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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Friday 27 September 2019


The colour drawing of the creature's head, from Rev. John Campbell's book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain)

One thing I've come particularly to admire about Karl over the years is his dogged persistence in following up a promising cryptozoological tid-bit or intriguing clue in the hopes that it will yield up something more substantial farther down the line. Even when the trail goes cold, Karl will wait until a new lead emerges – whether from a fresh piece of witness testimony, a letter from one of his many correspondents or a bit of evidence turned up in a forgotten book or archive.

Fortean Times editor David Sutton, in his foreword to my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (published in 2010, a compilation of many of my AZ columns and other cryptozoological writings that have appeared in FT down through the years)

From my earliest days, I have always been blessed (or cursed?) with an insatiable fascination for the obscure, the overlooked, and quite frequently the downright outlandish within the diverse realm of natural history, or unnatural history, as I tend to dub those anomalous cases that are of such particular interest to me – a fascination, moreover, that is constantly spurred on by an equally insistent curiosity to uncover the facts behind them. And in his above-quoted words, David Sutton has summarised all of this very succinctly and astutely, because for me there is indeed nothing more exciting in cryptozoological research than serendipitously encountering in some obscure source a tantalising line or two concerning a mysterious creature not only hitherto-unknown to me but which, upon preliminary investigation, appears to have left no further trace in public history and is certainly entirely undocumented in the cryptozoological literature.

When faced with such a case, I always bring to mind those famous Shakespeare-purloined words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes so often spoken with keen delight to his faithful assistant Dr Watson upon finding himself in a similar situation: "The game is afoot!"

Furthermore, just as Holmes could call upon Watson, not to mention his equally loyal gang of Baker Street Irregulars, to assist him in his clue-gathering endeavours, so too have I been equally fortunate for so many years to be able to call upon a veritable army of Watsons and BSIs in my own investigations, albeit of the cryptozoological rather than the criminological kind. These include the noble readers of Fortean Times, and, especially, those steadfast devotees of my long-running Alien Zoo column therein (now in its 22nd consecutive year). And so it was with the case featuring in this present article, once again previously undocumented, unexamined, and unsolved within the cryptozoological world.

As is so often true with cases like this, it all began entirely by chance, while surfing online during the evening of 27 June 2017, and, after an initial investigation by me signally failed to uncover any information or clues whatsoever concerning it, resulted in a plea for assistance from my indefatigable band of FT Watsons and BSIs via a short item included by me in one of my AZ columns – in this particular instance the column that appeared in FT356 (August 2017). Here is what I wrote:

How often have I stumbled upon a hitherto-unsuspected report of great interest while looking for something entirely different, and the following example is no exception. While browsing through Vol. 9 (April-October 1821) of a British periodical entitled The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines in search of an account concerning a giant spider (which I did eventually locate and which formed the basis of a subsequent ShukerNature blog article of mine), I chanced upon a short but fascinating report of a reputed unicorn that had lately been sent to Britain, possibly while still alive, but which I'd never read about anywhere else before. So here it is:

Another animal resembling the description of the unicorn, as given by Pliny, is now on its way to this country from Africa; it nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller, and the single horn projecting from the fore head is considerably shorter than is given in the real or supposed delineations of that doubtful creature.

What could this very intriguing creature have been? Bearing in mind that it was entirely unknown to me prior to my serendipitous finding of the above report, whatever it was had evidently failed to excite the media once it did arrive in Britain, and yet its description matches nothing familiar to me from Africa. The facts that it was horse-like and bore its single horn upon its brow would seem, if reported correctly, to eliminate a young rhinoceros. For both African species (black rhino and white rhino) have two horns each, but with neither one borne upon the brow, and even as calves they are burly in form, not remotely equine. Might it therefore have been a freak specimen of some antelope species, in which a single central horn had developed instead of the normal pair of lateral horns? Occasional 'unicorn' specimens of goats, sheep, and even deer have been confirmed, so this would not be impossible. Moreover, certain African antelopes are superficially horse-like. Indeed, one in particular, the roan antelope, is sufficiently so for it to have been given the formal binomial name Hippotragus equinus ('horse horse-goat'). Equally ambiguous is the state in which this mystery beast was sent to Britain from Africa, because the report does not make it clear whether the animal was dead or still alive. If it were still alive, however, where is it likely to have been sent? In later years, the premier recipient of exotic live beasts was London Zoo, but this establishment did not open until 27 April 1828. In 1832, the animals contained in the Tower of London's menagerie were transferred to London Zoo's collection, so perhaps, back in 1821, the unicorn, or whatever it was, had been sent to the Tower? Also, whatever happened to its remains? Are they languishing unstudied or even unlabelled in a museum somewhere today? If anyone reading my AZ account has any knowledge concerning this tantalising lost beast, we'd love to hear from you at FT.
The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, vol. 9 (April-October 1821), p. 486; ShukerNature, http://karlshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/dracula-van-helsing-and-giant-spiders.html 28 June 2017.

Time passed, and it began to look as if even the resourceful readers of FT may have been impaled at least metaphorically upon the sharp horns of the dilemma (if not the horn of the beast itself!) posed by this lately-disinterred crypto-conundrum, for responses came there none. Nor did my own continuing searches succeed in locating any further material relating to it. An inviolate impasse appeared to have been met – but then, on 4 September 2017 I received a short email from FT reader Daniel Frankham that finally shone some much-needed light upon this enshadowed mystery.

In his email, Daniel informed me that after reading my AZ unicorn item and then searching through the British Newspaper Archive's website, he'd obtained scans of two relevant newspaper reports, which he kindly attached with his email to me. One of these was from the Caledonian Mercury of 20 August 1821 that provided an account of the creature's discovery, and the other was from the Cheltenham Chronicle of 4 October 1821 that mentioned the presentation of the latter's horn to the Museum of the London Missionary Society.

They also identified the person responsible for the procurement of this reputed unicorn, but which turned out to have been shot dead rather than captured alive. He was the Reverend John Campbell (1766-1840), a Scottish missionary and traveller, who was sent twice (in 1812 and again in 1819) by the London Missionary Society to South Africa's Cape region to inspect and repair missionary stations there.

Sepia engraving depicting Rev. John Campbell, from Robert Philip's book The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841) (public domain)

The relevant section from the Caledonian Mercury's report reads as follows:

Mr Campbell has kindly favoured us with the following description of the head of a very singular animal, which he has just brought from the interior of Africa. We also have had an oppor­tunity of seeing it, and fully agree with Mr Campbell, that the animal itself must have answered the description of the Reem or Unicorn, which is frequently mentioned in Scripture. — "The animal," says Mr Campbell, "was killed by my Hottentots in the Mashow country, near the city of Mashow, about two hundred miles N.E. of New Latakoo [now Dithakong, in present-day South Africa's Northern Cape], to the westward of Delagoa Bay. My Hottentots never having seen or heard of an animal with one horn of so great a length, cut off its head, and brought it bleeding to me on the back of an ox. From its great weight, and being about twelve hundred miles from the Cape of Good Hope, I was obliged to reduce it by cutting off the under jaw. The Hottentots cut up the rest of the animal for food, which, with the help of the natives, they brought on the backs of oxen to Mashow. The horn, which is nearly black, is exactly three feet long, project­ing from the forehead, about nine or ten inches above the nose. From the nose to the ears mea­sured three feet. There is a small horny projection of about eight inches immediately be­hind the great horn, designed for keeping fast or steady whatever is penetrated by the great horn. There is neither hair nor wool on the skin, which is the colour of brown snuff. The animal was well known to the natives. It is a species of the rhinoceros; but, if I may judge of its bulk from the size of its head, it must have been much larger than any of the seven rhino­ceroses which my party shot, one of which measured eleven feet from the tip of the nose to the root of the tail. The skull and horn excited great curiosity at the Cape. Most were of opi­nion that it was all we should have for the unicorn. An animal the size of a horse, which the fancied unicorn is supposed to be, would not an­swer the description of the unicorn given by Job, chap. xxxix [39]. verse 9. et seq., but in every other part of the description this animal exactly answers to it." — Pliny's description of the unicorn is a sort of medium between Mr Campbell's account and the animal depicted on the Royal coat of arms.

And here is the relevant section from the Cheltenham Chronicle's report:

Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society
The Fifth Anniversary of this Society was held in Gloucester on Monday last…The Meeting received a very important detail from the Rev. J. Campbell, who has twice visited the Missionary Stations in South Africa

It appears that Mr. Campbell's visit has been productive of a discovery alike important to Revelation and to science. At a city which he reached beyond Lattakoo, the inhabitants on complaining, that their harvest that year had been defective, urged Mr. C. to request his men to shoot a rhinocerous [sic] for them. His Hottentots accordingly went in pursuit of one, and were providentially directed to an animal which in the Scriptures is called the unicorn. It was long thought that the rhinoceros was the animal there described, but the head of the one shot being brought to Mr. C. he immediately perceived it to be the unicorn of the Scriptures. He has deposited the horn in the Museum of the London Missionary Society and, in the opinion of scientific men, it is pronounced to be that of the unicorn so long sought after.

Reading these two newspaper reports and the Atheneum account, it is only too clear that there is considerable confusion and some notable descriptive discrepancies in relation to the nature of the animal shot by Campbell's men.

According to the Atheneum report, this creature "nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller", and its "single horn", said to project from its forehead, "is considerably shorter" than that which is normally ascribed to the legendary unicorn. Yet in the Caledonian Mercury report, its horn alone, which again was said to project from the forehead (but now with a much smaller second one behind it), was claimed to have measured 3 ft long, which would be disproportionately lengthy (and therefore highly cumbersome and unwieldy) if the animal were "much smaller" than a horse. And indeed, in the Caledonian Mercury report, the creature was stated by Rev. Campbell to have been "much larger" than any of the seven rhinoceroses shot by his men earlier.

Moreover, in that same report, the creature itself was specifically referred to by Campbell as a rhinoceros, yet there is no known species of rhinoceros that typically possesses a brow-borne horn of any shape or form, let alone one that is 3 ft long (and even has a second, smaller one positioned behind it). And throughout the Cheltenham Chronicle's report, a clear distinction is made between rhinoceroses and the creature killed by Campbell's man, which was identified unequivocally in this report by unnamed "scientific men" as the biblical unicorn, and thereby supplanted longstanding belief that the latter beast was a rhinoceros. (In fact, the biblical unicorn, or re'em, is nowadays popularly deemed to have been the then still-surviving aurochs or European wild ox Bos primigenius, which became extinct in 1627 AD, but that, as they say, is another story!)

Faced with such a mass of contradictions and controversies, it seemed as if the only way in which this truly perplexing mystery might ever be conclusively resolved would be to determine whether the creature's principal horn still existed and, if so, gain sight of it in order to attempt a positive identification of its erstwhile bearer. As it happened, however, this option did not need to be acted upon, because the information already present in the two newspaper reports suggested an alternative line of investigation, one that could be instigated straight away, and which, when I did so, proved to be not only much swifter but also entirely successful.

Colour map showing the locations mentioned here by me (most of whose names have changed since 1822) in relation to more familiar locations (whose names remain the same today as they were back then), from Rev. John Campbell's book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain) (NB - please click map to enlarge for reading purposes)

As noted earlier, these two reports revealed that the person responsible for the so-called unicorn's procurement and the retention of its principal horn was Rev. John Campbell, and when I researched his life history I discovered that he had documented his second visit to the Cape in a two-volume travel memoir entitled Travels in South Africa…Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country. Volume 1 was published in 1822, but a copy of it in pdf form was readily accessible online, so I duly downloaded it, and sure enough, within just a few moments of locating the relevant section within it, the very curious case of Mashow's beheaded unicorn was a mystery no longer.

In an entry for 19 May 1820, Campbell provided his own, first-hand account concerning the killing of this 'unicorn' (which took place in Mashow while he was away) and its morphological appearance. As will now be seen, his account differs in places from the versions in the two above-quoted newspaper reports, and shows the Atheneum account in particular to be woefully ill-informed:

During our absence from Mashow two rhinoceroses came into the town during the night, when the inhabitants assembled and killed them both. The rhinoceroses…having been cut up, were brought, the one in a waggon, the other on pack-oxen…They brought also the head of one of them, which was different from all the others that had been killed. The common African rhinoceros has a crooked horn resembling a cock's spur, which rises about nine or ten inches above the nose and inclines backward; immediately behind this is a short thick horn; but the head they brought had a straight horn projecting three feet from the forehead, about ten inches above the tip of the nose. The projection of this great horn very much resembles that of the fanciful unicorn in the British arms. It has a small thick horny substance, eight inches long, immediately behind it, which can hardly be observed on the animal at the distance of a hundred yards, and seems to be designed for keeping fast that which is penetrated by the long horn; so that this species of rhinoceros must appear really like a unicorn when running in the field. The head resembled in size a nine-gallon cask, and measured three feet from the mouth to the ear, and being much larger than that of the one with the crooked horn, and which measured eleven feet in length, the animal itself must have been still larger and more formidable. From its weight, and the position of the horn, it appears capable of overcoming any creature hitherto known. Hardly any of the natives took the smallest notice of the head, but treated it as a thing familiar to them. As the entire horn is perfectly solid, the natives, I afterwards heard, make from one horn four handles for their battle-axes. Our people wounded another, which they reported to be much larger.

Appended to Campbell's account was the following footnote penned by him, confirming the subsequent destination of the head (including its still-attached principal horn and diminutive second horn):

The head being so weighty; and the distance to the Cape so great, it appeared necessary to cut off the under jaw and leave it behind…The animal is considered by naturalists, since the arrival of the skull in London, to be the unicorn of the ancients, and the same as that which is described in the xxxixth chapter of the book of Job. The part of the head brought to London, may be seen at the Missionary Museum; and, for such as may not have the opportunity of seeing the head itself, the annexed drawing of it has been made.

Also worth recalling here is a second footnote, this time appended to a concise summary of Campbell's 'unicorn' incident that appeared in an extensive biography of Campbell written by Robert, Philip, entitled The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell, and published in 1841. This second footnote expanded upon the details provided in Campbell's, by mentioning that one notable scientific figure holding the view that this creature was indeed the identity of the biblical unicorn described in the book of Job had been Sir Everard Home FRS (1756-1832). He was a British surgeon and prolific author on animal anatomy, who had written an essay about the creature, which he had read to the Royal Society. I also have on file the concise summary of Campbell's account from his book that appeared in issue #362 of the Monthly Magazine, published on 1 January 1822.

Painting of Sir Everard Home (public domain)

As for the oft-cited biblical unicorn account contained in verses 9-12 from the 39th chapter of the Book of Job (which evidently refers to a very powerful animal, yet provides no descriptive information concerning any aspect of its actual form, not even its celebrated horn), here it is:

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?
Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?

In addition, while in the process of preparing this article I uncovered a further, highly illuminating reference in the form of another book penned by Campbell, entitled African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts, and published in 1835. In it, Campbell proffered a much more detailed account of the creature's principal horn than given by him in his earlier work from 1822, and also divulged more details regarding the opinion of Home and others concerning the creature's nature. The pertinent extract is as follows:

About twelve hundred miles up, in the interior of Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope, we shot a large animal, evidently a species of rhinoceros, with a strong horn projecting from its forehead about three feet. Its horn is not like that of the cow, which is hollow within, but is, to the very heart, composed of a solid, horny substance, and is capable, from its own strength, and the great weight of the animal, (perhaps two tons) with facility to pierce through the most powerful animal known, yea even a brick wall. I brought home the creature's skull, with the horn and massy [masticating?] teeth in it.

The skull, &c. was thrice examined by the late Sir Everard Home, who was reckoned one of the first [i.e. foremost] naturalists in Britain, to whom I gave all the information in my power concerning the animal. He afterwards composed an essay on it, which he read to the Royal Society, which they printed [but a copy of which I have yet to trace]. He, in the first place, considered all the animals found in a fossil state that approached to the unicorn; then those that were known; and last, the skull I had brought from a latitude in Africa where no European had been before, except one party who were all murdered a little higher up.

After stating various arguments, and particularly attending to the description given of the unicorn in the thirty-ninth chapter of the book of Job, Sir Everard gave it as his opinion, "That this animal was the unicorn of the Bible."

A party of gentlemen, from India, when viewing the skull at the Cape of Good Hope, compared its horn, as an offensive weapon, with the offensive weapons of all the animals they were acquainted with in India, and likewise with such as they had read of; after much conversation, they were unanimously of opinion, that this animal had the most powerful offensive weapon of any animal at present known in the world.

His skin is about an inch in thickness, like that of the African rhinoceros, which cannot be penetrated by a musket ball, except immediately behind the ear, or above the head of the foreleg, where the skin is thinner than in the other parts of the body.

As shown earlier, the 39th chapter of the Book of Job contains no descriptive details whatsoever concerning the biblical unicorn's form, so I remain unclear as to how that passage could have convinced Home that Campbell's creature was the biblical unicorn's identity. Campbell, conversely, had provided a very accurate description of the nature and form of a rhinoceros horn, which in reality constitutes an extremely dense, solid, keratinous mass, but which exhibits a deceptively horn-like external appearance. Equally, there is no doubt from his two separate accounts quoted here that Campbell did consider this 'unicorn' to be a rhinoceros, and a very large one at that, albeit with a highly aberrant horn complement – or was it highly aberrant? It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so it was with a mixture of delight but also initial bewilderment that I beheld the full-page colour drawing of this animal's head that accompanied his original, 1822 account, and which I have already reproduced at the beginning of this present ShukerNature article of mine but for ease of access will reproduce again herewith:

Head of decapitated 'unicorn' as documented and depicted in Campbell's 1822 book (public domain)

First and foremost it has to be said that this is certainly not one of the most accurate renditions of a rhinoceros head that I have ever seen. Nevertheless, it clearly reveals that in spite of Campbell's claim to the contrary (and faithfully reiterated in the subsequent media versions presented by me here), the long, slender, principal horn was not borne upon the creature's brow at all, but just behind its nose. True, in the drawing it was positioned a little further back than is typical for modern-day rhinos, but even so it is still borne upon the nasal bones, with the much smaller second horn sited just behind it, exactly as in all African rhinos, whether of the black (aka hook-lipped) species Diceros bicornis or of the white (aka square-lipped) species Ceratotherium simum (some taxonomists split the latter into two species, northern and southern, but this does not have bearing upon the case under consideration here). Consequently, any comparisons to unicorns are instantly discredited, because the fabled unicorn's single horn characteristically arises directly from the centre of its brow, i.e. from its frontal bones.

Having said this, one might conceivably argue that as the drawing was far from being an exact depiction of a rhinoceros head, perhaps its placement of the long principal horn upon the nasal bones was in fact another manifestation of its inaccuracy, and that it should have depicted this horn arising from the frontal bones instead, in accordance with Campbell's verbal description of it projecting "from the forehead". Yet if this were true, surely Campbell would either have not included the drawing in his book at all or, at the very least, would have appended to it a comment highlighting its error.

Consequently, to my mind the likeliest explanation for this specific but significant inconsistency between drawing and description is that it was in fact Campbell who was less than precise, when describing the long principal horn's location on the creature's head, but that as he apparently had no issue with the drawing, its depiction of this horn's location was indeed a faithful representation of what he had seen and had tried (albeit ineffectively) to convey verbally. This explanation in turn meant that yet another line of speculation that I had considered – namely, that perhaps this particular individual really had possessed a freak, teratological horn projecting from its brow – was also unnecessary. Interestingly, as I mentioned in a chapter reviewing contentious rhinoceroses contained in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), towards the end of the 19th Century London Zoo exhibited a female great Indian rhino Rhinoceros unicornis (a species normally possessing only a single horn) that bore a rudimentary second horn upon her forehead – but this minor excrescence was far-removed indeed from the formidable 3-ft-long primary horn under consideration here.

Back in Campbell's time, both the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros still existed throughout South Africa, but the species referred to above by him as the common African rhinoceros was the black rhino, whose principal horn tends to be shorter, more curved, and burlier than that of the white rhino, which in contrast is sometimes extremely long, straighter, but slender – thereby corresponding well with both the drawing and Campbell's verbal description. Similarly, the white rhino's second horn is often extremely small, again corresponding with drawing and description alike.

Colour photograph of the head of a living South African white rhinoceros that has a notably long, slender principal horn recalling that of Campbell's specimen from 1820 (public domain)

Lastly, but of crucial significance, is that whereas the black rhinoceros had been formally described and taxonomically named as long ago as 1758 (by none other than Linnaeus himself), the white rhinoceros remained scientifically unrecognised until 1817. While exploring South Africa from 1810 to 1815, English explorer-naturalist William J. Burchell had heard tell from the Boer settlers of a mysterious giant rhinoceros, bigger than the black species. After finally confirming its existence when encountering it at Chue Springs on 16 October 1812 and collecting some teeth, horns, and epinasal skin, in 1817 Burchell dubbed this newly-revealed, extra-large species the white rhinoceros Rhinoceros simus - 'white' actually being a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word for 'wide', referring to its broad lips. (In 1867, British zoologist John E. Gray transferred it into its own genus, Ceratotherium, and changed its species name to simum.) In short, the white rhinoceros was still largely unknown outside zoological circles in 1820 when Campbell encountered it, which undoubtedly increased still further his confusion regarding it at that time.

Taking all of the above-discussed aspects into consideration, it is evident that the decapitated unicorn from South Africa was simply a white rhinoceros, incompletely recognised by Campbell (though entirely familiar to the natives, as noted by him), inaccurately reported by the media (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!), and implausibly transmuted by scholars of Scripture and science alike into the zoological identity of a biblical mystery beast (but one that in reality was most probably something very different indeed).

My sincere thanks to Daniel Frankham for his much-appreciated assistance in my resurrection and unmasking of this fascinating but long-overlooked denizen of the Dark Continent, and also for confirming yet again that I can always rely upon my diligent detachment of Fortean Watsons and FT Irregulars to seek out clues and track down evidence upon my behalf whenever the cryptozoological game is afoot!


ANON., 'The Unicorn', Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh), 20 August (1821).
ANON., 'Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society', Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham), 4 October (1821).
ANON., 'The Unicorn', The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, 9 (April-October): 486 (1821).
ANON., 'Africa', Monthly Magazine, 52(6) (no. 362; 1 January): 543 (1822).
CAMPBELL, John, Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822).
CAMPBELL, John, African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts (Waugh & Innes: Edinburgh, 1835).
FRANKHAM, Daniel, 'Personal communication', 4 September (2017).
PHILIP, Robert, The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841).
PICKERING, Jane, 'William J. Burchell's South African Mammal Collection, 1810-1815', Archives of Natural History, 24(3): 311-326 (1997).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., Extraordinary Animals Revisited (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2007).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., 'Whither the Unicorn?', in Alien Zoo, Fortean Times, no. 356 (August): 25 (2017).
WENDT, Herbert, Out of Noah's Ark: The Story of Man's Discovery of the Animal Kingdom (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 1956).

For more details concerning unusual or unexpected forms of rhinoceros, please see my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.

Tuesday 3 September 2019


Assuming that they do exist, just what ARE the terrifying blood-drinking 'death birds' of Ethiopia (© Ben Male)

The little-known cryptozoological case of the Ethiopian 'death bird' is unremittingly macabre and horrific, more akin to the gothic outpourings of Poe and Le Fanu than to anything from the dispassionate, sober chronicles of zoology. Yet in spite of this, it is only too real; at the present time, moreover, it is also unsolved. I am most grateful to Queensland zoologist Malcolm Smith for bringing this chilling but hitherto unexamined case to my attention, and for kindly supplying me with a copy of the original source of information concerning it.

It was during an archaeological expedition to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) during the early 1930s, before the country was invaded by Italian troops prior to World War II, that Hungarian/American amateur archaeologist and anthropologist 'Count' Byron Khun de Prorok (1896-1954) first learnt of Devil's Cave, whose grisly secret he subsequently documented in his travelogue Dead Men Do Tell Tales (1933).

Journeying through the province of Walaga, he resided for a time at the home of its governor, Dajjazmac Mariam, and while there he was approached by one of the servants, a young boy who began to tell him about a secret cave situated roughly an hour's horseback-ride away, near a place called Lekempti. It was known to the local people as Devil's Cave, and was widely held to be an abode of evil and horror - plagued by devil-men who prowled its darkened recesses in the guise of ferocious hyaenas, and by flocks of a greatly-feared form of bat referred to as the death bird.

No-one had ever dared to penetrate this mysterious cavern, but de Prorok decided to defy its forbidding reputation, because he thought it possible that there would be prehistoric rock paintings inside (especially as its notoriety would have served well in warding off potential trespassers, who might have desecrated any artwork preserved within its stygian gloom).

'Count' Byron Khun de Prorok (public domain)

When de Prorok told his young informant of his decision to visit Devil's Cave, the boy was terrified, but after being bribed with a plentiful supply of gifts he agreed very reluctantly to act as de Prorok's guide - though only on the strict understanding that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened!

The cave was situated high among rocky pinnacles and jungle foliage, but de Prorok succeeded in scrambling up to it, and in removing the several heavy boulders blocking its entrance. Armed with a gun, and leaving his guide trembling with fear outside, he cautiously stepped inside - and was almost bowled over a few minutes later by a panic-stricken pack of hyaenas hurtling down one of the passages to the newly-unsealed entrance. Seeking to defend himself against a possible attack by them, he shot one that approached a little too close for comfort, and the echoes from the blast reverberated far and wide, ultimately reaching the ears of two goatherds who came to the cave mouth to find out what was happening. Here they were met by de Prorok, who had followed the hyaenas at a respectful distance during their shambolic exit, and was greatly shocked by the men's pitiful state - they seemed little more than animated skeletons, upon which were hung a few tattered rags.

When, with the boy as interpreter, they learnt that de Prorok planned to go back inside the cave, they implored him to change his mind, warning him of the death birds. De Prorok, however, was not afraid of bats and made his way once more through the cave's sombre corridors, until he suddenly heard a loud whirring sound overhead. This proved to be a huge cloud of bats, which flew rapidly towards the cave mouth when he fired off a shot in alarm. These, he presumed, must be the dreaded death birds, a line of speculation speedily confirmed when only moments later a rain of bat excrement, dislodged by the shot, began to pelt down upon him from the cave roof, accompanied by an asphyxiating stench that drove him back almost at once to the entrance in search of breathable air.

Outside, he enquired why everyone was so afraid of these bats, to which the two goatherds and the boy all replied that they were blood-suckers - that night after night they came to drink the blood of anyone living near the cave until eventually their unfortunate victims died. This was why the only people living here now were the goatherds (who were forced to do so by the goats' owners), and was the reason for their emaciated state. The death birds' vampiresque activities ensured that none of the goatherds lived very long, but they were always replaced by others, thereby providing the goats with constant supervision - and the death birds with a constant supply of their ghoulish nutriment.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales (public domain)

To provide him with additional proof of their statements, the two goatherds took de Prorok to their camp nearby; all of the herders there were equally skeletal - and one was close to death. Little more than a pile of bones scarcely held together by a shroud of ashen skin, this living corpse of a man lay huddled in a cot, with blood-stained rags and clothes on either side, and was so weakened by the nightly depredations of the visiting death birds that he was unable to stand, capable only of extending a wraith-like arm. The goatherds told de Prorok that the death birds settled upon their bodies while they were asleep, so softly that they did not even wake; and that they were sizeable beasts, with wingspans of 12-18 in.

As for physical evidence of the death birds' sanguinivorous nature, the goatherds showed him their arms, which clearly bore a number of small wounds - the puncture marks left behind by these winged leeches once they had gorged themselves upon their hapless hosts?

Nothing more has emerged concerning this gruesome affair, but for zoologists it would have some significant repercussions if de Prorok's account could be shown to be accurate. Only three modern-day species of blood-drinking bat are currently known to science - and all three of these are confined exclusively to the Americas!

Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

These are the notorious vampire bats, of which the best-known is the common vampire Desmodus rotundus, whose range extends from northern Mexico to central Chile, northern Argentina, Uruguay, and Trinidad; its numbers have dramatically increased since the introduction of sheep and other livestock to these areas with the coming of the Europeans, serving to expand the diversity and numbers of potential prey victims for it. The other two species are the white-winged vampire Diaemus youngi, recorded from northeastern Mexico to eastern Peru, northern Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad; and the hairy-legged vampire Diphylla ecaudata, ranging from southern Texas to eastern Peru and southern Brazil.

(As a thought-provoking digression, there may also be a fourth, giant vampire bat in existence. Within the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington for 7 December 1988, researchers Drs Gary S. Morgan, Omar J. Linares, and Clayton E. Ray formally described a new species of vampire, 25% larger in size than Desmodus rotundus, based upon two incomplete skulls and skeletal remains found in Venezuela's famous Cueva del Guácharo - home of the extraordinary radar-emitting oilbird Steatornis caripensis. Dubbed D. draculae, this giant vampire bat's remains date from the Pleistocene. However, Brazilian zoologists Drs E. Trajano and M. de Vivo, in a Mammalia paper from 1991, noted that there are reports of local inhabitants in southeastern Brazil's Ribeira Valley referring to attacks upon cattle and horses by large bats that could suggest the continuing survival here of D. draculae, although despite extensive recent searches of caves in this area none has been found...so far?)

Over the years, a great deal of misinformation has been dissipated concerning this nocturnal, terror-inducing trio of micro-bats - including the persistent fallacy that they actively suck blood out of wounds; and the equally tenacious, fanciful misconception that they are enormous beasts with gigantic wings into which they are only too eager to enfold their stricken victims while draining them of their precious scarlet fluid. In contrast, the truth is (as always) far less exotic and extravagant.

Any creature that can subsist entirely upon a diet of blood (sanginivory) must obviously be highly specialised, and the vampire bats are no exception; Canadian biologist Dr Brock Fenton from Young University in Ontario has suggested that they evolved from bats that originally consumed blood-sucking insects attracted to wounds on large animals, but which eventually acquired a taste for the animals' blood themselves. Yet in overall external appearance these nefarious species are disappointingly mundane - with an unimpressive total length of only 2-3.5 in, a very modest wingspan of 5-6 in, and a covering of unmemorably brown, short fur. Only when they open their mouth to reveal a distinctive pair of shear-like upper incisors do they display the first intimation of their sinister lifestyle.

Head and face of a common vampire bat, revealing its specialised dentition (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

These incisors terminate in a central point and have long, scalpel-sharp edges, perfectly adapted for surreptitiously shaving a thin sliver of skin from the body or neck of an unsuspecting (usually sleeping) victim - detected by the vampire's ultrasonic echo-location faculties. The wound that is produced is sufficiently deep to slice through the skin's capillaries, but not deep enough to disturb the victim and thereby waken it (or arouse its attention if already awake) - stealth is the byword of the vampire's lifestyle. Aiding the furtive creation of this finely-engineered wound are the bat's canine teeth, shorter than the incisors but just as sharp.

Once the wound begins to seep blood in a steady flow, the vampire, delicately clinging to the flank or back of its victim with its wings and hook-like thumbs (not with its sharp claws - yet another fallacy), avidly laps the escaping fluid with its grooved, muscular tongue. It can also suck it up by folding its tongue over a notch in its lower lip to yield a tube, but it only sucks blood that has already flowed out of the wound. In addition, its saliva contains anticoagulants, preventing the blood from clotting, and thereby providing the bat with an ample supply (but causing its victim to lose more than would have been the case if the wound had been inflicted by some other type of sharp cutting implement).

Indeed, one of these anticoagulants, plasminogen activator (Bat-PA for short), shows promise as a powerful drug in the prevention of the severe physiological damage caused by heart attacks in humans, according to a study of its effects by research fellow Dr Stephen Gardell at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania.

The vampire's teeth, tongue, and thumbs are not the only specialised facets of its anatomy - its gut also exhibits some important modifications. Enabling the bat to gorge itself thoroughly before bidding its victim a silent adieu, its stomach has an enormous extra compartment - a tubular, blind-ending diverticulum unattached to the rest of the digestive tract and capable of prodigious distension, rendering it able to hold a voluminous quantity of blood. Sometimes the bat can scarcely fly after feeding, because it is so heavy with freshly ingested blood. Also, its oesophagus is specialised for efficient water absorption, a necessity for any obligate sanguinivore because blood contains an appreciable proportion of water.

Exclusively sanguinivorous bats, like this common vampire, are known to science only from the New World, not from the Old World as well (© Desmodus/Wikipedia - CC BY SA 3.0 licence)

What all of this means in relation to the Ethiopian death bird is that any bat thriving solely or even predominantly upon a diet of blood is inevitably a much-modified species, rigorously adapted for such a lifestyle - rather than a mere opportunist species that in certain localities has switched (through some unusual set of circumstances) from its normal diet to a sanguinivorous existence. In other words, if de Prorok's account is a truthful one, then surely the death bird must be a species new to science? After all, there is currently no known species of Old World bat that is a confirmed dedicated blood-drinker. This, then, is plainly one plausible answer to the death bird mystery - but it is not the only such answer.

I am exceedingly grateful to the late John Edwards Hill, bat specialist and formerly Principal Scientific Officer at London's Natural History Museum, who presented me with a great deal of information that offers a completely different outlook upon this perplexing case. It is well known that the New World vampire bats transmit livestock diseases from one animal victim to another, in a manner paralleling the activities of mosquitoes and other sanguinivorous insect vectors. They also carry rabies to humans, although this is a much rarer occurrence than the more lurid reports in the popular press would have us believe. Moreover, bats of many species all around the world are known to contract many different types of bacterial, viral, and protozoan diseases, which can be spread to other organisms via parasites such as body lice and ticks that live upon the bats' skin or fur. Relapsing fever in humans, for example, is caused by the bacterium Borrelia recurrentis, carried by lice and ticks that have in turn derived it from former rodent or bat hosts.

Accordingly, during communications concerning the death bird, Hill suggested to me that it is possible that humans venturing in or near a cave heavily infested with bats (like Devil's Cave, for instance) would become infected with such diseases - if lice or ticks, dropping from the bats as they flew overhead, bit the unfortunate humans upon which they landed. A parasite-borne infection of this nature would account for the bite-like wounds of the goatherds observed by de Prorok; and, depending upon the precise type of infection, could ultimately give rise to the emaciated condition exhibited by these afflicted persons.

Additionally, native superstition and a deep-rooted fear of bats might be sufficient, when coupled with the distressing effects of a parasite-borne infection, to nurture the belief among such poorly-educated people as these that they were the victims of blood-sucking bats - the notion of vampirism is very ancient and widespread in human cultures worldwide (the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica even worshipped the vampire bat as a god - Camazotz).           

Camazotz, as conceived by Hodari Nundu (© Hodari Nundu/Deviantart)

Two other medical explanations for the death bird case were also raised by Hill during our correspondence (although he rated both of these as being less plausible than the likelihood of a parasite-borne disease's involvement). These are as follows.

As Devil's Cave contained large quantities of bat excrement, perhaps these droppings harboured the spores of the soil fungus Histoplasma capsulatum (even though this is more usually associated with bird guano). If inhaled, these spores can cause an infection of the lungs known as histoplasmosis, which can prove fatal (but severe cases are not common).

Alternatively, an illness called Weil's disease again offers some notable parallels with the 'death bird syndrome'. Also referred to as epidemic spirochaetal jaundice and as leptospirosis icterohaemorrhagica, Weil's disease is caused by spirochaete bacteria of the genus Leptospira, and is usually spread by rodents, but the bacteria have been found in a few species of bat too. Infection generally occurs through infected drinking water, and among the ensuing symptoms of contraction is the appearance of small haemorrhages in the skin, which could be mistaken for bites. Also, the accompanying damage to the kidneys and liver, jaundice, and overall malaise experienced by sufferers could explain the goatherds' haggard, wasted form.

Clearly, then, the case of the dreaded death bird and the stricken herders is far from being as straightforward as it seemed on first sight, and may involve any one, or perhaps even more than one, of the above solutions. Also well worth noting is that de Prorok was (in)famous for gross exaggeration and imaginative narratives, so it is by no means evident how much of his testimony concerning his visit and experiences relating to Devil's Cave can be taken as fact.

Micrograph showing histoplasmosis. Liver biopsy. Periodic acid-Schiff diastase (PAS-D) stain. Histoplasma = clumps of small bright red circles (© Nephron/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

One aspect of the case that is evident, however, is the necessity for a specimen of the death bird to be collected and formally studied. Only then might the resolution of this mystifying and macabre cryptozoological riddle be finally achieved.

Yet in view of the perennially uncertain political climate associated with Ethiopia in modern times, even this is unlikely to prove an easy task to accomplish.

Until then, the secret of this purportedly deadly, unidentified creature will remain as dark and impenetrable as the grim cave from which its winged minions allegedly issue forth each night to perform their vile abominations upon the latest tragic campful of doomed, defenceless goatherds.

This ShukerNature article is excerpted and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.