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
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)
MYSTERY STONE PARTRIDGE
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.
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.
HAIRY MAN-BEASTS OF FOREST AND STREAM
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.
GUIAFAIRO AND KIKIYAON - ENCOUNTERS OF THE EERIE KIND
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.
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.
WERE-HYAENAS AND SABRE-TOOTHS
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.
THE TANTALISING TANKONGH
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.
The sabre-tooth picture is by Philippe Coudray, from a 2005 magazine article (and, I think, "Guide des Animaux Cachés").ReplyDelete
That Australopithecus art is by the well-known paleoartist Mauricio Anton. You really have to be more careful with what art you're claiming is "public domain".ReplyDelete
I am not "claiming" anything. Wikipedia clearly states that it is in the public domain:- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Australopithecus_in_art#/media/File:Australopithecus_family.jpgDelete
Apologies, but Wikipedia's claim that it is public domain is likely incorrect. As far as I know this artwork is copyright of Mauricio Anton. It might be good to contact him and check.Delete
Wow, all of these are totally new to me! Except the fating'ho and gambo. I love new cryptids, I discovered your website a couple of years ago and nowhere has more! Looking forward to the new shukernature book!ReplyDelete
Thanks very much, Zack - glad that you enjoy ShukerNature so much, and I hope that you like the ShukerNature books too. All the best, Karl.Delete
Thanks! The long necked red lion sounded really weird at first, but I wonder if it’s described as having a mane? If not then that’s actually a pretty good description of a fossa. If the giant bushbaby could be a surviving form of mainland lemur, maybe the Chakpuar is a relic population of mainland fossa. If it’s big cat sized I think there was an extinct giant species?ReplyDelete