The baffling Bushman rock painting at Brackfontein Ridge, in South Africa's Orange Free State, that depicts an unexpectedly walrus-like mystery beast (public domain)
Adam Thorn from Perth in Western Australia is a famous animal adventurer, jungle explorer, and co-host of the History Channel's very popular 'Kings of Pain' show. He is also a longstanding Facebook friend of mine, and shares my interest in mysterious, unidentified creatures, especially an extremely curious African cryptid referred to colloquially as the jungle walrus but which is little known even in cryptozoological circles, let alone beyond them, yet is ostensibly represented by a fascinating if perplexing Bushman rock painting (petroglyph). Consequently, please allow me to present for the first time here on ShukerNature a comprehensive survey of this and other tusk-touting aquatic anomalies that have been reported down through the ages from several different regions of sub-Saharan Africa, and which also feature in my newest book (#32), to be published later this year. Hoping that you enjoy it, Adam – and everyone else too!
Many years ago, a pygmy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Ituri Forest (where Sir Harry Johnston famously discovered the okapi in 1901) identified a picture of a walrus shown to him by aptly-named big-game hunter John A. Hunter as a savage, nocturnal beast that lived in the deepest parts of the forest. Not surprisingly, Hunter dismissed this claim of a 'jungle walrus' as nothing more than the pygmy's desire to please him, as he noted in his book Hunter (1952).
As will be seen here, however, it may be prudent not to dismiss entirely the pygmy's claim, because a startling number of such creatures, all sharing a fundamental similarity of form, lifestyle, and habitat, are documented within the chronicles of cryptozoology – not least of which is a certain highly enigmatic rock painting discovered at Brackfontein Ridge in South Africa's Orange Free State. How old this native Bushman artwork is, whether it dates back a mere couple of centuries or is possibly significantly older, remains debatable, but even more so is what it depicts.
George William Stow (public domain)
It first attracted attention in 1930, when it was depicted in Rock-Paintings in South Africa, a sumptuous work by George William Stow and Dorothea F. Bleek. The text of this book was written by anthropologist Bleek to accompany its numerous full-page illustrations that consisted of meticulous, often full-colour copies of South African petroglyphs that had been prepared between 1867 and 1882 by Stow (1822-1882), an English-born trader, historian, and geologist, who had been passionately interested in South African native races, especially the Bushmen. His travels as a trader had taken him to many little-visited South African localities containing petroglyphs, and his interest in them had led him to prepare his copies – which proved very valuable, because some of the originals no longer exist, have subsequently become damaged or worn, or are in quite inaccessible sites.
According to Bleek, the location of the particular petroglyph under consideration here in this ShukerNature article was a cave in Brackfontein Ridge, situated on an Orange Free State farm named La Belle France that was owned back then by a Mr Connor Swanepool, and its subject was one of several strange animals portrayed together there. As now seen, this remarkable petroglyph portrays an animal that bears a startling resemblance to a walrus - from its rounded head displaying two very large downward-curving tusks to its elongated, tapering body and paddle-like limbs. Indeed, its only prominent difference from the latter pinniped is that it possesses a long tail, whereas during 23 million years of evolution from original terrestrial ancestors the walrus has lost its tail (but see later for a putative explanation of this morphological distinction). No satisfactory mainstream zoological identification of this petroglyph-portrayed walrus lookalike has been proffered so far, nor of the other equally odd animals depicted alongside it – Bleek deemed them to be mythical beasts - but several very comparable cryptozoological counterparts have been reported across tropical Africa, and all of them are claimed in eyewitness testimonies to be predominantly aquatic.
Stow's copy of the collection of petroglyphs at Brackfontein that includes the jungle walrus (public domain)
The marked predominance of this feature is acknowledged in the various native names given to these 'jungle walruses' by different native peoples. In the Central African Republic (CAR), for instance, the Banda speak of the mourou n'gou or muru-ngu (meaning 'water leopard'); the Baya speak of the dilali ('water lion'); the Sangho of the ze-ti-ngu or nze ti gou ('water panther'); and the Zande of the mamaimé ('water lion') or (just to be different) ngoroli ('water elephant'). Judging from all but the last-mentioned term, these creatures are quite clearly feline, an assumption supported by the various descriptions of them on record.
According to an old Banda tribesman called Moussa, interviewed in 1934 by Lucien Blancou (formerly Chief Game Inspector in what was then French Equatorial Africa - subsequently split into Chad, the CAR, the Republic of the Congo, and Gabon), the mourou n'gou was somewhat larger than a lion in size (Moussa estimating its length at about 12 ft), with an overall body shape and pelage background colour reminiscent of a leopard's, but additionally adorned with stripes. Curiously, its paw-print was described as "containing a circle in the middle".
Apparently, Moussa at some stage had observed one of these creatures emerging from the Koukourou river in close proximity to a soldier in a canoe. The mourou n'gou seized the hapless man and dragged him down into the water. As a result of this incident, the detachment to which the beast's victim had belonged decided not to cross the river at this point thereafter but instead at a new location some considerable distance to the east In 1945, a native gunbearer called Mitikata drew a sketch of the mourou n'gou, which showed a small-headed, large-fanged creature about 8 ft long, with a plump, uniformly brown-coloured body and a panther-like tail.
Intriguingly, the Banda also use the name 'mourou ngou' to signify a very different, known species – central Africa's giant otter shrew Potamogale velox. Its English name derives from its deceptively otter-like outward appearance and its former classification as a relative of shrews within the taxonomic order Insectivora (but more recently it has been reclassified as a member of the exclusively African taxonomic order Afrosoricida, alongside tenrecs and golden moles). Like real otters, it lives an aquatic, piscivorous existence, but has a head-and-body length of only about 1 ft plus a slightly shorter tail, yielding a total size that is not only much smaller than that of real otters but also very much smaller than estimates for the mourou ngou. Nor does its uniformly unpatterned, brown fur dorsally and paler ventrally resemble in any way the prominently striped or spotted coat of the latter cryptid, whereas any suggestion of large fangs is conspicuous only by its absence in relation to the giant otter shrew. Clearly, therefore, whatever the cryptozoological mourou ngou may be if it truly exists, it is certainly not the giant otter shrew.
Painting of giant otter shrew, from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1869 (public domain)
During December 1994-January 1995, Belgian cryptozoologist Eric Joye led a two-man expedition, dubbed 'Operation Mourou N'gou', in search of this elusive creature. Although they failed to spy it themselves, Joye and his team-mate, hunting guide Willy Blomme, succeeded in gathering some very interesting anecdotal evidence - probably the most extensive obtained since the material collected here during the 1930s by Lucien Blancou (Cryptozoologia, September 1994, September 1996).
Claiming to have narrowly avoided being propelled into the Bamingui River by such an animal as he sat fishing at the river's edge one afternoon in February 1985, a native guide called Marcel told Joye that the mourou n'gou hunts in pairs - one waiting in the river to seize any prey chased into the water by the other. According to Marcel, the mourou n'gou compares with a leopard in shape and size, and its pelage is ochre, dappled with blue and white spots that are very distinct upon its back but less well-defined upon its flanks. It has a long tail, hairier than the leopard's, and its head is said to be a little like that of a civet (does this mean that, like a civet, it has a dark face mask?), but its teeth are very large and resemble those of a Big Cat such as the leopard or lion. Marcel followed the mourou n'gou's trail, which was like a leopard's but bigger. Also, when it runs, it leaves behind the impression of claws, which is not usual for a leopard.
A second so-called water leopard is the nzemendim, spoken of by the natives in the N'velle distinct of Yaounde, Cameroon, and documented in Gorillas Were My Neighbours (1956), written by Fred G. Merfield and Harry Miller. The locals claimed that it was a type of leopard that lived in small rivers, and frequently carried off women and children. After several failed attempts to spot this dangerous mystery beast, one of this book's authors believes that he finally achieved success:
One morning, just as it was getting light, an animal swam rapidly upstream and landed on the opposite bank. The light was still poor, and all I could see was something furry, spotted and four-legged, so I fired. The animal spun round and dived back into the water. I thought it was lost, but when the sun rose and my men turned up, we found it dead and washed ashore a few hundred yards downstream. It was a big dog-otter, a very old fellow whose fur had gone grey and blotchy, giving the appearance of spots. The natives would not admit that this was their nzemendim, and having no more time to spare I gave up and went home.
Could some 'jungle walruses' be extra-large specimens of otter? Standing alongside a statue of a giant otter in South Africa's Kirstenbosch Gardens (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Lucien Blancou learnt a little concerning another type of supposed aquatic mystery cat, the dilali. According to an interpreter at Bozoum in eastern Ubangi-Shari (a French colony that was part of what was then French Equatorial Africa), it possessed the body of a horse and the claws of a lion, as well as large walrus-like tusks (this last-noted feature was mentioned to Blancou by a Zande native guard).
Then there is the nze ti gou, a nocturnal beast of leopard stature, having red fur marked with pale stripes or spots, living within hollows in large rivers, and emitting a thunderous noise. Such creatures are not restricted to the CAR and Cameroon either.
The Mbunda tribe of eastern Angola speak of the coje ya menia ('water lion'), which attracted the interest of Ilse von Nolde during her sojourn there in the early 1930s, and which she subsequently wrote about in an article published by the periodical Deutsche Kolonialzeitung in 1939. Like the nze ti gou, this beast is well known to the natives for its loud rumbling vocals, and, although principally aquatic, sometimes ventures forth onto dry land. Like the other beasts mentioned here, it too is armed with large canine teeth or tusks, and supposedly kills hippopotamuses with them, despite its own smaller body size. The observations and dealings of von Nolde with this region's natives convinced her that the coje ya menia was not based upon misidentified sightings of crocodiles or hippos, or of these species' spoor. On the contrary, the natives were very adept at identifying and interpreting spoor.
Reconstruction of coje ya menia attacking hippopotamus, by Wilhelm Eigener (public domain)
She was equally convinced of the sincerity of a Portuguese lorry driver who told her that in the company of some natives, he had actually tracked a coje ya menia that had chased after and killed a hippopotamus. Sure enough, the tracks of the two beasts had led to the mutilated carcase of a hippo - yet no part of it had been eaten. The tracks of the coje ya menia were smaller than those of the hippo, and although somewhat reminiscent of an elephant's in shape, they additionally contained the impression of toes. Worth noting here is that as far back as 1947 in a Kosmos article, renowned German cryptozoologist Dr Ingo Krumbiegel had suggested a surviving sabre-tooth as a possible identity for this Löwe des Wassers ('water lion').
Also worth keeping in mind is a certain Ngona Horn folktale of the Wahungwe people from Zimbabwe, documented in African Genesis (1983) by Prof. Leo Frobenius and Douglas Fox. For it refers to some very odd felids - "lions under the water", and is itself entitled 'The Water Lions'. Could these be comparable with nearby Angola's coje ya menia?
The Zande or Azande is a native African tribe indigenous to the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of South Sudan, and the southeastern section of the CAR – which in combination is often referred to as Zandeland. The Zande people speak of several mysterious beasts that may possibly be cryptozoological in nature. One of the most intriguing of these is the mamaimé or water leopard – but one that sounds very different from both of the previous two versions. In an article published by the journal Man in September 1963, Oxford anthropologist Prof. E.E. Evans-Pritchard noted that the Zande's water leopard had been described to him by them as follows:
The water leopard is a powerful kind of beast, dark and with a blackish skin and a head of hair shaggy to the neck. Its pads are very large and its palms hairless like those of a man. It has powerful teeth in its mouth. It seizes a person as does a crocodile. It appears in places of deep water. Its eyes are very large and red, like the seeds of the nzua vegetable [like tomatoes]. It lives in holes as crocodiles do, but where it resides there is water and many fish near it. This water never dries up, for it is its home.
Prof. Evans-Pritchard was also told that this strange creature has hair like a man's that falls over its body, and he noted that a Major P.M. Larken had stated in an article published in 1926 that water leopards are said to live in deep pools within large rivers, and that big fissures in the banks of rivers have often been pointed out by locals as being these aquatic cryptids' homes. Evans-Pritchard doubted that the water leopard genuinely existed but was at a loss as to how to explain reports of it.
Moving to the DRC's southern regions, we encounter reports of yet another similar animal, known variously as the simba ya mai, ntambue ya mai, and ntambo wa luy, all of which translate as 'water lion'. Further mystery beasts apparently belonging to this same type include the Kenyan ol-maima and the Sudanese nyo-kodoing.
Could aquatic sabre-tooths exist in remote regions of tropical Africa? (© Randy Merrill)
From description and native nomenclature a feline identity seems probable, and from their formidable upper canines an undiscovered modern-day species of sabre-tooth (machairodontid) has been popularly proposed by some cryptozoologists (see below), although the fossil record attests that all African sabre-tooths had vanished before the Pleistocene's close, around 11,000 years ago). Moreover, the existence of an aquatic sabre-tooth is a very bizarre concept. Certainly there is no evidence from fossil finds to suggest that any extinct machairodontid ever became adapted for this particular lifestyle. So is it really possible that such a creature is the explanation for any or all of the various mystery beasts described here?
Following on from Krumbiegel's earlier suggestion, in his books Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique (1978) and Les Félins Encore Inconnus d'Afrique (2007) veteran French cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans asserted that it was not only possible but was, to his mind, more than likely. The principal arguments that he put forward in support of this can be summarised as follows:
1) Despite popular belief, many cat species are not afraid of water.
2) The very effective utilisation by walruses of their own huge upper canines for anchorage, dragging themselves on to land or ice floes, and ploughing up the sea bed sediment in search of modest-sized prey demonstrates that the sabre-tooth's enlarged canines would be of great benefit for an aquatic existence.
3) Conversely, on land such teeth would surely have been a great handicap to the sabre-tooth when attempting to tear off and devour pieces of meat from its prey.
4) Due to this, sabre-tooths would have faired badly in competition with true felids of comparable size, e.g. lions and leopards, and ultimately may have been forced to move into ecological niches unoccupied by such cats - namely remote mountains and aquatic realms (which just so happen to be the very environments from which reports of alleged modern-day sabre-tooths are emerging – a future ShukerNature article will explore tales of terrestrial, montane sabre-tooth lookalikes).
Les Félins Encore Inconnus d'Afrique (© L'Oeil du Sphinx – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational and review purposes only)
Consequently, Heuvelmans believed that sabre-tooths could exist very readily in an aquatic environment simply by paralleling the walrus's lifestyle. Moreover, if challenged by potential rivals such as elephants or hippos, the sabre-tooth would be more than amply equipped to dispose of them, and could even drink the blood spurting from any vanquished opponent's neck (some authorities believe that the fossil terrestrial sabre-tooths were themselves sanguinivorous). Its carcase could serve as a food source too. For if dragged underwater by the sabre-tooth and allowed to decompose, the carcase's meat would eventually soften, enabling it to be torn off in pieces and devoured more readily by the sabre-tooth, thereby cancelling out the problems that the felid might otherwise experience due to its cumbersome canines.
Once again, this suggestion is supported by walrus activity. Some walruses have been reported killing seals and small whales, and lumps of blubber and seal remains (soft and/or from decomposing beached carcases - hence easy to tear) have been found in the stomach of some walruses.
Nor have we come to the end of walrus parallels. Any sabre-tooth modified via evolution for an aquatic existence that compared closely with that of a walrus behaviourally would very likely follow a similar course morphologically too (convergent evolution). Conversely, as the known fossil sabre-tooths of Africa's early Pleistocene (2 million years ago) displayed terrestrial-related morphology, any amphibious development must have occurred since then. Yet it is rather unlikely that as drastic a change as the complete loss of a tail via evolution would have occurred in so short (geologically-speaking) a space of time (as noted earlier, it took 23 million years for today's walruses, lacking a tail, to evolve from their original terrestrial ancestors). Consequently, the Brackfontein Ridge rock painting is precisely what we would expect a recently-evolved amphibious sabre-tooth to look like - a more streamlined version of its terrestrial counterpart with limbs modified for an aquatic life but with the tail not yet lost. Also worth noting is that such a sabre-tooth may be expected to be larger than land-living species, because the accompanying weight increase would be buoyed by its surrounding liquid environment. This would explain the notable size of some of the mystery beasts reported in this article.
Delightful 19th-Century walrus engraving – this is one of the very first engravings that I ever purchased, more than 30 years ago, and it has remained one of my favourites ever since, yet it has never appeared in any of my writings, until now! (public domain)
Finally, and in the time-honoured tradition of keeping the best (or at least the most bemusing!) to the end, here is what must assuredly be the strangest jungle walrus of all – the Kenyan dingonek. An aquatic beast of generally feline appearance, familiar to the Wa-Ndorobo tribe, and allegedly once shot at by adventurer John Alfred Jordan during the early 20th Century, Kenya's highly elusive but exceedingly daunting dingonek is in the opinion of Heuvelmans another possible member of the aquatic sabre-tooth association. Its fangs are huge; its body is long and as wide as a hippopotamus's; its tail is lengthy and broad, and swings gently against the river current when the animal is in the water; it has four short legs, and its feet are as big as a hippo's, but they bear large claws like those of a crocodile.
True, it possesses one feature that initially seems to exclude it from a felid identity – namely, a body covered in scales. Heuvelmans, however, considered it more likely that these are merely optical illusions produced by light shining upon a particularly reflective pelage, and one that also bears tufts of hair that have adhered together as a result of the animal having been submerged in water, thereby creating the effect of scales. Having said that, in his description of an alleged first-hand encounter with a dingonek in 1905, documented in his book Elephants and Ivory: True Tales of Hunting and Adventure (1956), Jordan seemed very emphatic that this creature was genuinely scaled:
I slid down the bank and got in the cover of the bushes. There it was.
It was in midstream, about thirty feet from me, a beast-fish, a creature from your nightmares. It was fifteen to eighteen feet in length, with a massive head, not a head like a crocodile's, but flat-skulled and round. It had two yellow fangs dropping from its upper jaw, and its back was as broad as a hippo's, but it was scaled in beautifully overlapping plates, as smooth and as intricate as those I've seen on an old Arabian cuirass. The sunlight fell on those wet scales and was dappled by the leaves, and made them seem as brilliantly colored as a leopard's coat. It had something of every animal in it. It was impossible.
There was a broad tail, and this was swinging gently against the current, keeping it midstream, keeping it stationary, whatever it was.
At last I took aim on it...I aimed the .303 at the base of the neck and gave it one solid round.
I saw the bullet hit, and heard it hit the way you do at short range. The beast turned in a great flurry of yellow water until it was facing the bank and my cover. It leaped into the air until it was standing, or so it seemed, its pale belly scales vivid, ten or twelve feet on end.
[Jordan and his native helpers then fled through the forest for 300 yards before halting, but after a time they cautiously returned to the river] It had gone, but its spoor was all over the soft mud, huge prints about the size of a hippo's, but clawed.
Some Wanderobo told me that they knew about this thing, they called it a dingonek. The Kavirondo knew of it too. They had seen more than one of them and made a god out of it whom they called "Luquata." They were worried when they heard that a white man had shot at Lukuata. They said that now they would all die of sleeping sickness, and it is true that there was an epidemic of it among the Kavirondo that year.
Jordan's noting that it was considered bad luck to kill a dingonek echoes a belief that is also prevalent concerning DR Congo's equivalent mystery beast, the ntambo wa luy or simba ya mai, as recorded in Charles Mahauden's book Kisongokimo (1965). Such taboos have undoubtedly assisted in saving these potentially dangerous creatures from extirpation.
Dingonek illustration based upon Jordan's encounter, Wide World Magazine, 1917 (public domain)
At much the same time as Jordan's sighting, another hunter spied a dingonek floating on a log down the Mara River (also running into Lake Victoria) while in high flood - but it quickly slid off and into the water. Near Kenya's Amala River, the Masai call it the ol-maima and sometimes see it lying in the sun on the sand by the riverside - but if disturbed, it slips into the water at once, submerging until only its head remains above the surface.
Jordan also documented his dingonek encounter in his later book, The Elephant Stone (1959), and here he emphasised its fangs and scales:
Fifteen to eighteen feet long, with a massive head shaped like that of an otter, two large fangs, as thick as walrus teeth, descending from the upper jaw; its back as wide as a male hippo's, yet scaled distinctly, like an armadillo; and I could see also why my Lumbwa [native helpers] had spoken of a leopard's body, for the light reflected on the scales in that cat's colours. Idly it switched a broad tail...
In a much earlier account of his dingonek sighting, moreover, given by him to a London Daily Mail newspaper reporter almost 40 years before his own books were published, Jordan specifically stated that this creature's two fangs "were like those of a walrus protruding from its mouth" and that its body "was shaped like a hippopotamus but scaled". However, after stating that he fired at it, Jordan then claimed: "My further observations were cut short by the animal charging us", and went on to say that he returned to the area the next day (Daily Mail, 16 December 1919). (Earlier still is a 1917 article by him that appeared in Wide World Magazine.) Needless to say, these claims directly contradicted Jordan's accounts in his two books, in which no mention was made of the dingonek charging him, and in which he and his helpers returned not long afterwards rather than the next day. Such notable discrepancies cannot help but make me wonder just how reliable the remainder of his dingonek testimony was...
Dramatic dingonek representation that includes a brow-borne horn and sting-tipped tail, features not normally ascribed to this cryptid (© Randy Merrill)
Notwithstanding this, the concept of aquatic felids is evidently not an alien one to native Africans. And the close correspondence in such creatures' descriptions over so far-reaching an expanse of Africa, cutting across many different tribal cultures and histories too, is surely indicative that there is something more substantial and fundamental to their accounts than mere folktale and superstition. Time and reason enough, therefore, for the launching of a new expedition by some enterprising seeker of mystery beasts to discover the dingonek, meet the mourou n'gou, or even journey to the jungle walrus that may – or may not – lurk in clandestine seclusion within the dark, shadow-enshrouded heart of the Ituri Forest?
Last but by no means least: an exactly comparable situation exists in South America too, from where reports of mystery cats resembling terrestrial mountain-dwelling sabre-tooths have emerged, as well as reports of water-dwelling cryptids likened to aquatic sabre-tooths, and sometimes even to walrus-toothed otters, such as Guyana's mystifying but deadly maipolina - but these must wait for a future ShukerNature article…
This ShukerNature blog article is adapted from my forthcoming 32nd book – more details to be posted here in due course...
Artistic representation of the South American maipolina (© Markus Bühler)