are almost similar. In Central Africa, a monster is supposed to live, half elephant, half “dragon”, living in the big swamps. It is several years ago that I heard a similar account by Menges, but even more remarkably is that depictions of the same animals have been found on the walls of some caves in Central Africa. Based on the different accounts, it seems to me as if it could be some sort of dinosaur related with the Apatosaurus (ed. note: formerly known as Brontosaurus). Since the accounts come from so many sources, I am almost convinced that such reptiles exist.

Carl Hagenbeck was so convinced of the monster’s existence that he went on an expedition to find the animal, without luck. One of his sources was one of his own experts on Africa, the other an Englishman.

But visitors to the animal park in Hamburg, Germany, will remember that big concrete constructions of giant lizards even today bear witness to Hagenbeck’s great interest in the disappeared monsters.

Other accounts supported the myth

A German expedition in 1913 brought home legends of an animal the size of an elephant, with brown-grey, smooth skin and a long, flexible neck. Some accounts also told of a powerful tail, similar to a crocodile’s.

Natives said that canoes were attacked if they came too close, but that the animal didn’t eat people. It was vegetarian and lived in caves by the river, where it could find its favorite food, a certain type of liana.

At the river Ssombo, the German explorer was shown an animal path, supposedly made by the great lizards, but there were so many tracks of elephants and rhinos that he wasn’t able to locate the huge reptiles.

Another source was a chief from the African Barotse-tribe, Lewanika, who gave orders that if the strange animal was seen, he should told immediately. Some months later, Lewanika was called to a place, where three men claimed to have seen the monster in the outskirts of a swamp. It had a very long neck and a snake-like head.

In the area, the chief found tracks of an animal “so big, like a wagon without wheels would leave”.

A similar animal was described to an Englishman, Sergeant Stephens, an inspector for the telegraph lines at the Upper Nile at the turn of the 20th century. The natives called it a “lau”. It is mentioned in a book, “Far away up the Nile”, by John G. Milliais, who asserts that the lau is yellowish brown, with a snake-like head with thick whiskers or horns, and lives in the inaccessible swamps of Southern Sudan.

A civil servant from the then Belgian Colonial Administration in Congo reported that he had seen a similar animal in the swamp, and even shot at it – without hitting it.

Observed from the air

As late as June 1956, a Belgian captain reported that he and his telegraphist, Joogers, during a flight over the vast Addar swamps in Congo observed three collossal monsters, wading through a mist-free ring in the swamp. Over the radio, he asked Stanleyville to send an airplane to the position, but the animals were not found again the the big, fog-covered area.

One explanation could be that the animals are scared by the motors and immediately seek refuge in the deepest swamp areas.

A Fake Rhino

From Congo, we have an account from 1920, told by a Belgian, Lepage, who during a hunting trip in a swamp area ran into a strange animal, which he shot at with no result, after which he (Lepage, not the animal) ran away. At a safe distance, he turned around and studied the animal through binoculars. He described it as ca. 8 meters long, with a long, pointy snout and a short horn across the nostrils.

It wasn’t a rhino.

There are also reports of flying monsters. The British-American biologist Ivan T. Sanderson writes in his book “Animal Treasure” about an experience in Cameroun:

“I was walking through a river, when some of my companions on the banks called and told me to look up. I did – and screamed out loud. Coming straight towards me, hovering a few centimeters above the surface of the water, a huge animal came flying. I saw only the head, but that was enough. The mouth was open, and the dropped lower jaw was filled with big teeth. The air trembled from the mighty dragon-like wings.”

The monster didn’t eat him – but it might have been that experience that led him many years later to form SITU – the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained, that still exists.

In the book “A Game Warden Takes Stock”, an Englishman by the name of Captain Pitsman writes that he had heard the natives in North Rhodesia tell of a monster which they claimed still existed in the damp forests near Angola. “The most fantastic is that the animal’s appearance and size matches the prehistoric Pterodactyl”, he writes.

The Pterodactyl was a prehistoric flying dinosaur, which presumable had a wingspan of about 6 meters.

Existing Fabulous Monsters

Mokele mbembe – fake or fact? It is a fact that in the 20th century have found four rather large animals, which nobody knew about: The Okapi, the Giant Forest Hog, the Bongo antilope and the white rhino.

Why shouldn’t there also be a few giant dinosaurs somewhere? If a swamp area three times the size of Denmark haven’t yet been thoroughly explored, there might be a few surprises lurking somewhere.

We might be able to map even the most inaccessible areas from satellites, but that won’t reveal what is really interesting: What lives on the surface. Or under the surface of the waters in the giant swamps.

The aforementioned Ivan T. Sanderson recounts when he was sailing on an African river, which banks were densely overgrown. He dropped his cigarette, bent down to get it, and when he sat up, he looked straight into the eyes of a giant elephant. He jerked in surprise, and the elephant silently withdrew into the forest.

This happened close to a town with a couple of thousand people, who for years hadn’t seen even a trace of an elephant. What could hide elsewhere on the dark continent?

Living Fossil

The classic example of a living fossil is the blue fish, the Coelacanth. Scientists discovered the fossilized remains in the 18th century, but believed to have been extinct since the Cretaceous period, about 70 million years ago. But in 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer found a dead specimen in South Africa. Since then, about 30 specimens have been caught which dominated the seas in the Devon era.

We could also point to the Australian Platypus, an egg-laying mammal with a duck’s beak. At first, the scientists called it a hoax, but today we know that it is a living descendant of the first mammals, ca. 50 million years ago.

The Possibility Exists

This, however, doesn’t prove anything about Mokele Mbembe or the other giant animals claimed to have survived in Africa. But the tales exist – both from the past and today. They are sufficiently consistent to tickle our curiosity. The three American explorers who went off to the Congo swamps to find Mokele Mbembe didn’t find anything.

Yet, we shouldn’t be surprised if someone comes out of the swamp, dragging a mini-giant lizard, which has only a few years ago crawled out of its egg. The possibility exists; The huge African swamps are probably the place where the prehistoric lizards have had the biggest chance of survival. I find it wonderful that the three Americans go to find adventure like they do, even if they don’t find anything.

Lizards In Literature

Perhaps the tales out of Africa are nothing but tales. If so, they have nevertheless made an impression on culture. They inspired Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the book “The Lost World”, where he lets Professor Challenger penetrate an area with swamps and volcanos, where prehistoric animals were still thriving. But while Conan Doyle placed his story in South American, the inspiration came from Africa.

The father of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was also inspired, but he stuck to Africa. He let Tarzan penetrate huge swamps to the land of Pal-Ul-Don, where rhino-lizards and other monsters lived happily.

The most realistic – and artistically best – story is perhaps James Blish’ book “The Right Shapes”, that takes place in Congo. I can forgive if Mokele Mbembe doesn’t exist, simply because it inspired this book.

But, like I said: Who knows?