Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

ShukerNature - http://www.karlshuker.blogspot.com

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com

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Monday, 26 March 2012

MY INTERVIEW WITH MONGABAY.COM ON NEW AND REDISCOVERED ANIMALS



Click here for my interview with Mongabay.com on the subjects of new and rediscovered animals, cryptozoology, my new book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (Coachwhip: Landisville, 2012), and the newly-launched Journal of Cryptozoology.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

MYSTERY CATS IN SHOWBUSINESS - YOUR ASSISTANCE IS REQUESTED!

A still from the 'Tarzan' television series of the 1960s showing Tarzan (Ron Ely) alongside a black-headed leopard (still emailed to me by Bill Rebsamen)


The entertainment world may not be the most likely realm in which to encounter real-life mystery cats, but a number of intriguing examples have cropped up here from time to time, including the following two cases - neither of which has been resolved so far.


A BLACK TIGER IN THE CIRCUS?

Melanistic (all-black) specimens of leopards Panthera pardus (commonly termed black panthers) and jaguars P. onca are well known. Conversely, although there have been many reports of all-black tigers P. tigris (see my book Mystery Cats of the World, 1989, for the first - and still the most detailed - review of cases ever published), not a single specimen or skin of one has ever been formally submitted for scientific examination and verification.

Consequently, in the absence of a specimen, fully melanistic tigers are still regarded as cats of cryptozoology, even though there is no sound zoological or genetic reason why all-black mutants of this species should not arise from time to time. Hence I was greatly excited when I received an e-mail from Arkansas wildlife artist William M. Rebsamen on 3 October 1997 in which he recalled seeing a photo of a living black tiger in a book! According to Bill:

"I remember once seeing a large book about the history of the Ringling Brothers Circus and was surprised to find a clear photo of a big cat trainer with a "Black" tiger (you could still make out his stripes though) mixed in with his normal Bengals. Is this for real?"

If only I knew! However, the fact that its stripes could still be discerned against its fur's black background colouration is precisely what one would expect with a genuine melanistic tiger, just as the rosettes of black leopards and jaguars can be perceived against their fur's ebony ground colour when viewed closely or at certain angles.

Computer-generated mock-up of the likely morphology of a melanistic tiger (Dr Karl Shuker)

Needless to say, I lost no time in requesting any further information that Bill could recall concerning this fascinating disclosure, and on 15 October I received the following details:

"Sorry for the uncertainty of my memory concerning the black tiger photo but the best I can remember [is] it was a coffee table sized, hardcover book. My best recollection is that the title was "The History of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus". I'm sure it would have been around 1974 or 1975 when I saw the book, new, in a bookstore at our local mall. The photo was in towards the middle of the book. It pictured a trainer in a cage with 4 or 5 bengals, one appearing to be black.

"I hope this isn't another case like the "Thunderbird Photo", but I can assure you, as a young kid of about 10 or 11 at the time, I was thoroughly fascinated with big cats and would go to the mall every Saturday for as long as that book store was in business and I would look at that photo. I don't know why it never crossed my mind to ask my mom to buy it for me. I do know that for that age I could distinguish big cat subtleties (like the still visible spots on a black leopard) and was amazed by this photo because it appeared to show stripes under the dark fur."


The late Mark Chorvinsky, Strange Magazine's founding editor and a longstanding friend of mine, had a lifelong interest and extensive knowledge of circus history, so I swiftly informed him of Bill's remarkable news, and Mark promptly contacted the Ringling Brothers Circus requesting any information that they could send concerning this melanistic mystery. Sadly, however, he never received any reply, but Bill and I have continued to collaborate fully in pursuing this compelling mystery in the hope of uncovering not only the photo but, as a result, proof that a living black tiger was actually maintained in captivity!

Another cryptozoological researcher who greatly assisted us was the late Scott T. Norman, from California. After receiving details from Bill, Scott conducted some extensive Internet searches and sent out many requests for information relating to this photo. Again, however, no further details were forthcoming.

Ringling Brothers Circus poster depicting a normal tiger

Has anyone reading this ShukerNature blog post seen the book and the all-important photograph inside it referred to by Bill? Or does anyone have any additional information concerning the possible presence of a black tiger in the Ringling Brothers Circus? If so, I'd greatly welcome any details that you could send to me or post here.


TARZAN AND THE BLACK-HEADED LEOPARD

Remarkably, the above feline enigma is not the only mystery cat from the realms of showbusiness whose apparent existence has been brought to my attention by Bill Rebsamen. Bill also very kindly alerted me to the curious black-headed leopard that appeared in an episode of the 'Tarzan' television series from the 1960s, starring Ron Ely in the title role. According to Bill, in the storyline of this particular episode Tarzan's sidekick was a 12-year-old boy from India who had made friends with a spotted leopard that was black from the neck up, and which was being pursued by evil fortune-hunting poachers. After a number of e-mails and Internet requests, Bill succeeded in obtaining a copy of a frame from the episode, shown above at the beginning of this ShukerNature post, depicting a black-headed leopard lying next to Ron Ely.

To my mind, this animal was probably 'created' in the series' make-up department, as the black head and neck colouration is precisely delineated from the spotted remainder of the beast, whereas one might have expected a rather more blurred demarcation if the leopard's pigmentation had been genuine. Also, I assume it is this odd colouration that made it so valuable (in the story) to the poachers, who would not have been so concerned about tracking a normal leopard. Bill, however, is not so sure, noting in a November 1997 e-mail to me:

"It seems to me this [the black-headed leopard] may fall under the "stranger than fiction category" when you ask the question as to why would someone go through the trouble of dyeing the leopard's head black for a syndicated TV show watched by people who would, for the most part, not realize the significance of this rarity?"

If its rarity is not specifically alluded to in the programme, then Bill does have a point. Also, it has to be conceded that transforming a leopard in this way would prevent any stock footage of leopards being used in that particular show (which is a common - and financially sensible! - practice when putting together a show containing a lot of animal footage).

Despite continued efforts, Bill did not succeed in his attempts to track down the show's producer, animal trainer, or anyone else with knowledge of this episode, in order to uncover the true identity and history of its melanocephalic animal star.

Annual from 1967 accompanying the 1960s 'Tarzan' television series starring Ron Ely

So once again, if anyone reading this ShukerNature post has any relevant information, I'd love to hear from you - it may not be too late even now to solve yet another feline mystery emanating unexpectedly from the entertainment world.


UPDATE - 29 March 2012

Yesterday, I learnt from American correspondent Shane Lea that he owned the full set of the 'Tarzan' episodes starring Ron Ely, and he promised to go through them in search of the elusive and enigmatic black-headed leopard. I mentioned that one episode was entitled 'Leopard on the Loose' - perhaps it featured in that one.

Later that same day, I was delighted to receive the following, extremely informative and illuminating email from Shane (thanks Shane!):

"Well, I tracked down and viewed the Tarzan episode w/the black-headed leopard in it. It is indeed called Leopard on the Loose. Interestingly enough, they actually refer to it as a black-headed leopard in the episode. Very interesting. My own feeling after having viewed it, and knowing it is a product of Hollywood, is that they might have used charcoal on the leopard's head. The reason is, the rosettes are clearly visible on the head and the head also has a faded look. Let's hope they didn't spraypaint the poor thing, but they got away with things in the sixties that today they never would...But, it is a great episode and the black-headed leopard looks real. At least we don't have to worry about it being green-screened or photoshopped, the leopard is real. Charcoal would rub right off and would be harmless to the animal. The other alternative, is that it really is a black-headed leopard! Maybe an aberration, one that went incompletely melanistic? They did say in the episode that it was rare, valuable and worth $4,000. That would be in 1966 dollars, in 2012 dollars, $52,000,000 LOL!...

"Manuel Padilla Jr., is Jai's real name. He played Tarzan's young sidekick in the series. The black-headed leopard was his pet in the show. If he is on Facebook, he might know or remember something regarding the leopard. The series executive producer was Sy Weintraub, although who knows if he is still around. Also, actor Russ Tamblyn played one of the poachers. Another producer was Jon Epstein, co-producer Don Brinkley. The animal supervisor, was Joseph S. Stewart. The episode was directed by Paul Stanley. I hope this helps. A black-headed leopard definitely sounds like something ERB - Edgar Rice Burroughs - would have written about. I think he included much fact in his science fiction. I am a huge ERB fan. No-one could write action like he could. He was one of the very best, that's why they named
Tarzana, Ca. after him!"

All I need to do now is find a DVD of this episode that is compatible for viewing using a British DVD player - sadly, American DVDs are not compatible. So watch this space for further developments!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

THE HORNED DEMON CAT OF WORLD WAR II - A TRUE STORY

"Crouched upon the stair..." (Tim Morris)


It could have been a scene enacted from Dante's 'Inferno' - even the clouds seemed to be wreathed in flames as torrent after torrent of plummeting German bombs screamed through the darkened skies over south London, and danced a fiery tarantella of death upon its shuddering streets, like a flurry of shrieking souls in everlasting torment. And in the midst of this panorama of pandemonium was Howard Leland - one of many volunteers with the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) who had been boldly defying the deadly rain of missiles throughout that fearful evening in October 1943 in a desperate bid to minimise its malevolent effects. Little did Leland realise, however, that he would soon encounter something infinitely more sinister, and malign, than anything conjured forth by the wartime enemy.

As the ground reverberated from the intensity of yet another mighty explosion nearby, Leland ran into a deserted house to take shelter, until the immediate danger had passed. The building's interior was pitch-black, but with the aid of his torch he located a staircase, and rested on the bottom step for a while, waiting for this latest airborne assault to end.

Suddenly, a cold shadow of fear swept across him, for as he sat there he realised - indefinably but undeniably - that he was no longer alone in that house. Something - not someone - else was here too, close by, and watching him. Unbidden, his eyes gazed upwards, to the top of the stairs, and the feeling intensified. Surely there, concealed amid the stygian gloom, was the source of his fear - and now he would reveal its identity.

Leland switched on his torch again, directing its penetrating beam onto the topmost stair - and beheld a hellish sight that transfixed him with fear, expelling from his mind all of that evening's previous horrors in an instant. Crouched upon the stair was a huge hairy beast with tabby-like stripes of black and brown, clawed paws, and blazing eyes like glowed like twin infernos, mesmerising Leland with their incandescent gaze. It would have resembled a monstrous cat - had it not been for the pair of sharp pointed horns that protruded from its skull!

London's horned demon cat (Ben Male)

For almost a minute, Leland remained motionless, held in thrall by the cold aura of palpable evil that radiated inexorably from the beast's unblinking eyes - and then it moved! With a single colossal leap, it sprang from the stair, plunging down into the shadowy room - but before it reached the ground, it had vanished. Yet its presence had not entirely gone - for Leland could plainly hear a spine-chilling yowling cry, echoing in the empty room.

At that same instant, however, the sound of human footsteps came from the open front door - and the spell was broken. The eldritch cries ceased immediately, and through the door walked two of Leland's ARP comrades. Their reassuringly familiar forms and voices swiftly dispersed the shroud of terror that had encompassed Leland only moments before, and encouraged him to recount his chilling experience. Neither of his friends had heard anything when entering the house, however, so he did not expect them to treat his account seriously - which is why he was so surprised when they listened silently and with grave expressions throughout his story, making no attempt to scoff or scorn his words.

When Leland had finished, his friends informed him that he was not the first person to have spied the feline monster. On the contrary, it had been seen by many different eyewitnesses over a period of several years, and the sightings were always the same - an immense horned cat with demonic eyes, squatting at the top of the stairs.

Nevertheless, in the hope that a more straightforward explanation may be forthcoming, the three men walked up the stairs and searched everywhere thoroughly for any physical evidence of the creature's reality, but nothing was found.

Horned demon cat mask

Still disturbed by the memory of this grotesque entity but anxious to uncover its identity and possible significance, two days later Leland visited a renowned clairvoyant, John Pendragon, and recalled to him his encounter. After listening intently, Pendragon located the house on a large map of London, then placed a forefinger on the precise spot marking it.

At once, Pendragon's mind was filled with a whirling vista of cats - countless furry wraiths swirling all around at the top of the deserted house's stairs in a screeching, spitting vortex of feline fury, a mad maelstrom of undying hate. And at its very centre was something much larger, but it was not a cat - not even a horned demon cat. It was a man - haggard and despairing, with a noose in his hand, about to place it around his own neck.

After describing this vision to Leland, Pendragon asked him to make enquiries among the house's neighbours, to discover whether any details of its history and of its previous owners corresponded with those in his vision. A week later, Leland returned, bearing some extremely interesting (and vindicating) news.

One of the house's former inhabitants had been an ardent practitioner of the black arts, in the vain hope of improving what he had perceived to be a wretched, unfulfilled life. In accordance with one particularly grisly ritual, he had routinely slaughtered numerous cats for sacrifice upon an unholy altar. Ultimately, the balance of his mind had become totally unhinged, and he had committed suicide - hanging himself with a noose, suspended from the banister at the top of the stairs. Shortly afterwards, the great horned cat was seen there for the first time, and spectral yowling cries have often been heard since too.

Was the horned demon cat an elemental? (Ben Male)

When Leland asked his opinion as to this monster's precise nature, Pendragon suggested that it was probably an elemental spirit - one whose feline appearance and vitriolic hatred had been created by the restless ghosts of the departed sorcerer's many feline victims, and which would linger indefinitely in the grim locality where they had all met their terrible deaths.

Although the vast majority of Britain's mystery cats are unquestionably exotic non-native cats that have escaped or have been deliberately released from captivity, or are simple misidentifications of common animals, some investigators have speculated whether a few of them may in reality be paranormal (zooform) entities 'disguised' as big cats – as would certainly seem to have been the case with London’s horned demon cat of World War Two.

Incidentally, it should be noted here that although the original source of this case was John Pendragon’s autobiography, Pendragon (1968), which was written in collaboration with paranormal mysteries writer-investigator Brad Steiger, it only contained a fairly brief account of events. However, Steiger’s own book, Bizarre Cats (1993), included a much more detailed, greatly expanded version as related to him by Pendragon, which not only emphasised the entity’s feline nature but also incorporated other noteworthy additional information - such as the full name of the eyewitness (merely referred to by his initials in Pendragon’s book), and the hideous cat-slaying rituals performed by the man who had subsequently committed suicide in the house where the horned demon cat was later seen.


This ShukerNature post is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, to be published by CFZ Press later this year.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

THE BLUE RHINOCEROS - IN QUEST OF THE KEITLOA

My very own blue rhinoceros(!), purchased in South Africa (Dr Karl Shuker)


During the 1800s, the standard natural history tomes documented a number of intriguing animals that seem to have slipped quietly into obscurity today. One such ex-creature is a mysterious African rhino - the exotic-sounding blue rhinoceros. It was apparently named after its greyish-blue colouration, although some illustrations of it (such as the famous, much-reproduced example below) depicted it with a brown hue, but was also referred to, rather more mundanely, as Sloan’s rhinoceros or the keitloa.

An unexpectedly brown-hued blue rhinoceros in a colour engraving from 1846


Known scientifically as Rhinoceros keitloa, this was a relatively rare form, distributed sparingly south of the Zambezi, and not usually gregarious. In his Illustrated Natural History (1859-63), Rev J.G. Wood noted:

The keitloa can readily be recognised by the horns, which are of considerable length, and nearly equal to each other in measurement. This is always a morose and ill-tempered animal, and is even more to be dreaded than the borele [black rhino], on account of its greater size, strength, and length of horn. The upper lip of the Keitloa overlaps the lower even more than that of the borele; the neck is longer in proportion, and the head is not so thickly covered with wrinkles.

The blue rhinoceros as depicted in Wood's Illustrated Natural History

Formidably belligerent it may be, but some naturalists considered its credentials as a distinct species to be rather less impressive. W.B. Dawkins and H.W. Oakley, for example, within Prof. P. Martin Duncan’s Cassell’s Natural History, Vol. 2 (1883-9), commented that the blue rhinoceros or keitloa differed little from the black rhino, except for the shape of the head:

...which is somewhat shorter and broader, and it has a less prehensile lip. Its chief characteristic is the posterior horn, which is flattened at the sides, being of almost equal length to the anterior, and even occasionally longer, twenty inches and twenty-two inches being about the average.

The blue rhinoceros as depicted in Cassell's Natural History

A short-lived controversy ensued during the second half of the 1800s, which was finally ended by the famous explorer Captain Frederick Selous. In a comprehensive paper published in the Zoological Society of London’s Proceedings for 1881, and referring to an extensive collection of horns, Selous demonstrated conclusively that blue and black rhinos belong to the same species.

Head of a blue rhinoceros in the British Museum, 1876

Moreover, as noted in Rhinos: Endangered Species (1987) by Malcolm Penny, the difference in horn lengths was most probably due to environmental conditions: black rhinos inhabiting relatively dry localities are smaller and tend to possess shorter horns than those frequenting wetter terrain. Exit the blue rhinoceros!

A blue rhinoceros, painted by artist Christina A. Kapono (Christina A. Kapono)

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

MODERN-DAY NAGAS…OR PHOTOSHOPPED FRAUDS?


According to Hindu and Buddhist mythology, nagas are ancient serpent deities that can take human or semi-human form, and in Buddhist mythology a naga (or nagini if female) can have several heads. Sometimes they are depicted with human heads, but more often they are represented in their ophidian form merely as huge single- or multi-headed cobras with expanded hood(s).

Ornate gilded statue of a naga at the Wat Phra Kaew in the Royal Palaces at Bangkok, Thailand (Dr Karl Shuker)

One famous legend tells of how the Lord Buddha was shaded from the searing rays of the sun while asleep by the hoods of the multi-headed naga king Muchilinda – in another version of this story, Muchilinda protects him in this same manner from a severe rainstorm while he is meditating under the Bodhi tree.

Figurine of the Lord Buddha meditating in the lotus position upon the coils of the naga king Muchilinda, whose hooded heads are shading and guarding him (Dr Karl Shuker)

Needless to say, however, no such thing as a multi-headed cobra exists in the realm of zoology. True, there are many fully-confirmed cases of two-headed snakes (click here to view a previous ShukerNature post of mine surveying a wide selection of examples), but nothing more dramatic.

Spectacular snake-woman artwork by world-famous fantasy illustrator Rodney Matthews, probably inspired by naga traditions in the Far East (Rodney Matthews)

Consequently, when several different people forwarded me the photo opening this ShukerNature post a few days ago I was intrigued – but only for a moment.

Closer observation made it readily apparent to me that this three-headed cobra owed its additional heads not to the fickle fortune of teratology but rather to the magical manipulation of Photoshop. For whereas a bona fide three-headed snake (assuming that such an entity could ever survive to adulthood anyway) would hold its heads at differing angles and heights, the "three little maids in a row" orientation of this photographed specimen clearly exposed its Photoshopped origin, in which the head of a normal cobra had simply been triplicated and the overlapping edges deftly blended to yield this eyecatching if wholly fake naga lookalike.

But don't take my word for it. Click here for a selection of other three-headed and also some five-headed Photoshopped cobras.

And if five heads aren't enough, here's an impressive nine-headed specimen, created by febing123



And here's an even more impressive twelve-headed specimen!


Finally, if you want a modern-day naga of your own, this is how to obtain one – just click here to view a YouTube video showing precisely how to create a five-headed cobra with Photoshop.

And then people wonder why I don't have much faith any more in photographic evidence alone when attempting to determine the validity of a cryptozoological case!

Figurine of a female naga or nagini (Dr Karl Shuker)

Sunday, 4 March 2012

TERROR OF THE TARASQUE!

Tarasque festival at Tarascon, in Provence, France, with girl in white and holding leash on right of picture representing St Martha (Hand-coloured postcard from 1905)


The legend of the tarasque was the very first dragon account that I wrote for my book Dragons: A Natural History (Aurum Press/Simon & Schuster: London/New York, 1995) – the bestselling dragon book of all time, translated into over a dozen languages, and still in print today, 17 years after it was first published. Now, as a ShukerNature exclusive, here is the original but never-before-published, unabridged version of that account:


Medieval France was a time and a land of lingering, legendary monsters - anachronistic abominations left over from primeval ages. Singularly horrific was a neo-dragon called the tarasque - spawned by the biblical monster Leviathan, and originally from Galatia in Asia Minor, but which had come to haunt the banks of the River Rhône.

Evening was drawing in, and a traveller named Jacques du Bois quickened his step as he journeyed along the bank of the Rhône between Avignon and Arles in southern France. Nervously, he scanned the river's sable waters and the forbidding gloom of its fringing woodlands - his eyes questing for something that he fervently prayed he would not see.

Tarasque sculpture near King René's castle in Tarascon; completed in 2005, it was created by Pascal Demaumont from a single block of marble weighing 25 tonnes!

Du Bois had heard terrifying rumours that a hideous creature called the tarasque had lately taken up residence along this stretch of the Rhône. Here it held in thrall the hapless populace of nearby Nerluc, a once-tranquil rural town whose inhabitants and livestock were now the focus of its relentless depredations. But it also devoured any wayfarer unfortunate enough to be passing this way and unwary enough not to sense the monster's proximity.

Distracted by these grisly thoughts flowing unchecked through his mind, the traveller fatally ignored a deep thunder-like rumble emanating from a shadowy glade just ahead. Suddenly, the glade seemed to erupt - disgorging from its hidden bowels a macabre vision spawned from the darkest of nightmares.


Tarasque ornament

Larger in size than the biggest horse or burliest ox, the tarasque stood on six powerful limbs equipped with the murderous paws of a giant bear, and furiously switched its long viperine tail from side to side like living whipcord. The magnificent mane of its leonine head flowed as a burnished sea of molten gold around its shoulders, and its teeth were great ivory daggers of death. Most extraordinary of all, however, was the massive carapace encrusting its back. Resembling the shell of a colossal tortoise, it bristled with an armoury of mighty spikes, rendering the monster invincible to any form of attack.

It was for good reason, therefore, that the ill-fated Jacques du Bois knew his life to be at an end - an end so swift that he did not even have time to scream. As he gazed motionless at his destroyer, like a songbird mesmerised by the hypnotic stare of a serpent, the tarasque opened its fearsome maw and let out a deafening roar - accompanied by a stream of blazing fire that curled around its luckless victim and ignited his flesh like tinder.

Life-size tarasque model at a Corpus Christi procession in Valencia (Chosovi-Wikipedia)

As time went by, the inhabitants of Nerluc grew ever more desperate to free themselves from the tarasque's unremitting tyranny. One one occasion, 16 of the town's bravest men marched out to do battle with their adversary - but all to no avail. In a matter of moments, half of their number had been incinerated by a single blast of flame belched from the monster's gullet, and the remaining octet fled back to Nerluc, fortunate to have survived their ordeal by fire.

Nerluc seemed doomed, destined for destruction - but then there came along someone who may well have seemed, at least to an outsider, to be the most unlikely dragon vanquisher of all time. One day, a small boat docked at the nearby port of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and out of it stepped a young, lissom maiden, with fresh complexion and a simple dress of purest white. She had journeyed here from Arles, from where her fame had spread far and wide. For this unassuming figure of gentle demeanour was Saint Martha - whose inspirational preaching and acts of selfless beneficence had brought joy and hope to all who met her.

St Martha and the tarasque - an exquisite illustration from 1895

As soon as her arrival became known, the townspeople of Nerluc flocked to her and tearfully implored her to free them from the oppression of the tarasque. In reply, Saint Martha promised to do all she could for them, and, without further ado, she journeyed through the outlying fields towards the Rhône-bordering forest that harboured her fire-breathing quarry. She did not have to search for long. Within a few minutes of entering the forest's verdant interior, she spied the tarasque in a sunlit clearing - devouring the final portion of its latest victim, a local herdsman.

Tarasque bas-relief sculpture by Jean Barnabé Amy, 1880s

So intent was the monster upon its gory repast that it remained totally unaware of her presence. This enabled the saint to approach to within touching distance of its gleaming carapace and rippling mane - and also to pick up two branches that had been recently charred by its conflagrating breath. In that moment, however, the tarasque sensed her, and whirled around, its rapacious eyes ablaze with paroxysms of flame like febrile, dancing infernos.

Instantly, Martha raised the two branches in front of her, and held them before her monstrous adversary in the shape of the Cross. As she did so, the tarasque's eyes dimmed, their incandescence replaced by a mellow golden hue, and the mighty creature lay passively at the saint's feet, overcome by a welter of bemusement and unwonted peace. Martha bent down and sprinkled holy water all over the subdued dragon. Then with braids of her own hair she wove a huge collar and lead with which she led it amiably back to Nerluc.

Looking decidedly abashed here, the tarasque is soundly chastised by a very stern-looking St Martha (Angus McBride)

This astonishing spectacle - the bloodthirsty tarasque, tethered and tame as a docile puppy! - initially rendered the townspeople speechless and immobile. Once their fear of their longstanding enemy had subsided, however, they grew bolder, coming up to the beast and touching it - then hitting, punching, and kicking it, and hurling rocks and sticks at it, as their anger at its former atrocities burst forth in an uncontrollable tide of hatred and revenge. The tarasque cowered in fright at this sustained onslaught, and Saint Martha pleaded with the horde to forgive the beast and let it live in its new, transformed state - but it was too late. Whether through direct physical attack or the almost tangible weight of loathing heaped upon it, the tarasque suddenly rolled over, and died.

The 2011 tarasque parade at Tarascon

Even today, this monster's memory is still manifest here. As a lasting reminder of its former tribulations, Nerluc is nowadays called Tarascon, it stages a tarasque festival each Whitsun, and its official seal depicts this erstwhile oppressor in all its terrible splendour.

Due to its exceptional morphology, cryptozoologists rarely seek to identify the tarasque with any known type of animal, either from the present or from the past. Having said that, over the years I have encountered one or two brave attempts - in which this extraordinary neo-dragon has been variously mooted as a surviving ankylosaur dinosaur or a lingering glyptodont (gigantic armadillo-like mammal from prehistoric South America). Ingenious suggestions, certainly, but tragically flawed by the unavoidable fact that no ankylosaur or glyptodont unearthed so far by palaeontologists happens to possess six legs!

Life-size tarasque model at exhibition centre in Tarascon