Dr KARL SHUKER

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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Sunday, 5 June 2022

THE MOUNTAIN OF THE MOON AND AN AFRICAN BUNYIP

 
Photo-still of the dingonek-inspired African bunyip featured in the Bengali blockbuster movie Chander Pahar (© Kamaleshwar Mukherjee/Shree Venkatesh Films – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Yes, you read this ShukerNature article's title correctly – an African bunyip, not an Australian one. Allow me to explain.

One of the most famous Bengali adventure novels is Chander Pahar (retitled as Mountain of the Moon in subsequent English-language translations), which was written by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, an Indian writer in the Bengali language, and was originally published in 1937. Just under a decade ago, it was turned into a blockbuster Bengali movie that I have long wanted to watch, and finally succeeded in doing so a fortnight ago, thanks to local friend and Amazon Prime subscriber Jane Cooper, who very kindly enabled me to watch it at long last by purchasing it on AP – thanks Jane!

Directed by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, released in 2013 by Shree Venkatesh Films, and set in the years 1909-1910, Chander Pahar follows the exciting (albeit sometimes positively Munchausenesque!) adventures of a 20-year-old Bengali man named Shankar Ray Choudhuri (played by Indian movie/singing megastar Dev). He has long dreamed of being a derring-do explorer in Africa, but seems destined to spend his life much more mundanely, working as an administrator at the local jute mill in his small Bengali town instead. Happily, however, fate steps in, in the shape of a relative who secures for Shankar a job in Kenya, as the station-master of a tiny railway terminus miles from anywhere.

 
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (public domain)

This posting becomes the vital stepping stone that Shankar has long sought, to set him on the path to becoming a daring African explorer. Many thrilling exploits duly follow, so be sure to click here in order to read my comprehensive plot description and review of Chander Pahar on my companion Shuker In MovieLand blog. Some of these, moreover, are so implausible that Baron Munchausen himself may well have thrown up his hands in despair!

However, the movie's principal focus is Shankar's eventful journey with an older, veteran Portuguese explorer named Diego Alvarez (played by celebrated South African actor Gérard Rudolf) to an inhospitable and virtually inaccessible arid land of high hills and even higher mountains known as the Richtersveld, situated in the northwestern corner of what is today South Africa's Northern Cape province. They are seeking a legendary diamond mine supposedly hidden inside a cave deep within a mysterious Richtersveld mountain known as Chander Pahar – the Mountain of the Moon.

According to local legend, however, this diamond mine is fiercely guarded by the cave's monstrous inhabitant – a gigantic beast still-undescribed by science, but which for reasons never explained either in this movie or in Bandyopadhyay's original novel is known here as the bunyip (despite the latter name being in reality an aboriginal name specifically applied to Australia's most famous indigenous mystery beast!). It turns out that the bunyip has already killed one explorer who accompanied Alvarez during an earlier attempt by him to locate the mine and relieve it of some of its hidden treasures. Will history repeat itself during this latest expedition, in which Shankar is now Alvarez's companion? I'll leave you to read up the full storyline here on my Shuker In MovieLand blog, and concentrate now in this ShukerNature article upon this movie's cryptozoology content – the bunyip.

 
Three more photo-stills of the ferocious bunyip (© Kamaleshwar Mukherjee/Shree Venkatesh Films – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Chander Pahar has proved hugely popular – having grossed US$ 3.41 million worldwide so far, it is the second highest grossing Bengali movie of all time (indeed, the only Bengali movie to exceed its takings is Amazon Obhijaan, released in 2017, which is itself a sequel to Chander Pahar, once again centering upon the character of Sankhar, but this time the action takes place in South America). Nevertheless, it has not been without its critics, especially among literary purists who believe that it has taken too many liberties in adapting Bandyopadhyay's novel for the big screen – but none more so than with its presentation of the bunyip.

In the novel, the bunyip is never directly seen – a shadow of it moving outside the tent of Shankar and Alvarez one evening is as much as is offered to the readers, leaving the rest to their imagination. In contrast, this movie presents the viewers with a truly memorable CGI bunyip in all its hideous glory, and gory activity, but which some reviewers have denigrated for destroying the monster's mystique, and others for what they considered to be its inferior quality (similar criticisms regarding their quality, or lack of it, have also been aimed at a CGI-engendered volcanic eruption).

As revealed here via the above series of photo-stills, the bunyip is undeniably a startling creation – unlike any beast known to science, that's for sure. A waddling, feline-faced abomination with a swollen, toad-like body and an exceedingly long, whip-like tail, plus a huge and revoltingly-vascular, pendant throat-sac, livid crimson in colour and hanging down so far that the creature seems in permanent danger of tripping over it when galumphing after one of its potential human victims. Most noticeable of all, however, is its pair of truly enormous vertical fangs that any prehistoric sabre-toothed cat would have given its high teeth for (so to speak!). (In fact, a Kindle e-book edition of Bandyopadhyay's novel actually depicts the bunyip on the front cover as a bona fide living sabre-tooth.)

 
A Kindle edition of Bandyopadhyay's novel Chander Pahar in which the bunyip is depicted as a living sabre-tooth (© Kindle – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Interestingly, however, this terrifying apparition does recall a traditional African mystery beast known as the dingonek (click here to read my extensive ShukerNature article surveying this and various other comparable African cryptids, the so-called jungle walruses). Moreover, the dingonek is actually mentioned in Bandyopadhyay's novel in addition to the bunyip. In contrast, as noted earlier, I have yet to discover why Bandyopadhyay applied the name of an exclusively Australian water monster to his terrestrial African mystery beast.

According to traditional African lore, conversely, the dingonek is amphibious in nature, i.e. both an adept swimmer in rivers and a formidable adversary on land – so why didn't Bandyopadhyay simply call his monster the dingonek instead of distinguishing it from the latter? Notwithstanding this etymological enigma, there is no denying that the climactic scene featuring a veritable duel to the death between Shankar's inventive brain and the bunyip's immense brawn is a highlight of the entire movie.

So, if you'd like to experience for yourself a glimpse of the thrills and spills that Shankar experiences during his search for the Mountain of the Moon and its hidden diamonds, be sure to click here to watch an official Chander Pahar trailer on YouTube showcasing its very stirring title song. (You can also watch the entire movie free here on YT, but only in the form of an Odia-language version with no English subtitles, sadly.) And don't forget to click here if you'd like to view an excerpt from Shankar's chilling confrontation with the belligerent bunyip! And for further details regarding the dingonek and other African sabre-toothed cryptids, check out my recent book Mystery Cats of the World Revisited.

 
Publicity posters for the original Bengali (top) and American (bottom) cinema releases of Chander Pahar (© Kamaleshwar Mukherjee/Shree Venkatesh Films – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

 

Thursday, 12 May 2022

THE PICHU-CUATE – IS A TINY BUT TERRIFYING CRYPTO-SNAKE RESEMBLING KIPLING'S KARAIT ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN AMERICA?

 
Two photographs of Charles Fletcher Lummis – a pichu-cuate eyewitness who lived to tell the tale, literally, documenting this sinister serpent in his book The King of the Broncos (public domain)

Some time ago, I investigated a mysterious, highly-venomous mini-snake named Karait – a memorable albeit short-lived, mongoose-slain character briefly included by Rudyard Kipling in his story 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', which was contained in the first of his two Jungle Book novels. Kipling never specified Karait's taxonomic identity. However, as I revealed in my extensive ShukerNature coverage (click here to read it), this dust-dwelling yet deadly snakeling may have been based upon the Indian saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus.

But that is not all. For it is nothing if not intriguing that a cryptozoological snake bearing a remarkable resemblance both morphologically and behaviourally to Kipling's Karait has been reported from New Mexico and Arizona in the southwestern USA, as brought to my attention recently by American herpetologist/cryptozoologist Chad Arment.

 
Indian saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus (public domain)

Known as the pichu-cuate – allegedly an Aztec name, in turn suggesting that knowledge of this snake dates back many centuries – it is described as being a tiny species of viper, no bigger or thicker than a normal lead pencil, bearing a pair of small horns above its eyes (supra-ocular), and is a nondescript grey dorsally, rose-pink ventrally, but more venomous than any other North American snake. Extremely rare but also inordinately aggressive, the pichu-cuate supposedly spends its time concealed in sand and dust, sometimes with just its triangular head visible, but will not hesitate to bite anything or anyone that touches it, whether deliberately or inadvertently, which almost invariably leads to its victim's exceedingly rapid, agonizing death. There are claims that people who have been bitten on the hand or a finger by a pichu-cuate have swiftly cut (or shot) off the wounded appendage in the desperate hope of saving their life by preventing this snake's highly virulent venom from travelling further into their body.

The only venomous snakes on record from New Mexico and Arizona are rattlesnakes and coral snakes, which certainly do not resemble the pichu-cuate. Moreover, the morphological and behavioural description presented above for the latter cryptozoological serpent does not match that of any snake species known to exist in these two U.S. states.

 
First edition (1897) of Lummis's book The King of the Broncos (public domain)

This diminutive but highly dangerous Karait-like snakeling was first brought to widespread attention by newspaper writer Charles Fletcher Lummis in his compilation book of traditional New Mexican lore The King of the Broncos (1897), in which he related how a young Mexican shepherd named Claudio was apparently bitten on the thumb by a pichu-cuate and was able to save his own life only by shooting off his thumb to prevent the snake's virulent, swift-acting venom from spreading into his body. Moreover, Lummis subsequently claimed to have personally encountered a pichu-cuate on three separate occasions, and on the first of these to have even killed it, whose body he then examined in detail. Regrettably, however, he didn't retain it afterwards for scientific scrutiny. Lummis described its colouration as leaden grey dorsally, matching the sand in which it had been hiding, but rosy-red ventrally, like a conch shell's aperture. Its tiny fangs were no more than one eighth of an inch long, but moveable, slotting into grooves in the roof of its mouth when not about to strike.

In his own book Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation (2004), Chad Arment devoted a chapter to the pichu-cuate, in which he documented Lummis's coverage of it. However, he pointed out that the name 'pichu-cuate' and variations of it are also used in the southwestern USA and Mexico non-specifically, for any snakes deemed by locals to be venomous (regardless of whether they actually are). Hence it is not applied exclusively to this one particular, cryptic serpent.

 
Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation by Chad Arment (© Chad Arment/Coachwhip Publications – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Equally, however, Lummis's mention of the latter's fangs slotting into grooves in the roof of its mouth when not striking is significant, because in North America the only front-fanged venomous snakes with fangs that can move are viperids, thereby eliminating elapids from consideration, as well as rear-fanged colubrids. Also informative is his mention of the pichu-cuate's supra-ocular horns, because as noted by Chad, only four known Latin American snakes possess them. Moreover, two of these, the sidewinder Crotalus cerastes and the eyelash viper Bothriechis schlegelii, can be instantly eliminated, because the former was well known to Lummis, and the latter is arboreal and too colourful. This leaves only the Mexican horned pit viper Ophyracus undulatus and the montane pit viper Porthidium melanurum. Of these two, the former provides the closer match morphologically, but geographically it is not known to exist anywhere near New Mexico or Arizona.

Consequently, Chad concluded his coverage of the pichu-cuate by pondering whether either O. undulatus previously exhibited a broader distribution range than it does today, extending into those two U.S. states, or a small, undescribed viper species formerly inhabited them, and may perhaps still do so today? The following details suggest that this might be true.

 
Mexican horned pit viper (© Eugenio Padilla/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

On 6 May 1984, in his regular 'New Mexican Scrapbook' column published by the El Paso Times, Marc Simmons recalled Lummis's documentation of the pichu-cuate almost a century earlier, and then added some very intriguing, modern-day information of his own. During his travels around New Mexico, Simmons had mentioned the pichu-cuate to various old-timers, but the name meant nothing to them. However, they did tell him about an enigmatic snake known to them as the nino de la tierra ('child of the earth') that sounded suspiciously similar to the pichu-cuate. For it is said to be a small but very deadly, vicious snake that buries itself in the sand, and fatally strikes anyone who sits or lies in that place. But that is not all.

A couple of years earlier, Simmons saw a friend who had been hiking in the rocky foothills of central New Mexico's Ortiz Mountains. The friend mentioned that in a dry arroyo (steep-sided gulley) he had encountered a small grey snake with a triangular head, which in spite of its diminutive size had given him such a chill that he'd instinctively backed away straight away. So perhaps the pichu-cuate (aka nino de la tierra?) is more than just a myth after all.

 
Marc Simmons's El Paso Times column of 6 May 1984 documenting the nino de la tierra, which may be one and the same as the pichu-cuate – please click this picture to enlarge it for reading purposes (© Marc Simmons/El Paso Times – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Lastly, there may be some further information concerning the perplexing pichu-cuate hidden away in the collection of photographs and artwork by Lummis that is preserved at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, California. Time, therefore, for some enterprising Californian cryptozoologist to seek an opportunity to examine them there?

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted exclusively from my new book Secret Snakes and Serpent Surprises, published by Chad Arment's own company, Coachwhip Publications. It can be obtained here at Amazon UK and here at Amazon USA. More information concerning it is available via its own dedicated page here on my official website.

 
Secret Snakes and Serpent Surprises (2022) (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)


Saturday, 30 April 2022

LET'S ALL DO THE KUNGA!

 
Detail from 'War' panel of Standard of Ur mosaic, c2600 BCE, depicting kungas pulling 4-wheeled battle-wagon (© Zunkir/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0)

It's always good to learn of a 'new' animal, even if it turns out to be one that actually existed four and a half millennia ago! And so, with no further ado, please welcome to ShukerNature the kunga.

Depicted in Mesopotamian art and referred to in cuneiform writings dating back 4500 years from the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East, the long-vanished kunga was a powerful horse-like creature that was used as a draft animal to pull war wagons into battle and royal chariots during ceremonial parades. However, it has long been a puzzle to archaeologists and zoologists alike.

 
Close-up of a kunga, as depicted in a detail from 'War' panel of Standard of Ur mosaic, dating from c2600 BCE (© Agricolae/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0)

This is because the domestic horse Equus caballus was not introduced into this region until 4000 years ago, and the only known equine beasts that did exist there at the time of the kunga were the domestic donkey E. africanus asinus and the Syrian wild ass (aka the hemippe) E. hemionus hemippus, both of which were smaller and far less sturdy than the kunga. So what was it?

 
A beautiful vintage colour painting by French artist Georges Severeyns of a Syrian wild ass (the smallest type of modern-day wild equid known to science), in Nouvelles Archives du Muséum d'histoire Naturelle, 1869 (public domain)

Unlike many mystery beasts, there are actually physical, tangible remains of the kunga in existence, because as it was such a valuable, useful work beast, specimens were sometimes buried alongside persons of high social status, with several kunga skeletons having been discovered at the northern Syrian burial complex of Umm el-Marra. Unfortunately, however, the bones of kungas, donkeys, wild asses, and horses as well as mules and other equine hybrids, all look very similar, so although kunga bones have been examined, no conclusive identification of what the kunga actually was has ever resulted – until earlier this year.

In January 2022, published research in the journal Science Advances revealed that DNA samples had been extracted from the bones of one buried kunga specimen from Umm el-Marra and subjected to comparative sequencing analyses with other equine forms. These analyses confirmed that it was a hybrid – most probably the offspring of an interspecific mating between a male Syrian wild ass and a female domestic donkey.

 
Vintage engraving from 1841 depicting some Syrian wild asses in the wild state (public domain)

Moreover, because such matings would not occur naturally, and as the kunga, being a hybrid, was almost certainly sterile (just like the mule), male wild asses would need to have been deliberately captured and mated with female domestic donkeys on a regular basis in order to perpetuate the kunga strain 4500 years ago in the Fertile Crescent – thereby making the kunga the earliest recorded human-engineered hybrid. But when the horse was introduced here 500 years later, the kunga was no longer needed, so the breeding of it ceased, and this remarkable creature duly vanished from existence.

 
Syrian wild ass being captured by Assyrians, 7th Century BCE art found at Nineveh (Wikipedia/no restrictions)

Of course, one could ask why, now that the kunga's precise hybrid nature is finally known, scientists are not excitedly proclaiming "Let's all do the kunga – let's resurrect it!", by once again mating male Syrian wild asses with female domestic donkeys. The answer is as tragic as it is simple – no such restoration can take place because the kunga's paternal progenitor, the Syrian wild ass, is itself now extinct, as a result of over-hunting, with the last two known specimens both dying in 1927.

So unless the kunga and/or the Syrian wild ass can be recreated via genetic means in the laboratory one day, the kunga is doomed forever to remain nothing more vital than a collection of long-buried bones, a few brief mentions in cuneiform script, and some preserved images in ancient art. RIP.




 
A trio of poignant photographs depicting one of the world's last known Syrian wild asses, a specimen living at Vienna's Tiergarten Schönbrunn in 1915, plus one photograph (at bottom of photo-column) of a Syrian wild ass at London Zoo in 1872 (public domain)
 

 

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

MAPPING OUT THE NANDI BEAR

 
Close-up of the Nandi bear depiction on John McKenzie's 1961 map East Africa (© John McKenzie – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Last year on ShukerNature, in my extensive documentation of what may well be the single most significant episode ever recorded concerning Kenya's most infamous cryptid (click here to read my blog article), the ferocious Nandi bear, I made particular reference to an article on this elusive creature by Gordon Boy that had been published in the October-November 1998 issue of the periodical SAFARI Magazine.

However, in his SAFARI article, Boy included one additional but fascinating Nandi bear nugget that I specifically didn't allude to in my own. This was because I felt that it deserved its very own, separate coverage on ShukerNature (and also because I wanted to research it further first, which I have since done). So here it is now.

 
East Africa, John McKenzie's map that contains the tantalizing Nandi bear depiction (© John McKenzie – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Boy stated that an illustrated full-colour map of East Africa by John McKenzie and simply entitled East Africa (see above scan of it) included a depiction of a strange-looking creature that was actually labeled on it as a Nandi bear. He also stated that the map had been produced in 1952. In reality, however, when I researched this item, I discovered that it had actually been produced in 1961, not 1952, in Nairobi, Kenya; its printer/engraver was East African Standard Ltd.

Boy included a reduced-size reproduction of the entire map in his article (the map's full size is 70 cm by 57 cm), but this reproduction is not big enough for the individual animal depictions in it to be anything other than minuscule. When enlarged, however, they are all rendered clear enough to be readily identifiable with known species – all, that is, except for the Nandi bear depiction, which does not resemble any species currently known to science. Nor, for that matter, does it correspond with any eyewitness description of the Nandi bear.

 
Nandi bear depiction shown in situ geographically on McKenzie's map East Africa (© John McKenzie – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

To quote Boy's brief account of it:

On McKenzie's map, the Nandi bear illustration appears north of Eldoret, on the Uasin Gishu Plateau [in western Kenya]. The illustration shows a massive, dog-like quadruped, with short hair, of a banded brown-and-yellow colour, and with very stocky limbs, a humped back, and a sharply pointed snout. But what is the Nandi bear doing here? It is, after all, the only creature depicted on this map whose existence, even now, has not been verified by science. Or was its inclusion just a mischievous prank on the map-maker's part? The legend of the Nandi bear is not without its pranksters...

This is very true. However, tempering Boy's above statement is another one made by him when introducing his account of McKenzie's map:

The Nandi bear is pictured on some of the old illustrated wildlife maps of East Africa, published during the Colonial era.

In short, there are other old maps out there somewhere that also contain Nandi bear depictions, which in turn reduces the possibility that its included portrayal on the McKenzie example was merely a prank. Needless to say, I have sought to uncover such maps, but as yet I have not succeeded in doing so. Consequently, if anyone reading this ShukerNature blog article of mine knows of any or can offer relevant information concerning them, I'd greatly welcome details.

For the most comprehensive modern-day coverage of the Nandi bear in published form, be sure to check out my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.