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).

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Thursday 26 June 2014


Artistic representation of the Congolese water elephant (© Markus Bühler)

Whereas the African pygmy elephant has attracted appreciable interest and even more appreciable controversy, both within and beyond the cryptozoological community, a second contentious proboscidean reported from the Dark Continent has received far less attention, but in my view is much more intriguing. This latter cryptid is the so-called water elephant.

I first read about it in Dr Bernard Heuvelmans's classic crypto-tome On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), and following some researches of my own I subsequently documented it in various of my books. The first was In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995). Here is what I wrote there:

What may be the most sensational example of a proboscidean prehistoric survivor - inasmuch as this one could still exist even today, yet still be eluding scientific discovery - made its Western debut in 1912, courtesy of an article by R.J. Cuninghame that appeared in the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society. In this, he referred to a Mr Le Petit, lately returned to Nairobi following five years of travelling within the French Congo [now the People's Republic of the Congo] - during which period he claimed to have twice encountered an extraordinary animal known to the Babuma natives as the ndgoko na maiji, or water elephant.

His first sighting, which occurred around June 1907 while journeying down the River Congo near the River Kassai's junction with it, was brief and featured only a single animal - seen swimming with head and neck above the water surface at a considerable distance away.

In contrast, his second encounter featured five specimens seen close by, on land. This took place in an area nowadays situated within the borders of Zaire, [now the Democratic Republic of Congo] i.e. the swampy country between Lake Leopold II (since renamed Lake Mai-Ndombe) and Lake Tumba, near to where the M'fini River finds its exit from the first of these lakes. After viewing the animals through binoculars while they stood about 400 yards away amid some tall grass, he shot one of them in the shoulder, but his native companions were unable to recover its body for him.

Le Petit described the water elephants as 6-8 ft tall at the shoulder, with relatively short legs whose feet had four toes apiece, a curved back, a smooth shiny skin like that of a hippo's and hairless too but darker, an elongate neck about twice the length of the African elephant's, plus ears that were similar in shape to those of that species but smaller in size. Most distinctive of all was its head, which was conspicuously long and ovoid in shape, which, together with its short, 2-ft-long trunk and lack of tusks, resembled that of a giant tapir.

A Brazilian tapir (© Dr Karl Shuker)

According to the natives, the water elephant spends the daytime in deep water (where it is greatly feared by them, as it will sometimes rise upwards unexpectedly and capsize their canoes with its able if abbreviated trunk). Only at night does it emerge onto land, where it grazes upon rank grass. It is also very destructive to their nets and reed fish-traps, but is not a common species, and its distribution range is very restricted.

Confirming the natives' testimony, the five specimens under observation by Le Petit finally disappeared into deep water, and were not seen by him again.

If Le Petit's detailed description is accurate, the water elephant does not belong to either of today's known species of elephant. It has been likened by some to the deinotheres, an extinct proboscidean lineage whose members' diagnostic feature was a downward-curving lower jaw bearing a pair of long recurved tusks. The last known species survived until the late Pleistocene in Africa - but the water elephant bears little resemblance to these long-limbed forms with their curious lower jaw and tusks.

To my mind, it is much more similar to some of the most primitive proboscideans, such as Phiomia from Egypt's Oligocene, or even Moeritherium itself - the tiny tapir-like 'dawn elephant' from the late Eocene and early Oligocene, whose fossils are known from Egypt, Mali, and Senegal, and which is at the very base of the proboscidean evolutionary tree. Believed to have been a partially-aquatic swamp-dweller on account of its eyes' high, hippo-like position, if this beast had given rise to a dynasty of descendants that had become much larger but had retained their ancestor's lifestyle and its attendant morphological attributes, the result would most likely be an animal greatly resembling the Congolese water elephant.

The concept of such a beast persisting unknown to science in the 1990s may not find favour among many scientists, but the Congo region of tropical Africa has already unveiled more than enough major zoological surprises so far this century for anyone with a knowledge of these things to hesitate before discounting such a possibility entirely out of hand.

Recent reconstruction of Moeritherium (© Luci Betti-Nash/Stony Brook University)

In 2008, a study of the composition of the teeth of Moeritherium revealed that its diet corresponded with the diet of mammals known to be aquatic, thereby confirming that it was indeed a water-dweller (click here for further details). Consequently, if it did give rise to a reclusive, modern-day lineage of morphologically and behaviourally conservative representatives, these could constitute a very plausible water elephant.

On 25 July 2002, I received a fascinating email from Canada-based field cryptozoologist Bill Gibbons concerning what may be the mysterious water elephant, which I included in one of my Alien Zoo columns for Fortean Times and later in my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010). Here is what I wrote:

In mid-2003, Bill Gibbons, a veteran seeker of cryptozoological curiosities, plans to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) with a Belgian helicopter company operating there, in order to pursue claims by the company's president and CEO that a military helicopter flying over Lake Tumba spied a herd of very strange-looking elephants that the helicopter's pilots thought may be the legendary water elephants. According to Bill, the producer of a French TV documentary company is keen to film the expedition, so we wish everyone associated with this project the best of luck, and await further developments with interest.

Sadly, however, the planned expedition never took place. So the precise nature of those strange-looking elephants of Lake Tumba remains unresolved.

A second artistic representation of the Congolese water elephant (© Tim Morris)

Most recently, the water elephant saga was revisited by British cryptozoological investigator Matt Salusbury in his extremely comprehensive book Pygmy Elephants (2013). After reviewing the Le Petit sightings, he pondered whether, confronted by environmental crises within the past century or so, isolated elephant populations in Africa could have undergone dramatic and highly accelerated bouts of evolution and behavioural changes, yielding in the Congo region a much-modified nocturnal, aquatic form – the water elephant.

A fascinating concept, but if this cryptid has been described accurately in those sightings, its morphological differences from Africa's typical, predominantly terrestrial elephants are, I feel, much too profound and wide-ranging to have plausibly arisen via evolution in such a short space of time. Consequently, and always assuming of course that the water elephant really does exist, I still consider it much more likely that this distinctive creature constitutes a wholly discrete species in its own right, one that may well have diverged long ago from the lineage leading to Africa's modern-day Loxodonta species.

In his book's coverage of the water elephant, Matt also referred briefly to a perplexing tusk purchased in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), during the opening years of the 20th Century. This enigmatic but seemingly long-lost specimen, the Rothschild-Neuville mystery tusk, has fascinated me for many years. So after having researched it in considerable detail for some time, I have finally completed an extensive account of its remarkable history that I have posted exclusively here on ShukerNature – be sure to check it out!

Pygmy Elephants by Matt Salusbury (© Matt Salusbury/CFZ Press)


  1. Henryk Sienkiewciz, a Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist, mentions them in his great book 'In Desert and Wilderness' (The end of chapter XXII in the Gutenberg version, tr. by Max A. Drezmal, Boston, 1917: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/30365/pg30365.html) Here is the bit about them which includes the original note by the author:

    The night was very cold, but the next day, when the first rays of the sun illuminated the locality, it became warm at once. About sunrise the little travelers saw a strange sight. They were just approaching a little lake over a mile wide, or rather a great slough formed by the rains in the mountain valley, when suddenly Stas, sitting with Nell on the King, and looking about the region through a field-glass, exclaimed:

    "Look, Nell! Elephants are going to the water."

    In fact, at a distance of about five hundred yards could be seen a small herd composed of five heads, approaching the little lake slowly one after the other.

    "These are some kind of strange elephants," Stas said, gazing at them with keen attention; "they are smaller than the King, their ears are far smaller, and I do not see any tusks at all."

    In the meantime the elephants entered the water but did not stop at the shore, as the King usually did, and did not begin to splash with their trunks, but going continually ahead they plunged deeper and deeper until finally only their backs protruded above the water like boulders of stone.

    "What is this? They are diving!" Stas exclaimed.

    The caravan approached considerably towards the shore and finally was close by it. Stas halted it and began to stare with extraordinary astonishment now at Nell, then at the lake.

    The elephants could not be seen at all; in the smooth watery pane even with the naked eye could be distinguished five spots like round red flowers, jutting above the surface and rocking with a light motion.

    "They are standing on the bottom and those are the tips of their trunks," Stas said, not believing his own eyes. Then he shouted to Kali:

    "Kali, did you see them?"

    "Yes, master, Kali sees. Those are water-elephants,"* [* Africa contains many uninvestigated secrets. Rumors of water-elephants reached the ears of travelers but were given no credence. Recently M. Le Petit, sent to Africa by the Museum of Natural History, Paris, saw water-elephants on the shores of Lake Leopold in Congo. An account of this can be found in the German periodical "Kosmos," No. 6.] answered the young negro quietly.


    "Kali has seen them often."

    "And do they live in water?"

    "During the night they go to the jungle and feed and during the day they live in the lake the same as a kiboko (hippopotamus). They do not come out until after sunset."

    Stas for a long time could not recover from his surprise, and were it not that it was urgent for him to proceed on his way he would have halted the caravan until night in order to view better these singular animals. But it occurred to him that the elephants might emerge from the water on the opposite side, and even if they came out nearer it would be difficult to observe them closely in the dusk.

    He gave the signal for the departure, but on the road said to Nell:

    "Well! We have seen something which the eyes of no European have ever seen. And do you know what I think?—that if we reach the ocean safely nobody will believe us when I tell them that there are water-elephants in Africa."

    "But if you caught one and took him along with us to the ocean?" Nell said, in the conviction that Stas as usual would be able to accomplish everything.

  2. There is in Burmese mythology too, a water-elephant - the Ye-Sin - a fake specimen is described here - https://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/30151944