Hot on the heels of the scaly mokele-mbembe-reminiscent mystery statuette documented by me in my previous ShukerNature post (click here) just a few days ago, here is a second incongruous iconographical object of the putatively cryptozoological kind. Yet whereas the only way for me to examine the former example directly would be to visit the Rosminian Missionary Fathers at Glencomeragh House, Clonmel, in County Tipperary, Ireland, where it is held, I don't have to travel anywhere near as far from my home in the West Midlands, England, in order to examine this latest item. In fact, I don’t even have to leave my home at all in order to do so, because it is right here in front of me, ensconced in my study. But to begin at the beginning…
Roughly 5-6 years ago, when my mother Mary Shuker was alive and still in good health, we would travel frequently and widely across England and Wales together visiting antique shops, collectors fairs, bric-a-brac markets, car boot sales, etc, where I would always be keeping a sharp lookout for anything unusual and potentially cryptozoological or zoomythological in nature. And it was at one such event (but, sadly, I can't remember where or when it was now, as we visited so many, so often, back then) where I saw the very distinctive, eyecatching wooden statuette that is the subject of this present ShukerNature blog article (and is depicted here in a series of photographs showing it from various sides and angles). What I do remember, however, is that when I asked its vendor about its origin, all that he knew was that it was African and had "probably" come from somewhere in West Africa.
Approximately 9 in long and surprisingly heavy for its size, this enigmatic object was carved out of wood, had been stained a deep cherry-red shade, was very smooth to the touch and quite shiny (especially on the upper right flank, which was a little worn with the colour of its spotting there almost worn off), and was liberally patterned all over its body (including its underparts), limbs, tail, neck, and face with small, simple black spots (like those of a cheetah, as opposed to being arranged in rosettes like a leopard's). There was some slight damage to the right shoulder, and a superficial crack line lower down across that same limb.
The gaping mouth of the creature represented by this statuette possessed a pair of upper and lower canine teeth seemingly made from the cut-off ends of porcupine quills or some such other spiny items, but instead of being inserted vertically, they had been angled so as to project forward. Coupled with the beast's very large mouth (but most especially its extremely big, broad lower jaw), this made these teeth look rather like those of a hippopotamus.
Conversely, everything else about the creature was decidedly feline – its face (particularly its whiskers and triangular nose), the overall shape, proportions, pose, and poise of its body and limbs, its long tail with a very leonine tuft of black hair at its tip, its large clawed paws. Indeed, when I first saw it, I initially assumed that it was simply either an imaginative/stylised or else a rather crude/inaccurate portrayal of a leopard. But the more closely I examined it, the more I realised that both of these options were gross simplifications. In reality, it was a very skilfully made statuette, exhibiting all manner of nuances, from the discrete nature of every claw on its paws, and the vertical lines on its neck that in a living animal of this shape and size would indeed arise (constituting skin/muscle creases) when its head reared forward with mouth open wide in a roar or snarl of rage (the pose in which this statuette's creature had been carved), to the unexpected lateral striping rising up on each side of its body from its ventral surface (not what one would expect to see if the creature were meant to be a leopard), and the well-shaped, naturally-proportioned, powerful musculature of its body.
But what creature was it meant to be? It was much too burly and sturdy to be a leopard, and its lateral striping also argued against this identity, as did its leonine tail tuft. Yet its lack of a mane (the flat vertical neck lines offered no suggestion that they represented a mane), and its polka-dot, cheetah-like spotting that profusely patterned its entire form argued against its being a lion either (and even in rare cases of lionesses that have retained into adulthood a degree of spotting, the spotting in question takes the appearance of rosettes, like leopards, not dots as in cheetahs). Moreover, apart from its single shared feature of simple spotting, it bore no resemblance whatsoever to a cheetah.
Spotted hyaena (© AindriúH/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)
Could it conceivably be a spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta? Again, it showed scant – if, indeed, any – similarity to this long-legged, slope-backed, superficially canine creature, other than its spotted coat. And how can we explain its oddly hippo-like lower jaw and teeth orientation? Also, did its staining with red dye have any zoological significance with regard to its creature's morphology and taxonomic identity?
Not surprisingly, faced with such a fascinating array of anomalies and questions associated with them, I was very keen to purchase this statuette, and after a little haggling I succeeded in doing so for £8 – definitely a bargain as far as I was concerned!
When I arrived back home with it, I spent quite some time that evening online, browsing countless images of African carvings depicting lions, leopards, hyaenas, and hippos, produced by many different cultures and peoples, but I was unable to find any that even remotely resembled my statuette. On the contrary, whereas the latter seemed to be an embodiment of features drawn from all of these creatures, all of the online carvings that I saw were readily recognisable as lions (all with well-defined, furry manes), or leopards, or hippos, etc, with no confusion or overlapping of features between them. I have further browsed online for such carvings on several occasions since then (most recently while writing this present ShukerNature article today), but I have never found one that matches or is even reminiscent of mine.
So, could it be that my mystery statuette was not meant to be a real animal, but is instead merely a composite, uniting the tail and body of a lion with the simple dot-spotting of a cheetah and perhaps the face of a leopard, together with the mouth and teeth of a hippo, for instance, plus some attractive if wholly invented side striping and red body dye added by the sculptor just for good measure? This seems the most parsimonious, conservative explanation. Or might it actually be a representation of some mythical beast from the local folklore of wherever it was made? Needless to say, my quest for answers to this animal's identity has not been assisted by the lack of any precise provenance for this object – after all, West Africa (and only "probably" at that!) is a huge area containing numerous native peoples, and limitless versions and variations of traditional native lore.
Or is it just conceivable that what I purchased on that long-bygone day is a portrayal of a bona fide cryptid? Well worth recalling here is that one of central-western Africa's most notable mystery beasts is the so-called mountain tiger or vassoko – an extremely large, ferocious crypto-felid said to be red in colour but also striped, and possessing a huge mouth containing very large, protruding teeth said to resemble the fangs of the officially extinct sabre-toothed cats or machairodontids. True, it is also said variously to be tailless or to possess only the shortest of tails, as opposed to a long, conspicuous, tufted tail of the kind sported by the creature represented by my carving. But this discrepancy might simply be a mistake on the part of the sculptor, who may not have based the creature's appearance on any firsthand sighting but only upon anecdotal reports that had potentially been confused, or were contradictory, or had been elaborated upon by their tellers.
When I posted some photos of this perplexing carving on Facebook earlier today, some viewers commented that it combined not only feline and hippopotamine (did I just invent a new word there??) similarities but also ursine ones. Might it therefore even be a representation of that most classic of all African cryptozoological composites, the legendary Nandi bear itself? True, although the latter has been likened to a wide range of different animals, including hyaenas, baboons, bears, honey badgers, even aardvarks and the supposedly extinct chalicotheres, it has not usually been compared with a felid form. Then again, in his seminal book On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), Dr Bernard Heuvelmans did liken the Nandi bear to Proteus – an early marine deity in Greek mythology able to transform himself into a wide range of different creatures – on account of the inordinate diversity of morphological descriptions filed for this cryptid by eyewitnesses. So perhaps there is a feline component to the Nandi bear composite too. Who can say?
An African chalicothere (also featuring a cameo from one of my favourite birds, the hoopoe) (© Hodari Nundu)
Or, returning full circle in my analysing of this bewildering beast's possible identity, could it simply be that its sculptor was in a playful, light-hearted mood when he was creating it, and so decided not to produce just another standard carving of some very familiar animal but rather a very striking, wholly original entity spawned by the fruitful union of his imagination and crafting skills – ultimately yielding a cherry-coloured conundrum, a veritable hippo-cat in fact, with which to baffle and delight in equal measure whoever saw it and subsequently purchased it?
After all, it's not as if cherry-coloured mystery cats are unprecedented in the annals of chicanery. Quoting from the North America-themed chapter in my very first book, Mystery Cats of the World (1989):
No chapter on North American feline mysteries and marvels would be complete without a mention of the celebrated cherry-coloured cat exhibited by that famed American showman Phineas Barnum. After having paid their money to see this wonderful animal, a few of its visitors later protested to Barnum that they had been both surprised and disappointed to discover that it was nothing more than an ordinary black cat. Barnum was quite unmoved by their remonstrance, for, as he reminded them, he had promised them a cherry-coloured cat and, after all, some cherries are black!
There's a lesson for cryptozoology in there somewhere.
Indeed there is!
For the most comprehensive modern-day documentation of the Nandi bear controversy, and also various reports of the vassoko or mountain tiger, please check out my new mega-book, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.