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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Tuesday 14 May 2019


What strange, secretive, and sometimes even sinister creatures of cryptozoology – or even of something else entirely – might still lurk undetected by science amid the shadowy depths of forbidding forests in the remotest regions of West Africa? (Pixabay/free usage)

Ati, bwana! There is a story you will not believe, because you are a white man. White men laugh at the stories told by the black man. They say this is not so, and that is not so. We have not seen this or that, so how can it be? They say, Ho, Ho! Black men are like little children, telling tales to each other in the dark. But remember, bwana, white men have been in this country for a time that is less than the life of one man, so how can you know all the things that have been known to black men for a hundred lifetimes and more?

   Roger Courtney – A Greenhorn in Africa, quoting an elderly African
                                                                                hunter, Ali

Whereas many mystery animals have been well documented from North, East, Central, and southern Africa, far fewer have been publicised from West Africa - especially from its westernmost corner, constituting The Gambia and its encompassing neighbour, Senegal. Yet these two small countries (sometimes referred to collectively as Senegambia) apparently harbour a sizeable array of bizarre, unidentified beasts rarely if ever brought to widespread cryptozoological attention...until now.

Owen Burnham in Kenya's Namanga Hills Forest (© Owen Burnham – photograph kindly made available to me by Owen for use in relation to my cryptozoological writings)

I owe a great debt of thanks to a longstanding colleague, naturalist Owen Burnham, who spent his childhood and teenage years in Senegal, for very kindly supplying me during our longstanding correspondence with information regarding the creatures documented here. While living in Senegal, Owen became formally accepted as an honorary member of the native Mandingo (Mandinka) tribe, and thus learnt much about this land's mystery animals and also those of Gambia that has remained unknown to other Westerners.

One such creature, the Gambian sea serpent, or Gambo for short, launched my own career in cryptozoology when I investigated its case in detail during the mid-1980s, and has now become very well known and well-documented in the literature (click here to access my extensive coverage of this cryptid on ShukerNature). However, Owen also learnt of several other mystery beasts that have received far less publicity, and so it is with these hitherto little-documented yet no less interesting examples that this present ShukerNature blog article is concerned.

Illustration of Gambo produced by Mark North for publicity material appertaining to the Centre for Fortean Zoology's 2006 Gambian expedition (© Mark North/CFZ)

This enigmatic Senegalese bird was originally documented by me in a World Pheasant Association News article (May 1991) on gallinaceous mystery birds.

The stone partridge is represented in Senegal by its nominate subspecies Ptilopachus petrosus petrosus – a familiar sight to Owen. However, he remains perplexed in relation to the covey of stone partridges that he spied at Fanda, Senegal, in 1985. Unlike this country’s normal brown-headed, buff-breasted specimens, these were very finely but noticeably mottled with white upon their head and neck, and their breast was whitish. They were also rather smaller in size, but most unexpected of all was their habitat.

A typical stone partridge, in The Gambia, which neighbours Senegal (© Francesco Veronesi/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Eschewing the rocky terrain or scrubland normally frequented by Ptilopachus, this covey was dwelling within a small but dense area of undergrowth in a rice field, many miles from the nearest expanse of stony ground. Owen saw a second covey of this strange form of stone partridge at Kouniara, and this time they were living in thick woodland, comprising a mixture of real forest and palm trees. Yet despite their radically different habitat, their behaviour was similar to that of typical stone partridges, scurrying rapidly across the ground – though in this case over fallen trees and through the forest, rather than over rocks and through scrub.

Local hunters had informed Owen that such birds existed, but he had not believed this until he had encountered them himself. In view of their morphological differences and markedly distinct habitat, could these stone partridges constitute a separate subspecies, isolated topographically from the nominate race? Bearing in mind, however, the tragic, continuing destruction of Senegal’s wildlife habitats, especially forests, it is to be hoped that this mystifying bird form can be thoroughly investigated in the near future, to enable it (if still surviving) to be saved not only from continued scientific obscurity but also from ensuing extinction. Interestingly, I recently discovered online a vintage colour illustration that portrays a pair of stone partridges closely matching Owen's description, complete with white mottling upon their head and neck, plus a whitish breast, so clearly such a form has been seen and even depicted in the past.

A pair of stone partridges resembling those seen by Owen Burnham in Senegal – this vintage colour illustration was created some time between 1700 and 1880, and is from Iconographia Zoologica (public domain)

Related to the Madagascan lemurs and the Asian lorises, as well as to Africa's own pottos and angwantibos, the bushbabies or galagos constitute 19 currently-recognised species of primitive primate. Nocturnal and arboreal, they are characterised by their large ears, long tail, and fairly small size. Currently, the largest species are the three aptly-named greater bushbabies, with an average total length of 3 ft, of which over half comprises the tail.

Bushbaby – does Senegal harbour an undiscovered giant species? (public domain)

However, Senegal may be harbouring a rather more sizeable surprise. In June 1985, while exploring the heart of the Casamance Forest, Owen spied a mysterious creature resembling a giant form of bushbaby. It was the size of a half-grown domestic cat, with pale grey fur, and was accompanied by two or three young ones. Several years later, a similar animal was also reported from another West African country, the Ivory Coast. And in 1994, an assistant of bushbaby taxonomist Dr Simon K. Bearder, from Oxford Brookes University in England, encountered and even photographed a strange cat-sized creature in Cameroon that once again was superficially reminiscent of a giant bushbaby. Further details concerning these perplexing extra-large prosimians can be found in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals.

Another mystifying entity reported from Senegambia, and also from Guinea, but unrecognised by science is the fating'ho. Although still believed in by the more elderly members of native Senegalese society, younger people here tend to discount them as mere superstition or folklore, but occasionally something happens to make them think again.

For instance: one day in or around November 1992, one of Owen's longtime Senegalese friends, a youthful native entomological researcher called Malang Mane, was conducting research in a densely forested area of northern Guinea at an altitude of about 3600 ft when he saw something that drove all thoughts of insects far from his mind. Without warning, and completely silently, a man-sized entity stepped out of the undergrowth only a short distance ahead of him. It was covered in long, shaggy black hair, had a noticeably large head, and emitted a guttural grunting sound. Most significant of all, however, was the fact that this veritable man-beast was walking on its hind legs, and was not holding onto any branches or foliage for support, i.e. it was fully bipedal, just like humans. Too shocked and frightened to move, Malang watched it approach to within a few feet of him before it ran away again.

Dramatic artistic representation of a confrontational Australopithecus group, exhibited in Brazil (According to Wikipedia, this artwork is in the public domain - click here for full details)

Malang is very familiar with the West African chimpanzee, and he was certain that the creature was not a chimp, bearing in mind that he had observed it in detail at very close range. Nor was it a gorilla, which is not native to this region of West Africa anyway. Only then did he realise that he must have seen one of the elusive, legendary fating'ho.

Similar man-beasts have been reported elsewhere in Africa too, and some cryptozoologists have suggested that they may be surviving australopithecines - primitive hominids that officially became extinct at least a million years ago. Like many West African 'monsters', however, the fating'ho seems to inhabit a twilit world midway between mythology and mystery, for it combines various ostensibly physical features with certain purportedly preternatural ones, thus frustrating traditional attempts at cryptozoological classification.

Artistic representation of a living australopithecine, as depicted on the front cover of Dr Bernard Heuvelmans book Les Bêtes Humaines d'Afrique, dealing with sightings of various mystery man-beasts in this continent (© Plon Publishing – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Some eyewitnesses, for example, claim that these entities will sometimes disappear into thin air in full view of their human observers. It is also believed that they can fire arrows at humans that are not tangible, but are 'spirit arrows' instead. These reputedly cause disfiguring ulcers to break out on their victims' skin, which never heal again.

The fating'ho is not the only mysterious man-beast reported from Senegal. Also on file is the wokolo, which is chiefly differentiated from the fating'ho morphologically by its yellow eyes (those of the fating'ho are red) and long pointed beard. However, whereas the fating'ho prefers dense forests, the wokolo is more commonly encountered near streams.

Two of the weirdest and most grotesque monsters reported from Senegambia - or anywhere else, for that matter - must surely be the guiafairo and the kikiyaon.

Said to remain hidden by day within the hollow trees and cave-ridden rocky outcrops rising above the hot savannahs, it is during the evening that the guiafairo takes to the wing, earning itself a fearful but memorable title - 'the fear that flies by night'. Few people who have been unfortunate enough to receive a visitation from this dire entity can agree upon its precise appearance. Some claim that it is grey in colour and winged, with a human face and clawed feet - a form of giant bat? Yet others aver that it is phantasmal, with no permanent, corporeal form, and can even materialise through locked doors.

Is the guiafairo some mysterious form of giant bat? (© William M. Rebsamen)

All confirm, however, that its arrival is accompanied by a vile, nauseating smell that engenders a suffocating, mind-numbing fear never forgotten by those who experience it - always assuming that they do survive. Some of the guiafairo's victims have died soon afterwards from a creeping, paralysing malaise, almost as if their fear has itself acquired a lethal, physical reality.

No less deadly, or dreadful, than the guiafairo is the kikiyaon, which is said by the Bambara tribe to inhabit only the darkest expanses of forest, and rarely emerges from this stygian gloom. On those occasions when it is seen, however, it is likened to a monstrous owl, with a pair of immense wings, huge talons on its feet, and, most notable of all, a razor-sharp spur projecting from the tip of each of its two shoulder joints. Yet whereas its wings are feathered like those of normal owls, the body of this awesome apparition is clothed in short, greenish-grey fur, and it is even said to possess a short tufted tail.

An exercise in imagining what form an encounter with the dreaded kikiyaon might take (Pixabay/free usage)

Most native people believe the kikiyaon to be a truly supernatural creature, rather than merely an elusive natural one. They claim that evil sorcerers utilise this entity to kill people, either physically or spiritually, and can even directly transform themselves into a kikiyaon.

Yet it can give voice to some very substantial cries. These include a deep far-reaching grunting call that has been likened to (albeit not conclusively identified with) that of Pel's fishing owl Scotopelia peli, a sizeable owl that is native to Senegambia. However, there is another cry that does not seem to resemble that of any known species of owl here, and has been compared to the hideous shrieks of someone being slowly strangled!

Perhaps Pel's fishing owl will one day prove to be the hitherto-unrevealed identity of the very vocal kikiyaon? This exquisite chromolithograph was produced in 1859 by Joseph Wolf (public domain)

Intriguingly, this is precisely the description applied to the voice of another still-unidentified, exceedingly elusive mystery beast. Namely, the devil bird of Sri Lanka, whose fascinating if highly frustrating case history I examine and document in considerable detail within my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings.

Who knows? Perhaps a real, reclusive creature, possibly even an undescribed species of owl, originally inspired belief in the kikiyaon, but was gradually 'transformed' by superstition and folklore into the bizarre monster claimed to exist here today. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that a seemingly impossible creature has ultimately been shown to have a somewhat less dramatic and hitherto unrecognised but unequivocally genuine animal at its source.

Another Senegalese mystery beast that may be more substantial than surrealistic is the booa. Although only rarely seen, when it is observed the booa is usually likened to a giant, abnormally-coloured form of hyaena. In contrast, it is very frequently heard, especially at night. Indeed, its name is onomatopoeic, being derived from the hideous screaming cry that reverberates loudly through the still evening air when one of these creatures is in the vicinity.

As with the kikiyaon, some Senegalese people are convinced that the booa is actually a transformed sorcerer, i.e. a were-hyaena. They claim that if a booa is shot and its trail of blood followed, it will surely lead to a human house, inside which a man or woman will be found, bleeding profusely from gunshot wounds. (This scenario closely echoes many medieval Western accounts of werewolves.) There is a similar Senegalese belief regarding the mo solo - said to be a type of were-leopard (not to be confused with the leopard-man cults).

Is the booaa a mysterious giant hyaena, such as the supposedly long-extinct short-faced hyaena Pachycrocuta brevirostris? (public domain)

However, reports of the booa also readily call to mind numerous accounts from East Africa, especially Kenya, of a seemingly allied but corporeal mystery beast variously termed the chemosit, kerit, or Nandi bear.

Many descriptions of this infamously ferocious, forest-dwelling creature have likened it to a huge form of hyaena, of aberrant colouration and with a relatively short face (click here for a recent ShukerNature blog article dealing with the Nandi bear). Perhaps the booaa is an occidental counterpart in Senegal?

Artistic representation of the wanjilanko's possible appearance (I found this illustration on the Net, but I am currently unaware of the artist's identity, despite having made extensive online searches in relation to it – consequently I am reproducing it here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Due to poaching and political unrest, in quite recent times some of Senegal's forests have been destroyed, and its more exotic, rarer animals have become extinct. In addition, it is possible that some particularly secretive species have actually died out here even before their very existence was recognised by science.

During discussions with native hunters in Senegal's depleted Casamance Forest, Owen has learnt that they can still readily recall a huge but very mysterious form of cat, which they refer to as the wanjilanko. According to their descriptions, it was striped, possessed very large teeth, and was so ferocious that it could even kill lions. Tragically, however, it appears to have died out, as have the lions that it allegedly once attacked.

Could sabre-tooth survival be a reality in the most remote regions of West Africa? Meanwhile, here's one that I made earlier! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Reports of huge striped cats with very large teeth and savage temperament have also been recorded elsewhere in West Africa. In Chad, for example, such a creature is known as the mountain tiger or hadjel, whereas further east, moving into the Central African Republic, local tribes speak variously of the gassingram or vassoko. Their descriptions invariably recall Machairodus, the officially extinct African sabre-toothed tiger. In addition, when illustrations of this prehistoric stalwart's likely appearance in life have been shown to native hunters, they have readily identified them as pictures of their lands' striped, toothy mystery cats (see my books Mystery Cats of the World and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery, as well as Still In Search Of PrehistoricSurvivors, for additional details).

The prospect of sabre-tooth persistence into modern times must rate as very slim indeed. Nevertheless, there are few places on earth more capable of sustaining such survival beyond the reach of scientific detection than the remote, little-explored jungle-lands of West Africa.

Proffering a portrait of Senegal's red-furred, leonine chakpuar (© Dr Karl Shuker – created by me from a Pixabay/free usage image)

Also needing an explanation are Senegalese stories of a strange long-necked red lion known as the chakpuar, and peculiar ‘cat-wolves’ referred to as the guomna and sing sing. To quote one of Owen's communications to me concerning the sing sing:

The "cat-wolf" is a strange concept that I have invented really to explain the oddities of the Sing Sing which seems to have the speed and stealth of a cat but the tenacity and stamina of a dog. It appears to have a head like a wolf and non retractable claws. The pelage is said to be somewhat brindled, like that of a laughing hyena [= the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta] without the spots. Its tail is short and ringed. Again, this creature inspires fear in hardy hunters and is rarely talked about in case discussing it causes it to appear suddenly from the depths of the forest.

Except for the short tail, this description recalls the striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena, which is indeed native to Senegal. As this species is normally nocturnal, and therefore not readily seen, it may have engendered a heightened, exaggerated sense of fear among the local people, thus explaining their dread of it and its elevation in their minds to the status of a veritable monster - the sing sing.

While visiting Guinea, another West African country that may still contain some intriguing zoological surprises, Owen learnt of yet another unidentified beast, the diminutive tankongh. This extremely shy beast is said by local hunters to resemble a small zebra, yet lives only in the high mountain forests and is rarely seen. However, Owen was once shown a pair of tiny dull grey hooves and some pieces of black and cream mottled skin – the remains of a tankongh that had been killed and eaten.

Owen mentions that according to local reports, this mysterious animal has a pair of small canine tusks, which makes me think of the water chevrotain Hyemoschus aquaticus. This is a small, hornless, but tusked ungulate adorned with stripes and spots, which is native to Guinea’s lowland forests and swamp margins. Could this known but exceedingly elusive mammal be the identity of the tankongh, or could the latter even be a related but scientifically-undescribed species adapted for a montane existence? And what of the un-named, uncaptured toad, also hailing from Guinea, that reputedly gives birth to live young – is this a new form?

Vintage chromolithograph depicting West Africa's handsomely-marked but extremely reclusive water chevrotain (public domain)

It was Pliny the Elder who said: "Ex Africa semper aliquod novi" – "There is always something new out of Africa". Judging from the cryptic creatures documented here, all currently lurking within that dusky borderland between reverie and reality, the intrepid cryptozoologist would do well to heed his words, and pay a keen-eyed visit to this mysterious continent's all-too-long-overlooked Western quarter. Who knows what extraordinary revelations may still await formal scientific disclosure here?

This ShukerNature blog article is exclusively excerpted from my book Dr Shuker's Casebook: In Pursuit of Marvels and Mysteries.

Friday 10 May 2019


Artistic reconstruction of Owen Burnham's discovery of the Gambian sea serpent carcase (© William M. Rebsamen)

Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?! As I write this introduction to the present ShukerNature blog article, I can scarcely believe that over 30 years have gone by since I penned what became my very first investigative cryptozoological article, published as a two-parter in the September and October 1986 issues of a now long-defunct British magazine, The Unknown. And what was my article's subject? Why, none other than a certain mysterious sea beast found dead a few years earlier on a beach in The Gambia, West Africa - the very same creature whose extraordinary history I am writing about now. Clearly, time not only flies but also on occasion takes delight in looping the loop!

Back in 1986, I became the first cryptozoologist to write about the Gambian sea serpent, and went on to document it further in a number of other publications, including various of my books, but most extensively of all within my two works on putative prehistoric survivors – In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) and Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016). Indeed, it was this remarkable case that single-handedly (or even single-flipperedly!) transformed me into a full-time independent researcher and writer on the ever-fascinating subject of mystery beasts. Although I have since investigated and duly introduced a very sizeable number of other hitherto little-publicised or wholly-unpublicised cryptids to the general international reading public, Gambo (as it was subsequently dubbed, although not by me – see later) remains one of the most intriguing, tantalising, and controversial cryptids that I have ever investigated.

My two books (not shown to scale) documenting putative prehistoric survivors (© Dr Karl Shuker/Blandford Press / (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)

Needless to say, therefore, it came as quite a shock when recently I suddenly realised to my considerable embarrassment that apart from a single exceedingly brief mention of its case in a Loch Ness monster article (click here to read it), I had never documented the Gambian sea serpent on ShukerNature. Consequently, in order to make very belated amends for this major oversight on my part, I have great pleasure in presenting herewith my complete coverage of this thoroughly captivating and still-unresolved cryptid from my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors. Please welcome Gambo, the very mysterious stranger on the shore that launched my cryptozoological career. I'm sure that Mr Acker Bilk would have approved. (You need to be of a certain age and musical persuasion to comprehend that comment!)

Incidentally, the coining of the name 'Gambo', by which the Gambian sea serpent is nowadays very commonly referred to colloquially in cryptozoological circles, is often mistakenly attributed to me, but here is the true origin of this famous mystery beast moniker. It made its debut within the title ('Gambo – The Beaked Beast of Bungalow Beach') of a three-page Fortean Times article prepared in-house but credited to me as it constituted a condensed version of my two-part article from 1986 in The Unknown, and was published in FT's February/March 1993 issue (#67). Significantly, therefore, I did not directly pen either the FT article itself (within whose second paragraph of main text 'Gambo' was specifically introduced by whoever did pen it as the name by which this cryptid would be referred to thereafter within the article) or its title. Consequently, whoever the FT person was who did is also, therefore, the person who coined the now-iconic name 'Gambo', and, in so doing, serendipitously created a little snippet of cryptozoological history, but their identity has never been disclosed (at least not to me, anyway!).

The Fortean Times article of February/March 1993 on the Gambian sea serpent, credited to me, and whose FT-penned title constitutes the very first, now-historic appearance of the name 'Gambo'  - please click to enlarge for reading purposes (© Dr Karl Shuker/Fortean Times)

It all began on 12 June 1983, when wildlife enthusiast Owen Burnham and three family members encountered the carcase of a huge sea creature, washed up onto Bungalow Beach in The Gambia, West Africa. Most sea monster remains are discovered in an advanced state of decomposition, greatly distorting their appearance and making positive identification very difficult, but the carcase found by Burnham was exceptional, as apparently it was largely intact, with no external decomposition.

Subsequently reallocating to England but having lived most of his childhood and teenage years in Senegal, Owen was very familiar with all of that region's major land and sea creatures, but he had never seen anything like this before. Realising its potential zoological significance, he made meticulous sketches and observations of its outward morphology, and noted all of its principal measurements.

My renditions of the Gambian sea serpent, first published in the September and October 1986 issues of The Unknown, and based upon original sketches by Owen Burnham (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In May 1986, BBC Wildlife, a British monthly magazine, published a short account by Owen describing his discovery, and including versions of his original sketches. Greatly interested, I wrote to him, requesting further details, in order to attempt to identify this remarkable creature. During our ensuing correspondence, Owen kindly gave me a comprehensive description (plus his sketches) of its appearance. The following is an edited transcript of Owen's first-hand account of his discovery, prepared from his letters to me of May, June, and July 1986:

I grew up in Senegal (West Africa) and am an honorary member of the Mandinka tribe. I speak the language fluently and this greatly helped me in getting around. I'm very interested in all forms of life and make copious observations on anything unusual.

In the neighbouring country of Gambia we often went on holiday and it was on one such event that I found this remarkable animal.

June 1983. An enormous animal was washed up on the beach during the night and this morning [June 12] at 8.30 am I, my brother and sister and father discovered two Africans trying to sever its head so as to sell the skull to tourists. The site of the discovery was on the beach below Bungalow Beach Hotel. The only river of any significance in the area is the Gambia river. We measured the animal by first drawing a line in the sand alongside the creature then measuring with a tape measure. The flippers and head were measured individually and I counted the teeth. [In the sketches accompanying his description, Burnham provided the following measurements: Total Length = 15-16 ft; Head+Body Length = 10 ft; Tail Length = 4.5-5 ft; Snout Length = 1.5 ft; Flipper Length = 1.5 ft.]

The creature was brown above and white below (to midway down the tail).

The jaws were long and thin with eighty teeth evenly distributed. They were similar in shape to a barracuda's but whiter and thicker (also very sharp). All the teeth were uniform. The animal's jaws were very tightly closed and it was a job to prise them apart.

The jaws were longer than a dolphin's. There was no sign of any blowhole but there were what appeared to be two nostrils at the end of the snout. The creature can't have been dead for long because its eyes were clearly visible and brown although I don't know if this was due to death. (They weren't protruding). The forehead was domed though not excessively. (No ears).

The animal was foul smelling but not falling apart. I've seen dolphins in a similar state after five days (after death) so I estimate it had been dead that long.

The skin surface was smooth, the only area of damage was where one of the flippers (hind) had been ripped off. A large piece of skin was loose. There were no mammary glands present and any male organs were too damaged to be recognizable. The other flipper (hind) was damaged but not too badly. I couldn't see any bones.

I must mention clearly that the animal wasn't falling apart and the only damage was in the area (above) I just mentioned. The only organs I saw were some intestines from the damaged area.

The paddles were round and solid. There were no toes, claws or nails. The body of the creature was distended by gas so I would imagine it to be more streamlined in life. It wasn't noticeably flattened. The tail was rounded [in cross-section], not quite triangular.

Owen Burnham in Kenya's Namanga Hills Forest (© Owen Burnham – photograph kindly made available to me by Owen for use in relation to my Gambo writings)

I didn't (unfortunately) have a camera with me at the time so I made the most detailed observations I could. It was a real shock. I couldn't believe this creature was laying in front of me. I didn't have a chance to collect the head because some Africans came and took the head (to keep skull) to sell to tourists at an exorbitant price. I almost bought it but didn't know how I'd get it to England. The vertebrae were very thick and the flesh dark red (like beef). It took the men twenty minutes of hacking with a machete to sever it.

I asked the men on the scene what the name of this animal was. They were from a fishing community and gave me the Mandinka name kunthum belein. I asked around in many villages along the coast, notably Kap Skirring in Senegal where I once saw a dolphin's head for sale. The name means 'cutting jaws' and is the term for dolphin everywhere. Although I gave good descriptions to native fishermen they said they had never seen it. The name kunthum belein always gave [elicited] a dolphin for reply and drawings they made were clearly that. I also asked at Kouniara, a fishing village further up the Casamance river but with no success. I can only assume that the butchers called it by that name due to its superficial similarities. In Mandinka, similar or unknown animals are given the name of a well known one. For example a serval is called a little leopard. So it obviously wasn't common. I've been on the coast many times and have never seen anything like it again.

I wrote to various authorities. [One] said it was probably a dolphin whose flukes had worn off in the water. This doesn't explain the long pointed tail or lack of dorsal fin (or damage).

[Another] decided it could be the rare Tasmacetus shepherdi [Shepherd's beaked whale] whose tail flukes had worn off. This man mentioned that the blow hole could have closed after death. Again the tail and narrow jaws seem to conflict with this. Tasmacetus's jaws aren't too long and the head itself seems to be smaller than my animal's. Tasmacetus has two fore flippers and none in the pelvic region. The two flippers are quite small in relation to body size and pointed rather than round. Tasmacetus has a dorsal fin and 'my' animal didn't seem to have one or any signs of one having once been there. Tasmacetus even without tail flukes wouldn't have a tail long enough or pointed enough. The tail of the animal I saw was very long. It had a definite point and didn't look suited for a pair of flukes. Apparently, Tasmacetus is brown above and white below and this seems to be the only link between the two animals. I've been to many remote and also popular fishing areas in Senegal and I have seen the decomposing remains of sharks and also dead dolphins and this was so different.

[A third] said it must have been a manatee. I've seen them and believe me it wasn't that. The skin thickness was the same but the resemblance ended there.

Other authorities have suggested crocodiles and such things but as you see from the description it just can't have been.

After I think of the coelacanth I don't like to think what could be at the bottom of the sea. What about the shark (Megachasma) [megamouth shark] which was fished up on an anchor in 1976?

I looked through encyclopedias and every book I could lay hands on and eventually I found a photo of the skull of Kronosaurus queenslandicus which is the nearest thing so far. Unfortunately the skull of that beast is apparently ten feet long and clearly not of my find.

The skeleton of Ichthyosaurus (not head) is quite similar if you imagine the fleshed animal with a pointed tail instead of flukes. I spend hours at the Natural History Museum [in London, England] looking at their small plesiosaurs, many of which are similar.

I'm not looking to find a prehistoric animal, only to try and identify what was the strangest thing I'll ever see. Even now I can remember every minute detail of it. To see such a thing was awesome.

Presented with such an amount of morphological detail, quite a few identities can be examined and discounted straight away - beginning with Tasmacetus shepherdi. Although somewhat dolphin-like in shape, this is a primitive species of beaked whale, described by science as recently as 1937, and known from only a handful of specimens, mainly recorded in New Zealand and Australian waters, but also reported from South Africa. Whereas all other beaked whales possess no more than four teeth (some only have two), Tasmacetus has 80, and its jaws are fairly long and slender.

Line drawing of Shepherd's beaked whale Tasmacetus shepherdi, showing its general shape, plus its size relative to an average human (© Chris huh/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

However, the Gambian beast's two pairs of well-developed limbs effectively rule out all modern-day cetaceans as plausible contenders, because these species lack hind limbs. They also eliminate those early prehistoric cetaceans the archaeocetes - even Ambulocetus. For although this palaeontologically-celebrated 'walking whale' did have two well-formed pairs of limbs, unlike the Gambian sea serpent its teeth were only half as many in number, yet of more than one type. The Gambian beast's long tail and dentition effectively ruled out pinnipeds and sirenians from contention too.

Many 'sea monster' carcases have proved, upon close inspection, to be nothing more exciting than badly-decomposed sharks, but as the Gambian beast apparently displayed no notable degree of external decomposition, this 'pseudoplesiosaur' identity was another non-starter.

Artistic reconstruction of the likely appearance in life of Kronosaurus queenslandicus (public domain)

Indeed, after studying his detailed letters and sketches, it became clear that, incredibly, the only beasts bearing any close similarity to Owen's Gambian sea serpent were two groups of marine reptilians that officially became extinct 66 million years (or more) ago.

One of these groups consisted of the pliosaurs - thus including among their number the mighty Australian Kronosaurus that Owen himself had mentioned. Yet whereas their nostrils' external openings had migrated back to a position just in front of their eyes, those of the Gambian sea serpent were at the tip of its snout

Artistic reconstructions of the likely appearance in life, plus total size relative to an average human, of four thalattosuchian genera (© Mark T. Young et al., PLoS ONE 7(9): e44985/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)

The other group constituted the thalattosuchians - always in contention here on account of their slender, non-scaly bodies, paddle-like limbs, and terminally-sited external nostrils. True, their tails possessed a dorsal fin, but a thalattosuchian whose fin had somehow been torn off or scuffed away would bear an amazingly close resemblance to the beast depicted in Owen's sketches. Alternatively, assuming that a thalattosuchian lineage has indeed persisted (and continued to evolve accordingly) into the present day, its members may no longer possess such a fin anyway.

Without any physical remains of the beast available for direct examination, however, its identity can never be categorically confirmed. In 2006, using a map that Owen had prepared for them, a team from the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) that included British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman visited the site in The Gambia where, 23 years earlier, the headless carcase had apparently been buried shortly after Owen had viewed it – but to their horror they discovered that a nightclub had since been built upon that exact same spot! Nevertheless, the team did attempt to do some digging as close as possible to the nightclub, but they did not uncover any remains.

Richard Freeman (left) and other team members from the CFZ's 2006 Gambian expedition digging in search of Gambo's carcase near the nightclub on Bungalow Beach (© CFZ)

As for myself, more than three decades on from my first article on this subject I remain totally open-minded as to what Gambo was. Contrary to a number of claims or assumptions made by others over the years, I have never stated that I believe it to have been a modern-day descendant of a prehistoric reptilian lineage. I have merely stated that, based upon Owen's verbal description and sketches, this is what it most closely resembles – but as the saying goes, appearances can (and often do) deceive. Consequently, without having first examined physical evidence it would be ridiculous to make any firm assertion as to this animal's taxonomic identity – which is why I have never done so.

After all, it is possible (although in my opinion unlikely) that Owen's account and drawings are not very accurate, in which case Gambo may have been nothing more than some ordinary, known species of cetacean after all; or, at most, a previously unknown cetacean species - in which latter case I propose Gambiocetus burnhami gen. nov. sp. nov. ('Burnham's Gambian whale') as a suitable scientific name for it, based upon the detailed morphological description presented by me above. In any event, here's to one record finally – and very firmly – set straight, I trust!

Artistic reconstruction of Gambo's possible appearance in life (© Tim Morris)

Finally, for those younger readers who may still be perplexed by my oblique reference at this present ShukerNature blog article's onset to Mr Acker Bilk: notable for always including 'Mr' as part of his official stage name, he was a very popular British clarinettist who had many hit singles and albums during the 1960s and 1970s, of which the most famous was his original recording of a certain track that very swiftly became not only his signature tune but also an internationally-successful instrumental standard – 'Stranger on the Shore'.

Written by Bilk for his daughter Jenny, it stayed in the UK singles chart for over a year following its initial release in 1961, was the first British single to hit the number one spot in the modern-day version of the USA's Billboard Hot 100 (which it achieved in 1962), and went on to become the biggest-selling instrumental single of all time. So now you know!

Mr Acker Bilk in the 1960s performing 'Live In The Clarence Ballroom' (formerly The Duke Of Clarence Assembly Rooms) (© Marquisofqueensbury/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

I wish to take this opportunity to thank Owen Burnham most sincerely for so kindly making available to me such a vast quantity of information and other materials concerning Gambo and also a number of other West African cryptids, as well as for his much-valued friendship down through the many years that have passed since our first communications to one another way back in the mid-1980s.

The CFZ's official, published report of their 2006 expedition to The Gambia (© CFZ Press)