Could modern-day chalicotheres occasionally emerging from the Nandi and Kakamega Forests' dense, shadowy interior explain reports of the formidable Nandi bear? Depicted here are two life-sized Anisodon grande chalicothere models at the Natural History Museum in Basel, Switzerland (© Ghedoghedo-Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Periodically come reports from the Kakamega forests in Kenya of sightings of the Nandi bear. The beast is described as having a gorilla-like stance with forelimbs longer than the hind, with clawed feet like a bear and with a horse-like face. Could the beast be a survivor of the chalicothere, thought to have become extinct in East Africa during the Pleistocene? The description above would fit with the skeletal remains of these extraordinary animals.
R.J.G. Savage and M.R. Long – Mammal Evolution
One of the most formidable, ferocious mystery beasts on record, the Nandi bear of western Kenya's Nandi and neighbouring Kakamega forest regions was once widely reported, but lately it seems to have gone out of fashion – or even out of existence – because there do not appear to have been any documented sightings of it for many years. Consequently, the Nandi bear (aka chemosit, kerit, koddoelo, khodumodumo, and gadett) is seldom referred to nowadays, even by cryptozoologists. As a result, this present ShukerNature blog article is the first in a planned occasional series whose intention is to raise awareness and interest once again in this long-forgotten yet thoroughly fascinating cryptid, which remains one of my all-time favourites.
As discussed by veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans in On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958) and further assessed in my own books In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors and Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors, the Nandi bear seems to have been many things to many people, inasmuch as it was apparently a composite creature, i.e. 'created' from the erroneous lumping together of reports describing several taxonomically discrete animals. Some of these are already known to science, but others may not be, at least in the living state.
They include: old all-black ratels (honey badgers) Mellivora capensis; some form of extra-savage giant baboon; erythristic (freakishly red-furred) spotted hyaenas Crocuta crocuta and/or a supposedly long-extinct lion-sized relative called the short-faced hyaena Pachycrocuta brevirostris; the aardvark Orycteropus afer; perhaps even a relict true bear like the supposedly-extinct Agriotherium or one related to (or synonymous with) the Atlas bear Ursus arctos crowtheri, which still existed in North Africa until as recently as the 1870s; and, most fascinating of all, a putative surviving species of chalicothere.
The latter were bizarre perissodactyl (odd-toed) ungulates that possessed claws instead of hooves, and which may have been somewhat hyaena-like in superficial appearance (due to their rearward-sloping back) but were much larger in size. According to the fossil record, chalicotheres lingered on until at least as recently as one million years ago in Africa, but died out earlier elsewhere in the world.
The prospect of a modern-day chalicothere being responsible for certain Nandi bear reports was popularised by Heuvelmans in his book On the Track..., but in spite of common assumption to the contrary, he definitely did not originate this notion. Instead, it was presented and discussed at length as far back as 1931, by Captain Charles R.S. Pitman in the first of his two autobiographical works, A Game Warden Among His Charges. Moreover, it was briefly alluded to even earlier, by Dr Charles W. Andrews in his Nature article from 1923 regarding the finding of chalicothere fossils in Central Africa. Even the renowned Kenyan palaeoanthropologist Louis S.B. Leakey contemplated it in an Illustrated London News article of 2 November 1935. Certainly, the idea has long held a particular fascination for me, because it alone could provide a reasonable explanation why the Nandi bear has seemingly vanished.
Artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates, e.g. cattle, antelopes, giraffes, pigs) were devastated by an epidemic of rinderpest (a morbillivirus) that swept across southern Africa during the late 19th Century. In 1995, it was revealed that a distantly-related morbillivirus was comparably deleterious to horses (which, like chalicotheres, are perissodactyls). So could a morbillivirus have wiped out a chalicotherian Nandi bear? None of the other Nandi bear identities would be affected by such a disease, so if only these identities were components of the Nandi bear composite (i.e. with no ungulate component ever involved), we would expect Nandi bear reports to be still surfacing, whereas in reality none has emerged for years.
Someone else who was very intrigued by the concept of a chalicotherian Nandi bear was British author and wildlife educator Clinton H. Keeling (click here to access a rare vintage photograph from 1955 depicting Clinton and his wife, on Shutterstock's website), whose death in 2007 robbed the international zoological community of a uniquely knowledgeable expert on the histories and exhibits of zoological gardens, circuses, and menageries (travelling and stationary) throughout Britain and overseas, both in the present and in the past. During the course of a long, productive life as a zoo curator and also travelling widely to schools with animals to entertain and educate generations of children concerning the wonders of wildlife, Clinton wrote and self-published over 30 books (but all of which, tragically, are fiendishly difficult to track down nowadays) documenting wild animal husbandry and also the histories of demised and long-forgotten animal collections.
These works are a veritable treasure trove of extraordinary information and insights that are very unlikely to be found elsewhere, providing details of some truly remarkable and sometimes highly mysterious creatures that were at one time or another on display in Britain – and which in Clinton's opinion may have included at least three living chalicotherian Nandi bears!
Frustratingly, however, I have never managed to obtain a copy of any of Clinton's books. So after he published a summary of his Nandi bear accounts from two of them in the form of a short article appearing within the July 1995 issue of the Centre for Fortean Zoology's periodical Animals and Men, I wrote to him requesting further information. In response, he kindly wrote me a very detailed letter, dated 3 July 1995, documenting all that he knew about this extremely exciting possibility and also regarding various other cryptozoological subjects.
Its contents made enthralling, thought-provoking reading, but I have never blogged its Nandi bear section (or even any excerpts from it) – until now. So here, for the very first time on ShukerNature, is Clinton Keeling's full and thoroughly fascinating account of that tantalising bygone trio of unidentified captive beasts in Britain that just may have been living Nandi bears:
Rest assured I shall be happy to assist you in any way possible concerning the "Nandi Bear", of which I am convinced at least three specimens have been exhibited in this country – although their owners had no idea what they were...
I think it would be best if I were to quote directly from two of my books...in this way you'll know as much as I do when you've finished reading. The following – I'll call it NB1 [i.e. Nandi Bear Case #1] – is from my book Where the Crane Danced, written in 1983; I'm dealing with the earliest travelling menageries:
"The first one I have been able to learn anything about must have been operating in the 1730s, and although not even its name has been recorded I was absolutely thrilled to discover that it contained what might well have been proof that an animal that most people relegate to the Loch Ness Monster bin really did exist – and comparatively recently too. In a nutshell, I have always been interested in the mysterious creature usually referred to as the Nandi Bear, which might still exist on the Uashin Gishu Plateau in Kenya; some people swear it was/is a belated Chalicotherium, a primitive ungulate with claw-like hooves which officially became extinct long ago, while others pooh-pooh the whole tale as an utter fabrication. Those who claim to have seen it, though, and they are many, all talk of a Hyena-like creature with the head of a Bear [some descriptions, however, offer the converse description, i.e. hyaena-headed and bear-bodied]. And please note this menagerie that might have shown one was operating getting on for two centuries before Kenya was opened up by Europeans, so in other words no-one had heard of it then. I first came upon this intriguing possibility when looking through some old numbers of Animal and Zoo Magazine, the long-defunct publication I mentioned in Where the Lion Trod [another of Clinton's books]. In the edition for February 1938 it stated that a reader in Yorkshire had found a bill "two hundred years old" that read:
"Posted at the sign of the Spread Eagle, Halifax. This is to give notice, to all Gentlemen, Ladies and others, that there is to be seen at the sign of the Coffee House, a curious collection of living creatures..."
"It then went on to list its attractions, chiefly Monkeys and smallish carnivores, the last of which was:
"A young HALF and HALF; the head of a Hyena, the hind part like a Frieseland [Polar? [this query was inserted by Clinton]] Bear."
"Now it would certainly not have been a Hyena, or a Bear, as clearly whoever penned the advertisement apparently knew what they looked like, so one is left to ponder on this curiosity, which sounds so much like descriptions of that weird threshold-of-science creature which has so often been seen by sober people of high reputation as it has gone slinking through the long grass in the African night."
Chalicothere painting seen at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire, England (© Dr Karl Shuker/Twycross Zoo – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis, for educational/review purposes only)
NB2 [Nandi Bear Case #2] comes in my Where the Macaw Preened (1993), and its source is interesting. In Where the Crane Danced I dealt in some detail with Mander's Menagerie, a huge display second in size only to Bostock and Wombwell's, and which finally came off the road in 1875. As a result of this, I was contacted by a Mrs Rosanne Eccleston of Telford, Shropshire, who is a descendant of the Manders. She sent me a facsimile of an extremely lengthy advert, placed in a York newspaper in November 1869 which was, in effect, a stocklist of the show at that time (it included such unexpected items as Ligers); Mander was [a] very experienced animal-man, but sometimes he got his geographical area of distribution wrong, usually – and this could be significant – when he'd obtained a rare or obscure species (i.e. not what I call a Noah's Ark animal – Lion, Tiger, Bear, etc.) about which he knew little or nothing. Anyway, I quote directly from the end of the section on Mander's Menagerie in WTMP [Where the Macaw Preened]:
"I've deliberately left what I consider to have been the most remarkable exhibits until the last, so we can savour them for the marvels that I think they could have been. Oddly enough, they were one of the few species to be given what's clearly the wrong area of distribution.
"Listed as "Indian Prairie Fiends" they were described as:
Most wonderful creatures. Head like the Hippopotamus. Body like a Bear. Claws similar to the Tiger, and ears similar to a Horse.
"That's all, and forget the inference to North America [i.e. the prairie portion of the name applied to these creatures in the listing], as there's nothing in that part of the world that has ever resembled anything like this, but, descriptions given by Africans apart, this is the best word-picture of the Chimiset or Nandi Bear I've ever happened upon.
"Many people, I know, relegate this astonishing creature to the same category as the Loch Ness Monster and other twilight beasts which might or might not exist, but here I feel they are being unjust as the question should really be "does it still exist?", as of all the "mystery" animals this is the one scientific sceptics come nearest to accepting, as paleontologists have learned a great deal about the Chalicotherium – which is believed to be the origin of the Nandi Bear. In short, it resembled a nightmarish (no pun intended) Horse – in fact it was related to the Equines – which had huge claws and preyed upon other animals, in fact many Africans have stated how fierce it is, and how destructive to their livestock ("Fiends", I trust you've noticed; the only implication so far of viciousness – again, it fits). Readers of WTCD [Where the Crane Danced] will recall my suggestion that a menagerie touring northern England in the 1730s also boasted a young specimen – which is at least perfectly possible, as there now seems little doubt that a small relict population of Chalicotheriums (Chalicotheria?) hung out on the Uashin Gishu Plateau in East Africa until the very end of the 19th Century, when it was wiped out by the great rinderpest epidemic of 1899. Remember, it was an ungulate, despite not having hooves and eating flesh. What a pity Mr Mander didn't think anyone would be interested to learn what he fed his specimens on!"
All of which brings up some fascinating points. For a start, on the face of it, it sticks out a mile that the two reports are of completely different animals, but whereas the "Halifax" creature was a classic description of the beast seen so often in Africa a century ago, the "York" one is a word-perfect reconstruction of modern assessments of what the chalicotherium must have looked like – even to the Horse-like (Hippopotamus) head and massive claws. I agree it sounds paradoxical, but here are good descriptions of the creatures seen in the field by traveller and tribesman, and the armchair explorers' and scientists' word-picture of what it must have resembled. In other words, there's a strong case for each.
An extremely impressive brief can be made for Mander's animals, as it's the only species in his list with a "made-up" name; all others either have appellations still in use, or old but then perfectly acceptable ones, such as "Yaxtruss" for Yak and "Horned Horse" for Wildebeests: this one alone has an outlandish name. It's very highly significant, too, that again it's the only one to be described in detail – presumably on the assumption that most people would know what a Camel or a Zebra or a Kangaroo was. In other words Mander, who most certainly knew an extremely wide range of species, hadn't the slightest idea of what the Indian Prairie Fiends really were.
I cannot emphasise strongly enough that whatever these animals were, they would certainly have been on show, and more or less as described, as contrary to popular belief, the showmen of yesterday might have exaggerated the size or physical attributes of their exhibits, but they certainly didn't advertise what they hadn't got. They were not fools, and knew full well the measures a mob of 19th Century colliers, artisans, idlers and toughs would take if it thought it was being swindled or "conned".
Most unfortunately it didn't enter the heads of these very materialistic travellers to keep Occurrences Books (other than places visited and money taken) so unfortunately we'll probably never know how these I.P.F.s [Indian Prairie Fiends] were obtained, how many there were, their diet, how long they lived, or – very important – what became of them. I mention this because there was often an arrangement with museums whereby unusual cadavers were eagerly purchased (in Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, for example, there are two hybrid big Cat cubs purchased long ago from a travelling show) so I suppose it's just possible, in some dusty storeroom, there could be a couple of interesting skulls or pelts.
Scale illustration depicting an American chalicothere Moropus elatus alongside an average-sized human in silhouette form (© Nobu Tamura-Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
As can be readily appreciated, the extensive Nandi bear sections quoted above from Clinton's letter to me constitute a captivating and very thought-provoking communication, to say the least! However, it contains certain assumptions that need to be addressed and rectified.
First and foremost: contrary, to Clinton's claims, the chalicotheres were not carnivorous, they were wholly herbivorous – a major conflict with the Nandi bear's bloodthirsty rapaciousness that Heuvelmans sought to explain by speculating that perhaps the occasional sight of so extraordinary a beast as a chalicothere, armed with its huge claws, was sufficient for a native observer to assume (wrongly) that they had spied a bona fide Nandi bear. In other words, even if there are any living chalicotheres, these perissodactyl ungulates are only Nandi bears by proxy. Having said that, however, as I pointed out in my two prehistoric survivors books, certain other perissodactyls, such as some zebras, tapirs, and most notably the rhinoceroses, can be notoriously bellicose if confronted. If the same were true of chalicotheres, one of these horse-sized creatures with formidable claws and an even more formidable, highly aggressive defensive stance would definitely make a veritable Nandi bear, even though it wouldn't devour its victim afterwards.
A family of American chalicotheres, Moropus, with one of the adults savagely seeing off a couple of snarling Daphoenodon bear-dogs or amphicyonids, as depicted in an exquisite palaeoart mural produced by Jay Matternes and exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington DC, USA (public domain)
When referring to the Halifax mystery beast (NB1), Clinton wondered whether the "Frieseland [sic] bear" that it was likened to was a polar bear. In reality, however, the only bears native to Friesland, which is part of the present-day Netherlands, are brown bears Ursus arctos. Consequently, this suggests that the animal's hind parts resembled a brown bear's, not a polar bear's.
My greatest concern, however, is Clinton's determination to believe that the Halifax mystery beast and the York mystery beasts (NB2) were the same species (even after stating himself that at least on first sight the two reports describe two totally different types of animal). Personally, I fail to see how a hyaena-headed owecreature can be one and the same as a hippo-headed creature – unless, perhaps, these were simply differing ways of emphasising that the creatures had big, noticeable teeth? In the same way, likening their ears to those of horses might indicate that, as with horses' ears, theirs were noticeable without being prominent. Alternatively (or additionally?), describing an animal's head as hippo-like may imply that it had large, broad nostrils and/or mouth.
Is this what a Nandi bear trophy head might look like if it were truly a chalicothere? Many renowned hunters sought the Nandi bear during the early 20th Century, hoping to add to their collections of mounted heads and pelt rugs a specimen of what they no doubt considered to be the ultimate trophy animal, but none succeeded. (The above photograph depicts an Ancylotherium chalicothere model head from the 'Walk With Beasts' exhibition temporarily held at London's Horniman Museum.) (© Jim Linwood-Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
Clinton's statement that the hippo-headed York cryptids corresponded with a chalicothere's appearance cannot be countenanced, because chalicotheres' heads were horse-like (which hippos aren't), and chalicotheres didn't have big teeth. So even if the hippo-head comparison was just an allusion to the size of the York cryptids' teeth, a chalicothere identity is still ruled out for them.
My own view is that if either of the two cryptid types documented here were a Nandi bear, it is more likely to have been the hyaena-headed, bear-bodied Halifax animal. Even so, this latter beast sounds very reminiscent of a scientifically-recognised but publicly little-known species whose distinctive appearance would certainly have made it a most eyecatching exhibit. Today, three species of true hyaena exist, two of which – the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena and the earlier-mentioned spotted hyaena – are familiar to zoologists and laymen alike. The third, and rarest, conversely, is seldom seen in captivity and is elusive even in its native southern African homeland.
An early, vintage photograph of a brown hyaena in captivity (top); and a modern-day photo of another captive specimen belonging to this same species (bottom) (public domain / © Markus Bühler)
This reclusive species is the brown hyaena H. brunnea, which just so happens to combine a hyaena's head with a dark brown shaggy-furred body that is definitely ursine in superficial appearance (as I can personally testify, having been fortunate enough to espy this species in the wild in South Africa), and especially so in the eyes of a zoologically-untrained observer. So could the Halifax mystery beast have been a sub-adult brown hyaena, captured alive alongside various more common African species and then transported to Britain with them, where it was destined to be displayed to a wide-eyed public that had never before seen this exotic-looking species? It is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, and is a more plausible identity than a Nandi bear.
As for the Mander cryptids, an identity very different from that of a Nandi bear but equally cryptozoological in nature came to mind as soon as I first read Clinton's account of them.
Might Mander's 'prairie fiends' have been living ground sloths? Here is a life-sized museum model of a ground sloth in quadrupedal pose (© Alexandre Paz Vieira/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
Clinton discounted their 'Indian prairie fiend' name by accurately stating that nothing resembling them is known from North America. But what if they had come from South America instead? The 'Indian' reference could simply have been in relation to whichever native Indian tribe(s) shared their specific distribution in South America. And could it be that 'prairie' was nothing more than an alternative name for 'pampas', perhaps substituted deliberately by Mander as he knew that 'prairie' would be a more familiar term than 'pampas' to his exhibition's visitors?
But does the South American pampas harbour a creature resembling those cryptids exhibited by Mander? Until at least as recently as the close of the Pleistocene epoch a mere 11,700 years or so ago, this vast region (encompassing southernmost Brazil, much of Uruguay, and part of Argentina) did indeed harbour large shaggy bear-like beasts with huge claws, noticeable ears, plus sizeable nostrils and mouth. I refer of course to the ground sloths – those burly, predominantly terrestrial relatives of today's much smaller tree sloths. Moreover, the pampas has hosted several modern-day sightings of cryptids bearing more than a passing resemblance to ground sloths – and thence to the Mander mystery beasts.
Reconstruction and skeleton of a living ground sloth in upright pose (public domain / © Dr Karl Shuker)
Some species of ground sloth were truly gigantic, but others were of much more modest proportions, and there is no doubt that a medium-sized species of surviving ground sloth would solve a number of currently unresolved cryptozoological conundra, not least of which is the identity of the mystifying Mander beasts. Specimens of many other South American beasts were commonly transported from their sultry homelands and exhibited in Europe back in the days of travelling menageries here. Could these have included a couple of ground sloths? In addition, armed with such huge claws a cornered ground sloth might well be more than sufficiently belligerent if threatened or attacked to warrant being dubbed a fiend.
So, who knows - perhaps the hypothetical dusty museum storeroom postulated by Clinton as a repository for some mortal remains of the Nandi bear may contain some modern-day ground sloth cadavers instead? It certainly wouldn't be the first time that surprising and highly significant zoological discoveries have been made not in the field but within hitherto unstudied or overlooked collections of museum specimens.
NB – This ShukerNature blog article is based upon an earlier Fortean Times article of mine that subsequently reappeared as a chapter in my book A Manifestation of Monsters. Regrettably, however, in both of those previous incarnations a very rare (for me) and admittedly only minor yet nonetheless unfortunate error inexplicably crept in, but which via this present ShukerNature blog version I have finally been able to correct. Specifically in the FT and book versions, the antepenultimate paragraph in my account, which opens with the words "But does the South American pampas…", erroneously contains the name 'Halifax' (twice) when the correct name should have been 'Mander'; and also this same error occurs once in the penultimate paragraph, opening with the words "Some species of ground sloth". As seen above, however, I have made the necessary corrections in this blog version, so anyone owning my FT article and/or my Manifestation book can now either mentally or physically amend them accordingly there too.
The most extensive coverage of the enigmatic Nandi bear's history and possible identity (or identities) included in any modern-day work can be found in my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors, which also contains a comprehensive coverage of putative ground sloth survival.
UPDATE #1 - 10 May 2019
As can be seen from the correspondence below in the Comments section, it would now seem possible that the true identity of Mander's so-called Indian prairie fiends was, of all things, the Tasmanian devil! However, as I have since discovered when investigating this most intriguing lead, the reality may be rather more complex, so I shall be pursuing and presenting my thoughts and findings concerning it all in a future ShukerNature blog article. Meanwhile, I confess to being surprised that Clinton Keeling, unquestionably among the most knowledgeable of all authorities on the history of British menageries, had seemingly never encountered any of the newspaper reports either cited in the Comments section here or additionally uncovered by me that claim Mander's Indian prairie fiends to have been Tasmanian devils. Had he done so, I feel sure that he would have published an account of this, and modified accordingly his opinion concerning it.
UPDATE #2 - 10 May 2019
Also today, I was delighted to discover that in 1979, a new genus of African chalicothere from the Miocene epoch had been formally named, based upon the discovery of some fossil remains consisting of portions of a chalicothere limb. But why did this discovery and naming delight me? Because the name that had been chosen for this new genus was - wait for it! - Chemositia !! Clearly, speculation concerning the possibility that the Nandi bear (aka chemosit) was a surviving species of chalicothere had not gone unnoticed in the palaeontological world. And as if this were not delightful enough, guess where the remains of Chemositia had been unearthed? Kenya!!
Reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of the chalicothere Anisodon grande (© Dmitri Bogdanov/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)