Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the 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), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), 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), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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

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Saturday 30 March 2024



Publicity poster for Carnifex, showing the characters gazing up in awe at some formidable claw marks left upon a  tree trunk by a large unknown animal of seemingly arboreal ability (© Sean Lahiff/Dancing Road Productions/Arclight Films/Universal Pictures Content Group – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Thanks to longstanding Australian FB friend and crypto-enthusiast Tim Morris kindly making it available to me - thanks Tim! – my movie watch on 26 October 2023 was the fairly recent Australian cryptozoology-themed creature feature Carnifex.

Directed by Sean Lahiff, and released just a year ago in December 2022 by Universal Pictures, Carnifex takes its name in a general sense from the Latin word for 'butcher' or even (during the Roman era) 'executioner'. However, wildlife enthusiasts, especially cryptozoologists, will also be aware of its more specific, zoological meaning.

Consequently, if you're of the latter persuasion, you will have no doubt guessed straight away from this movie's title that while conservationists Ben (Harry Greenwood) and Grace (Sisi Stringer) accompanied by documentary camerawoman Bailey (Alexandra Park) are uncovering and recording deep within the Australian outback the vast wildlife devastation caused there by some recent, unprecedented bushfires, they also make the startling, totally unexpected, and truly terrifying discovery of a living marsupial lion Thylacoleo carnifex. For once they do, they also discover – very swiftly – just how hyper-aggressive and rapacious the creature is, forcing them into a desperate bid for survival against this mega-belligerent blast from the past, their thoughts echoing only too emphatically the film's tagline: "Some species should remain extinct".

This ferocious species was – or is? –  a predatory pouched mammal of feline form, leopard or lioness stature (opinions vary), and possibly arboreal capabilities, but officially deemed extinct for many millennia. However, some cryptozoologists feel that its putative reclusive survival into the present day may explain occasional reports of an Aussie mystery beast known as the yarri or Queensland tiger. It may even have inspired the spoof killer koala called the drop bear (koalas and marsupial lions were actually quite closely related). Most of this pertinent background information, however, is never alluded to in the movie, sadly.

Yarri or Queensland tiger, based upon eyewitness descriptions (© Dami Editore srl – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Speaking of which: its build-up to this very dramatic discovery, although very lengthy (see later), is engrossing, and features a trio of lead likeable characters that interact well together, interspersed with plenty of breathtaking shots of genuine Aussie Outback Nevertheless, Carnifex suffers from two very significant, crucial problems.

Firstly, once the story truly gets going, it consists almost entirely of night-time scenes, resulting in actual sightings of the creature (with totally black pelage, thereby rendering it even more difficult to see against the darkness)  being as shadowy and brief as they are seldom and inconclusive, i.e. plenty of growling and flesh-tearing sounds, but visually all but non-existent.

Secondly, when in this 90-odd-minute movie's last 10 minutes we finally - finally! - get to see two blink-and-you'll-miss-them close-up full-face shots of the (very) anatagonistic animal in question (so fleeting in fact that after seeing them I then had to rewind and laboriously seek them out via freeze-frame in order to be sure of what they actually revealed – something, incidentally, that cinema audiences for this movie would not have had the luxury of being able to do), guess what?

The film makers had only gone and got their Thylacoleo carnifex fundamentally wrong – and after having kept their increasingly impatient viewers waiting so long to see it properly too!

A selection of photo-stills from Carnifex depicting the latter beast's brief appearances and, especially, its dentition – click picture montage to enlarge for viewing purposes (© Sean Lahiff/Dancing Road Productions/Arclight Films/Universal Pictures Content Group – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

All placental carnivores have fangs consisting of enlarged upper canine teeth (and so too, for that matter, does, or did, the thylacine or Tasmanian marsupial wolf Thylacinus cynocephalus, officially deemed extinct in 1936 but which may still linger on in this island's more remote regions). In stark contrast, conversely, the tusk-like fang counterparts of Thylacoleo were actually greatly-enlarged upper incisors (it also sported a pair of extremely enlarged lower incisors, but its upper canines were only very small and stubby). Yet in this movie, its Thylacoleo has been given enlarged upper canines, not incisors, thereby rendering their Carnifex dentally deranged!

Moreover, the two close-up shots of its front paws also revealed a telling absence of the huge thumb claw constituting another morphologcal characteristic of this unique predator.

Judging from these major morphological discrepancies, I can only assume that someone apparently hadn't done their zoological homework when researching T. carnifex for this Carnifex-entitled movie. Needless to say, this is a great shame, especially as otherwise it is a most enjoyable film, with engaging characters amid the savage beauty of the Australian bush, and it would have been a wonderful showcase for a truly original animal antagonist never previously represented in a cinematic role.

Then again, it is fair to say that many viewers are unlikely to have in-depth knowledge of thylacoleonid dentition anyway. So they will simply not notice or recognize the inaccuracy of the latter's depiction in this movie (particularly as it has no effect upon the plot itself), thereby enabling them to enjoy the movie as an otherwise very watchable, well-presented conservation-minded creature feature, especially one produced by a small independent film company as opposed to a mega-bucks Hollywood studio. Also on the positive side, it does mean that a morphologically-accurate 'living Thylacoleo'-themed monster movie is still waiting to be made.

Thylacoleo carnifex model produced by Jeff Johnson and owned by Rebecca Lang, two longstanding Facebook friends of mine (© Jeff Johnson/Rebecca Lang – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Incidentally, a novel written by Australian horror author Matthew J. Hellscream (I'm guessing that this may be a pseudonym…) that was published in 2016, i.e. 6 years before the present movie under review here was released, was also entitled Carnifex, and also featured some visitors to a remote area of the Australian bush encountering living but scientifically-undiscovered marsupial lions. According to various Adelaide Advertiser articles, Hellstream took legal advice when the movie came out because of perceived title and plot similarities, but that is not what I am concerned with here. What I am concerned with is that the very striking illustration of one such beast present on the front cover of Hellstream's novel depicts it with totally accurate dentition – click here to view it, and take note of the greatly enlarged incisors, and all but absent canines, plus the shearing blade-like carnassials further back.

I don't own a copy of this novel (yet), but I've heard tell that the cover artwork was prepared by acclaimed horror artist Frank Walls, who created the front cover for Hellscream's previous novel, Metro 7, but I can't confirm this. Whoever did design it, however, clearly made the effort to portray accurately the unique dentition of this truly unique mammalian predator.

Anyway, if you'd like to peer through the darkness of the Outback at night in search of the toothy terror lurking in this movie, be sure to click here to watch an official Carnifex trailer on YouTube.

Finally: this review originally appeared in ShukerNature's fellow blog, Shuker In MovieLand. To view a complete chronological listing of all of my Shuker In MovieLand blog's other film reviews and articles (each one instantly accessible via a direct clickable link), please click HERE, and please click HERE to view a complete fully-clickable alphabetical listing of them.

My book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016), which contains a very comprehensive coverage of the yarri or Queensland tiger, and featuring prominently in the bottom-left portion of its front cover an artistic representation by cryptozoology artist William M. Rebsamen of what this elusive, mysterious creature may look like if it is indeed a surviving representative of the marsupial lion Thylacoleo carnifex, complete with accurate dental depiction for the latter species (© Dr Karl Shuker/William M. Rebsamen/Coachwhip Publications)


Saturday 2 March 2024


Representation of the gbahali based upon eyewitness descriptions (© Tim Morris)

Since 1900, the West African country of Liberia, still plentifully supplied with coastal mangrove swamps and interior rainforests, and long deemed a biodiversity hotspot by zoologists, has been the scene of at least four major zoological discoveries of species new to science or rediscoveries of species believed extinct. Namely, the giant forest hog Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, the pygmy hippopotamus Choeropsis liberiensis, Jentink's duiker Cephalophus jentinki, and the Liberian mongoose Liberiictis kuhni.

All of these are mammals, of course, but there is also some thought-provoking evidence to suggest that a fifth major zoological find is still waiting to be made here – and this time of the reptilian variety.

West Africa's dwarf crocodile, note its short snout (public domain)

Four species of crocodilian are known to exist in Liberia. These are the Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus, the West African dwarf crocodile Osteolaemus tetraspis, the West African slender-snouted crocodile Mecistops cataphractus, and the West African or sacred crocodile C. suchus (only quite recently delineated from the Nile crocodile as a valid distinct species in its own right). The first two are restricted to this country's coastal swamps, and are considered rare, as is the third (a little-studied, human-avoiding species), whereas the fourth one, which occurs further inland, is quite common.

West African slender-snouted crocodile (© Thesupermat/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

However, native Liberians also speak of a fifth crocodile-like creature, currently unknown to science, which they refer to as the gbahali (pronounced 'bar-hye'), and consider to be larger and more dangerous than even the Nile crocodile – itself a highly aggressive, notorious man-eater that can grow up to 21 ft long.

The gbahali first attracted widespread Western attention on 20 December 2007, when veteran American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman published on the mystery beast website Cryptomundo a communication that he had received the previous day. It was from a correspondent named John-Mark Sheppard (some accounts spell his surname as Shephard) – an American missionary working at that time with an international relief and development organisation in northernmost Liberia's Lofa County, near this country's border with Guinea.

In his communication, Sheppard revealed that he had learnt from the indigenous people there about several strange, unidentified creatures that may be of potential cryptozoological interest, including the gbahali. He had spoken to a number of alleged eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the latter mystery beast in recent years, and according to their testimony, as documented by Sheppard:

It is described as being like a crocodile or monitor lizard, but much larger (up to 25 or 30 ft long). It has an armored back with three rows of serrations running down it, a powerful tail, and a short snout with many large teeth. It is known to be an ambush predator, carrying its prey underwater to drown before coming on shore to eat it.

Sheppard even travelled to a village deep in the Liberian rainforest where the fishermen claimed to have actually caught gbahali specimens, using nets to capture them and shotguns to kill them, before butchering their carcases for meat, which they then sold at local markets. They had even preserved the skull of one such specimen, which had been retained in the village until rebels invaded it during this country's civil war (which ended in 2003) and set it ablaze, destroying everything there, including that scientifically-precious gbahali skull.

When interviewing the villagers, Sheppard showed them various illustrations of modern-day and prehistoric crocodilians and crocodilian-like animals that he had downloaded from the internet. Of these, the creature that they considered most similar in appearance to the gbahali was an artistic reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of a prehistoric reptile from North America's Late Triassic Period, known as Postosuchus. This very sizeable beast, up to 6 m long, belonged to a long-extinct taxonomic family whose members, known as rauisuchians, were related to crocodilians.

Representation of the possible appearance in life of Postosuchus in quadrupedal mode (© Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The locals stated that the head and body of Postosuchus as depicted in the artistic reconstruction resembled that of the gbahali, but that its legs were more erect (i.e. supporting its body from below) than the gbahali's, which are allegedly semi-erect in stance (i.e. more sprawling), like those of crocodilians.

Continuing his narrative, Sheppard stated:

The river in which these creatures are said to live is very remote, passing through large areas of uninhabited forest. They are said to mainly be seen during the rainy season, when they travel upstream to look for food. They are greatly feared by the local population, because they have been known to kill people.

Indeed, according to Sheppard one such incident may have occurred as recently as November 2007, just a month before he had sent his communication to Coleman. A man had been attacked and killed by a possible gbahali near a village named Gelema, on that selfsame river. When the United Nations police were sent there to investigate this incident, all that they could find was the victim's head and a few body parts that the creature had left behind on the river bank. This ties in with local claims mentioned above by Sheppard whereby the gbahali drowns its victim, then comes ashore with their dead body to consume it there.

Worthy of note, incidentally, is that back when Gelema's official town meeting house was built, its length was deliberately constructed so as to correspond with that of a gbahali that had been killed there some years previously. Consequently, this grim mystery beast would indeed appear to be native to the area encompassing Gelema.

Also of interest, as specifically pointed out by Sheppard when concluding his account of the gbahali, the local people do not consider this beast to be in any way magical or supernatural. Instead, they simply look upon it as just another normal, ordinary animal native to their locality (albeit a very large, dangerous one), nothing more – which in turn tends to lend plausibility to their testimony concerning it.

Sheppard ended with a tantalizingly brief mention of a photograph that had supposedly been taken of a gbahali sometime in the previous 10 years during an attempt to capture this creature, but he made no mention of what had happened to it, always assuming of course that such a picture had indeed been obtained.

After spending many years behind the camera as a first-rate, highly-acclaimed film/TV cameraman and cinematographer, in 2017 Paul 'Mungo' Mungeam stepped in front of it to present a new cryptozoology-themed TV documentary show entitled Expedition Mungo. Each of its episodes (filmed in 2016 and early 2017) saw him and his own film crew visit a different location around the world allegedly inhabited by a mysterious creature seemingly unknown to science. One of these episodes saw them in Liberia's Lofa County, seeking the gbahali, and where they actually interviewed Sheppard on screen.

Rainforest in Liberia's Lofa County (©) M Rödel et al./Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)

Mungo's gbahali expedition focused its attention upon the Kahai River and its tributaries, where this greatly-feared creature is known by the locals to exist and where, therefore, they avoid as much as possible unless it is absolutely essential to cross from one riverbank to another or to hunt for food there. One villager named Momo informed Mungo that he and his brother had encountered a ghahali on land once while they were hunting on the Kahai River, but once seen it disappeared into the water.

Discounting the possibility that it was merely a crocodile, Momo stated that its head was lizard-like but with its eyes placed far back on it, a trait often exhibited by aquatic animals, and its teeth were interlocking. Moreover, although it walked on all fours like a crocodile, its body was raised up, held off the ground to a greater degree than a crocodile's is. He also mentioned to Mungo that one such creature had killed and devoured three men who had been attempting to cross the Kahai on a raft at dusk.

Similarly, another alleged gbahali eyewitness interviewed by Mungo, a man named Isaac from Monena, a remote Liberian frontier village, recalled an oft-told claimed killing of a man in a shallow river by a gbahali. The man had been attempting to cross the river on foot to reach a party of fisherman friends on the far bank. His friends told him not to cross, because a gbahali had been seen there earlier that same day, but he ignored their advice and proceeded to wade across. Before he could reach the other side, however, a gbahali surfaced, seized the man, and dragged him beneath the water, never to be seen again.

As for Isaac's own sighting, which had occurred not long before Mungo had arrived at Monena in early 2017: just like Momo, Isaac had been fishing with his own brother on the river nearby when he saw something swimming towards his brother:

He turned around and said: "It looks like a crocodile". I said: "Hey, that is not a crocodile, that is an animal bigger than a crocodile". We're talking about the Gbahali...The mouth was in the form of a lizard.

Isaac estimated the gbahali to have measured around 20 ft long, and insisted that it was very different in appearance from a crocodile.

Also interviewed by Mungo at Monena was fisherman Seiku, who divides his time between this village and a camp on an even more remote stretch of the Kahai. Seiku claimed to have seen a gbahali twice during his travails along this route in September 2016, again not long before Mungo's arrival here.

Several other villagers interviewed by Mungo at Monena also claimed to have seen a gbahali, but as Sheppard had discovered earlier during his own investigations, they did not consider it to be in any way magical or paranormal, just a normal, ordinary creature like all of the other animal species inhabiting this locality.

Sadly, Mungo and his team did not have any sightings of their own, but if, as fervently averred by Liberia's Lofa County hunters and fishermen, the gbahali is indeed a real, flesh-and-blood beast, what might it be?

Nile crocodile (© Timothy A Gonsalves/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

The most conservative identity is the Nile crocodile (Liberia's other three crocodile species are much too small and/or wary of human proximity). Although officially confined to this country's coastal swamps, perhaps some stragglers have penetrated further inland, reaching rivers, tributaries, and surrounding terrain containing plenty of suitable prey, enabling them to thrive and establish viable populations there, and possibly eventually attaining greater sizes than their coastal ancestors, their increased weight readily buoyed by their watery habitat.

Yet the locals are adamant that the gbahali is no ordinary crocodile, or even a crocodile at all, emphasizing its short-snouted, lizard-like head and its more erect limbs as notable differentiating features. Also, its claimed behaviour of killing its prey in the water by drowning it but then bringing it onto land to consume it differs from typical crocodile feeding behaviour, in which the prey is normally eaten in the water, the latter being utilized as a means of softening the prey's carcase for easier consumption.

An alternative crocodilian option to consider is an unknown giant-sized species or morphological variety of West Africa's Osteolaemus dwarf crocodile. This is certainly appealing, inasmuch as it would combine the latter's shorter muzzle and more terrestrial lifestyle as reported also for the gbahali with the gbahali's extra-large size. 

Looking beyond crocodiles, Liberia is home to some sizeable monitor lizards (varanids), including the West African Nile monitor Varanus stellatus, up to 7.2 ft long, whose heads, more erect stance than crocodiles, and terrestrial consumption of prey recall the gbahali. However, the latter's great size (even allowing for exaggeration upon the part of its frightened eyewitnesses) and its very distinctive armoured, tri-serrated dorsal surface do not.

Nile monitor with body raised on semi-erect legs (© Charles J Sharp/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Now for the Postosuchus possibility. On the one hand, as noted earlier here, in terms of both shape and size a reconstruction illustration of this creature was compared quite favourably with the gbahali's alleged appearance by the villagers to whom Sheppard showed it. Also, its fossils have been found in locations believed to have hosted back in the time of Postosuchus an environment similar to the present-day habitat in Liberia where the gbahali reputedly exists, i.e. tropical, moist, and plant-plentiful, well-supplied with rivers and other expanses of freshwater.

Conversely, Postosuchus belongs to a long-extinct, wholly prehistoric family of reptiles known only from what is now North America, and existing during the late Triassic Period, i.e. approximately 201-237 million years ago – none of which bodes well for it being a plausible identity for the gbahali.

True, we cannot entirely rule out the prospect that the latter constitutes a modern-day Old World descendant of Postosuchus that has somehow entirely evaded scientific detection (like its presumed fossil antecedents here), especially in such a heavily-forested remote region as northern Liberia. Nevertheless, the further back in time that the original creature existed, and the further away geographically-speaking that it existed from where its postulated descendant does today, the less likely such an example of prehistoric survival is, by definition.

In addition, based upon its shorter forelegs, Postosuchus is nowadays commonly deemed to have been at least partly, if not exclusively, bipedal, whereas the gbahali is wholly quadrupedal. Also, Postosuchus is believed to have been terrestrial, rather than aquatic or at least amphibious in lifestyle as the gbahali is stated to be.

Postosuchus depicted in bipedal stance and compared in size with a human (Dr Jeff Martz-NPS/Wikipedia, released into the public domain)

Another putative prehistoric survivor that has been considered as a possible gbahali candidate is some form of modern-day descendant of Kaprosuchus saharicus. This was a 20-ft-long semi-aquatic species of mahajangasuchid crocodyliform that sported an armoured snout for slamming its prey down, plus three pairs of sizeable tusks for tearing the latter's flesh. These teeth have earned for it the nickname 'BoarCroc', due to their superficial resemblance to the tusks of wild boars.

Unlike Postosuchus, K. saharicus, as its name indicates, did live in Africa (its fossilized remains have been excavated in what is today Niger), but approximately 95 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous. Consequently, it is beset by much the same chronological issues as Postosuchus when under consideration as a plausible example of prehistoric survival.

Reconstruction of possible appearance in life of Kaprosuchus Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

If only there could be a known, historically-recent creature resembling and behaving rather like the gbahali. In fact, there is – or was. The mekosuchines constitute a taxonomic clade of crocodilians that included certain representatives which persisted into the present-day geological epoch, the Holocene (beginning less than 12,000 years ago), on various Pacific island groups, including Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia.

Indeed, one genus, Mekosuchus, survived on those islands until at least as recently as 3,000 years ago, possibly even longer (as late as 1720 BP, i.e. 300 AD, in the case of the youngest species, M. inexpectatus), before apparently being exterminated when humans arrived there (although, tellingly, there is no direct evidence for this, only speculation based upon the fates of other island endemics once our own species reached their insular domains). Various other, older mekosuchine genera, such as Quinkana, as well as earlier Mekosuchus representatives, formerly existed on mainland Australia.

Mekosuchus inexpectatus, showing neck and short snout (© Armin Reindl/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

M. inexpectatus in particular was notable for its short snout, and like its other historically-recent Mekosuchus kin is thought to have adopted a much more upright stance and mode of walking than any of today's known crocodilians, all of which draws comparisons with the gbahali. So too does the consensus that M. inexpectatus probably inhabited tropical rivers and streams, just like West Africa's present-day dwarf crocodiles, possibly coming onto land at night to feed.

In stark contrast to the gbahali, however, mekosuchines were of only very modest dimensions, generally no more than 6 ft in total length, sometimes even shorter than that. Also, just as Postosuchus is known only from the New World, mekosuchines are known only from Oceania; there is none on record from Africa, or anywhere else in the world.

Reconstruction of Mekosuchus inexpectatus in life, Apokryltaros/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Even so, the mekosuchines are relevant to the gbahali saga inasmuch as their existence, albeit far-removed geographically from the latter cryptid, confirms that at least some crocodilians of comparable appearance to it (excluding total length) are indeed known from modern times, thus providing a notable precedent – and that may not be all.

Convergent evolution is a familiar phenomenon whereby animals in widely disparate geographical localities and often of only distant taxonomic affinity nevertheless transform through time into outwardly similar creatures due to sharing the same ecological habitat and niche. So could it be that ecologically-speaking, the taxonomically-distant gbahali has nonetheless evolved a mekosuchine morphology by existing in a habitat comparable to that of the latter crocodilians, but has attained a much greater size due to its habitat's remote location coupled with the fear that it generates among human hunters, who generally prefer to avoid it rather than confront it? As suggested earlier here, a giant-sized Osteolaemus comes to mind.

In short (unlike the gbahali itself, which is allegedly anything but short!), could Liberia's mystery reptile be a totally novel, as well as a currently undescribed, species of African crocodilian?

Alternatively, turning full circle through the succession of identities considered here, might this cryptid simply be an unusually large form of Nile crocodiles after all? The reason that I've returned to this option is that I am well aware that there is a common tendency among local non-scientific people who intimately share their lives alongside large, potentially dangerous creatures to give a completely separate name to exceptionally large specimens of such a species from the name that they give to normal-sized specimens of that same species, treating the outliers as a fundamentally different animal type from their typically-sized brethren.

So might it simply be that reports of gbahalis are nothing more than reports of exceptionally large Nile crocodiles that have been given this separate local name?

The problem with such a proposed resolution to the gbahali mystery, however, is that we can only accept this by conveniently ignoring the other morphological, and behavioural, differences from normal Nile crocodiles that the locals ascribe to the gbahali – which in my opinion would be very unwise.

The Nile crocodile's very long snout, differing markedly from the gbahali's supposed short snout according to eyewitness testimony (© Reinhold Möller/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

History has shown time and again how, by taking heed of local, native testimony, extraordinary animals hitherto dismissed by Western zoologists as mere folklore have been formally discovered and revealed to be remarkable species entirely new to science.

So, might the gbahali one day prove to be another one? In view of the giant forest hog, pygmy hippo, Jentink's duiker, and the Liberian mongoose, I'd have to think more than twice before betting against such a prospect.

For full details concerning the discoveries of the four Liberian mammals noted above, be sure to check out my three books on new and rediscovered animals:



Saturday 24 February 2024


Daniell's quagga (left) and Ward's zebra (right) (public domain)

Following on from my previous ShukerNature article concerning the beautiful but long-forgotten isabella quagga (click here to access it), here are another two eyecatching but exceedingly obscure striped curiosities of the equine kind, retrieved from the annals of zoological history.



Yes indeed, this particular quagga specimen is so extreme that it makes even the isabella quagga seem positively commonplace by comparison!

The specimen in question is a truly remarkable beast known as Daniell's quagga, after the artist Samuel Daniell (1775-1811), who produced a very handsome aquatint of it in 1804 for his African Scenery and Animals at the Cape of Good Hope two-part series (1804-1805). He based it upon this quagga form's only known specimen, which had been shot in southern Africa's so-called Square Mountains (currently unidentified by me) during 1801, but whose skin was not retained.

Daniell's quagga, painted by Samuel Daniell as it would have looked when alive in 1801 (public domain)

What was so extraordinary about it, as readily seen in Daniell's painting, is that this quagga specimen had exceptionally reduced striping. Indeed, the latter markings were confined almost entirely to the sides of the animal's neck, with only a few very faint lines upon its throat and shoulders, and none at all upon its torso. (True, I have seen paintings of certain other quagga specimens with stripeless torsos, but their throat and shoulders in addition to their neck all bore distinct, conspicuous stripes.) It also had a noticeably large head.

As with the isabella quagga, this specimen was initially deemed to represent a new zebra species, dubbed Daniell's quagga, and was accordingly given the species name danielli. However, and once again like its isabelline relative, Daniell's quagga was later subsumed into the plains zebra species Equus quagga as merely a non-taxonomic freak individual.



Ward's zebra is a distinctively-striped, long-eared interspecific hybrid resulting from matings between plains zebras E. quagga and mountain zebras E. zebra that was first brought to scientific attention in 1904 via a Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London report by British zoologist Prof. J.C. Ewart. In his report, Ewart stated that some years previously he had been presented with a taxiderm zebra specimen, the subject of his report, by Rowland Ward, who was a very famous London-based taxidermist at that time. Ewart had subsequently donated it to Edinburgh's Royal Scottish Museum (now part of the National Museum of Scotland).

According to Ward, the specimen had originally been "traded out of Somaliland", Somaliland nowadays being recognized as a region within Somalia. However, Ewart speculated that its kind "probably inhabits part of the area between the upper reaches of the Tana River and Lake Rudolf [later renamed Lake Turkana]", in Kenya.

Ward's zebra - two views of Ewart's erstwhile taxiderm hybrid specimen, from his 1904 PZSL report (public domain)

Ewart was struck by the specimen's overall similarities to South Africa's Cape mountain zebra (E. z. zebra; Hartmann's mountain zebra E. z. hartmannae occurs in Namibia and Angola), but also noting in detail various differences in its striping, as well as its very long ears. Clearly not suspecting its hybrid nature, Ewart concluded his report by suggesting that it may constitute a new form of Kenyan plains zebra, duly dubbing it Ward's zebra in honour of its procurer, which "is adapted to a habitat similar to that of the mountain zebra", i.e. an example of convergent evolution.

In 1910, moreover, Ward's zebra was formally named Equus wardi, but its hybrid status was revealed via the discovery that specimens of this zebra form had been obtained repeatedly in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, around 1900. And in 1915, a male specimen was obtained at London Zoo. Indeed, some authorities have opined that Ewart's specimen had itself probably been bred in a menagerie, rather than originating from either the wilds of Somaliland or of Kenya.

Vintage engraving of the Cape mountain zebra, 1830 (public domain)


Monday 19 February 2024


A beautiful vintage (1800s) full-colour illustration of the unique isabella quagga (public domain)

The quagga Equus quagga quagga is nowadays famous for two very different reasons. Firstly: it is – or was – the only semi-striped form of zebra, its striping being confined to its foreparts. Secondly: although once common in its South African veldt habitat, it was hunted into extinction there during the second half of the 19th Century, with the very last captive specimen's death in Amsterdam Zoo on 12 August 1883 marking the tragic disappearance of this highly distinctive equid from the face of our planet – though The Quagga Project continues its aim to recreate this vanished creature's characteristic phenotype (external appearance) via back-breeding, using striping-deplete specimens of other Equus quagga subspecies to produce quagga facsimiles.

Speaking of which: today, the quagga is classed as a subspecies of the plains zebra Equus quagga, but back in the mid-1800s when still very much alive it was deemed to be a valid, distinct species in its own right, and was dubbed Hippotigris quacka (hippotigris being the name given to zebras by ancient scholars who believed these exotic-looking striped equids to be the product of matings between horses and tigers!) – see later for further taxonomic details. But that is not all.

One of five precious photographs of an adult quagga mare living at London Zoo from 15 March 1851 until her death there on 15 July 1872 – these are the only known photos of a live quagga (click here for more details concerning this quagga quintet)

For a time during that same period, a second, very remarkable quagga species was also recognized, despite being known from just a single specimen – a poorly-preserved skin formerly held at the British Museum in London. This unique, extraordinary-looking animal became known as the isabella quagga, but today the skin is long lost and the isabella quagga itself is long forgotten. Consequently, I felt that what (very) little is known about this beautiful if baffling enigma of an equid richly deserved to be collated and presented in article form in order for modern-day readers to become aware of its erstwhile existence. So here is the hitherto-obscure history of the long-overlooked isabella quagga – a ShukerNature exclusive.

I first learned of the isabella quagga Hippotigris isabellinus many years ago, when I chanced upon the following previously-obscure yet fascinating excerpt from a quagga-themed communication by famous British zoologist Richard Lydekker that had been published by the scientific journal Nature on 10 January 1901. The excerpt alluded to a supposedly separate, second species of quagga, again extinct:

...the British Museum formerly had the skin of a young quagga, in very bad condition, which was presented by the traveller William Burchell [after whom Burchell's zebra is named], and was subsequently described by Hamilton Smith as a distinct species, under the name of Hippotigris isabellinus.

Two points to note here. Firstly: the above-mentioned Hamilton Smith was Charles Hamilton Smith (1776–1859), a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army. He was also a naturalist who scientifically described and named several equine species and subspecies. In two 1841-published tomes referred to later here, he dubbed this enigmatic animal the isabella quagga. Secondly: whereas all zebra species and subspecies are nowadays housed in the genus Equus (alongside horses and asses), back in Lt-Col. Hamilton Smith's time several were housed in their own separate genus, Hippotigris, including the normal quagga, which was formally deemed back them to be a valid species in its own right (rather than merely a subspecies of the plains sebra, as it is classified today) and was duly known as Hippotigris quacka

Late 1800s chromolithograph from my personal collection, depicting a normal quagga with a bushbuck and a gnu (public domain)

Lydekker's communication then continued with the following text, but it is unclear whether this text was still referring to the isabella quagga or (as I suspect) had returned to the communication's primary subject, the normal quagga:

Apparently London museums possess no other relics of this lost species, of which, however, we believe there is a specimen in the museum at Edinburgh. As the animal yielded no trophies worthy the attention of the sportsman, it is unlikely that there are any specimens in private collections, unless, perchance, a skull or two may be in existence.

The remaining text in Lydekker's communication unequivocally referred to the normal quagga, so it needn't be quoted here.

What exactly was the isabella quagga, I wondered, when I first began researching this curious creature, and what did it even look like, bearing in mind that Lydekker provided no description of it in his communication and the British Museum no longer has it?

Back in pre-internet times, it was by no means easy to research anything as unimaginably obscure as the isabella quagga, so after various attemptss to solicit more information concerning it all proved futile, I placed Lydekker's intriguing communication on file and directed my attention to other subjects. Notwithstanding these failures, however, I never forgot about it, so when I was checking some details recently while completing some other researches and noticed it again, still on file, I decided to reinvestigate its elusive subject, but now assisted enormously by the vast wealth of data readily accessible online. And this time, finally, I was successful, as now revealed.

Originally, my only clue had lain in its moniker. For in this instance, isabella refers not to a woman's name but instead to a colour, known in full as isabelline, and which constitutes this mystery quagga's species name, isabellinus. It is variously defined as pale grey-yellow, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment colour, and is primarily utilised in relation to mammalian coat colour and bird plumage.

Presumably, therefore, I mused, this shade was the background colouration of the coat of this unique specimen (a male, incidentally), meaning, if so, that it was paler in appearance than normal quaggas and probably with fainter stripes too. Whether such a difference warranted Hamilton Smith naming it as a separate species, however, when it was surely nothing more than an aberrantly pallid (possibly leucistic?) specimen of the normal quagga (see later), was another matter.

The pale-coloured engraving of the isabella quagga from Hamilton Smith's two 1841 tomes (public domain)

During my recent researches, I uncovered two beautiful vintage illustrations depicting the isabella quagga, both of which represent it in the living state. One of these illustrations is a hand-coloured engraving in very pale shades with minimal background colouration. The other illustration is in full-colour, so it is much more vibrant.

I traced the pale engraving back to a couple of tomes from 1841, which upon close examination turned out to be identical in content but bearing different titles. One is entitled Horses, and constitutes Volume 20 of the massive 40-volume series edited by Sir William Jardine and entitled The Naturalist's Library. The other tome is exactly the same but is retitled as The Natural History of the Horse and constitutes a stand-alone volume. In both tomes, the author is given as Charles Hamilton Smith, and a concise section documenting what he specifically refers to as the isabella quagga is included, containing the pale engraving of this specimen. In both tomes, it is designated as Plate 25, and is credited to Hamilton Smith.

In his duplicated 1841 tomes, Hamilton Smith began his brief coverage of the isabella quagga (pp. 332-334, and which constitutes this claimed species' formal scientific description and naming) by stating that although this animal's body shape (including its head) compared closely with that of the normal quagga, he had separated it from the latter equid because it differed by virtue of its smaller size (barely 10 hands, i.e. 40 in, tall) and even more so by the forms and colour of its stripes.

He then referred to an unidentified equid seen by travelling French naturalist François Le Vaillant (1753-1824), presumably in South Africa's Cape as this is where he had spent time collecting animal specimens, and which he'd named the zebre but was apparently different from those zebras already known from there. Some zoological authorities, including Dutch zoologist Coenraad Temminck (whose father was Le Vaillant's employer) had considered the isabella quagga to be Le Vaillant's zebre, but Hamilton Smith disagreed with their opinion.

The remainder of Hamilton Smith's account consisted of a verbal description of the isabella quagga skin (augmenting the engraving of this animal portrayed in the living state), which included his belief that it was an adult rather than a juvenile specimen despite its small size, and was not albinistic. Conversely, when concluding his account by mentioning that a Dr Leach had believed the skin (which still existed at the British Museum at this time) to have originally come from the Cape, he conceded that Leach had considered its pale colouration, especially its white stripes, to be due to the animal's 'nonage' (young age).

Moreover, it should be noted here that back in Hamilton Smith's time, there was a somewhat naïve but very prevalent tendency among taxonomists to over-emphasise the significance of individual variation within species, leading to the splitting off and naming of many spurious animal species that in reality were nothing more than freakishly-coloured/patterned individuals of already known, confirmed species. Eventually, however, such shortcomings were rectified by lumping these unsubstantiated species back together – as happened with the isabella quagga, subsequently being subsumed by zoologists into the normal quagga species (now subspecies).

Hamilton Smith's undated full-colour wtarcolour painting of the isabella quagga (public domain)

As for the full-colour isabella quagga illustration: it is an undated watercolour painting, again by Hamilton Smith, and is contained with various others of his watercolours in an unpublished manuscript by him held in the library and archives of London's Natural History Museum. Moreover, this beautiful painting remained unpublished until as recently as 2010, when it appeared in a Zeitschrift des Kolner Zoos article on quaggas by Lothar Schwahle and Wolfgang Wozniak.

Hamilton Smith's two illustrations readily confirm my early deductions as to the isabella quagga's likely appearance – namely, an aberrantly pale, isabelline-coloured quagga with only very faint, white striping.

Having viewed several comprehensive lists of quagga material currently housed in museums worldwide, I can confirm Lydekker's statement that the isabella quagga skin deposited by Burchell at what is now London's Natural History Museum is no longer there, and is therefore lost. Presumably it was discarded due to its very poor condition, but a tragic loss nonetheless of such an exceptional, unique specimen, and which nowadays might well have yielded much useful information via DNA tests conducte3d upon samples of this skin's tissues.

Yet despite the isabella quagga having long since been reduced in status from a taxonomically-discrete species to a non-taxonomic mutant oddity, its delicate pallid beauty deserves to be remembered and celebrated. So I am very glad that I discovered this elegant animal hidden away as the briefest of footnotes within the dusty archives of the past, and have been able to revive it, even if only in words and pictures, within this present article, written up at last.

Alongside a mounted quagga specimen at Tring Natural History Museum, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)