The hyper-aggressive Nandi bear, named after western Kenya's Nandi County that contains the once-contiguous Nandi and Kakamega Forests around where it has been most frequently reported, is undoubtedly one of Africa's most intriguing albeit infamous cryptids. It also has a string of native names, of which the most familiar are the chemosit and kerit. Moreover, a wide range of identities has been offered for this ferocious mystery mammal down through the years.
These range from erythristic (abnormally red) spotted hyaenas, extra-large modern-day baboons, sizeable all-black ratels (honey badgers), and even the odd aardvark, to various putative Pleistocene survivors – such as a species of chalicothere, giant baboon, African bear, short-faced hyaena, and sizeable wolverine-like mustelid. In fact, as noted by veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans and others, the morphological descriptions recorded for it are so varied that no single species could conceivably reconcile all of them. In other words, it is evident that there is no single Nandi bear identity, that in reality this cryptid is instead a composite created by the erroneous lumping together of reports describing several different animal species.
Tragically, however, so few Nandi bear reports have emerged during the past 70-odd years that such discussions may nowadays be of academic interest only. For if a species currently unrecognized by science had indeed previously featured in any documented sightings, by now this marauding mystery beast could well have become extinct, having died out before its reality and taxonomic identity had even been confirmed – except, that is, its reality and identity WERE apparently confirmed, after the carcase of a shot specimen was brought to a world-famous scientist for his opinion as to what it was. After closely examining this extraordinary creature's mortal remains, he offered what he considered to be a conclusive identification – and, in so doing, provided zoology with a major shock.
So why hasn’t this dramatic revelation regarding the Nandi bear's identity become well known, resulting in its formal recognition by science – and what happened to that uniquely significant examined specimen? Read on, and except (sadly) for the specimen itself, all will be revealed – albeit not at all in the way that I'd expected when first electing to investigate and document this exceedingly convoluted cryptozoological case.
Our tantalizing tale begins with a mystery within a mystery – namely, claims that the Nandi bear is in reality a giant forest hyaena. But what exactly IS a giant forest hyaena? After all, no such animal is formally recognized by science. Some notable cases featuring this mysterious creature that have been reported from Nandi bear territory were originally documented in a 2-page article written by Nairobi-based ornithologist Dr Gurner Robert Cunningham-van Someren (1913-1997) and published in the September/October 1981 issue of the East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin. Cunningham-van Someren, or Chum as he was popularly referred to (and which for reasons of brevity I shall also do henceforth), was Curator of Birds at Kenya's National Museum from 1975 to 1985 but famously had a wide knowledge of most African animals and plants, and was frequently consulted on matters covering the full spectrum of this continent's wildlife. Here are the relevant details as given by him in his article:
Around 1957-1958, Douglas Hutton, the manager of Chemomi Tea Estate in the Nandi district, shot two specimens of a strange, unidentified species of mammal and sent their carcases to the tea factory, where several members of staff viewed them. During the early 1980s, Chum interviewed three of these eyewitnesses independently, and received detailed, largely consistent descriptions.
Standing almost 3 ft high at the shoulders, which bore a heavy mane of long hair, the creatures had broad, short heads with small ears, broad chests, rearward-sloping backs that emphasised their long heavy forelegs and shorter hind legs, and short tails. Only when enquiries were made as to the colour of their fur was there any noticeable disagreement between the trio of eyewitnesses – two claimed that it was grey-brown with light tips, the third stated that it bore black spots on a lighter background colour. None had ever seen such animals before.
The creatures' skeletons had been left in the bush to be cleared by ants, after which Hutton sent them for examination to what was then Nairobi's Coryndon Museum, but which in 1964 became Kenya's National Museum within this country's National Museums complex. In the report that he later received from the museum, their species' identity had been given, somewhat enigmatically, as a 'giant forest hyaena'. As for these intriguing specimens: like so many others of potentially profound cryptozoological significance, they somehow went missing and never resurfaced.
At the end of July 1981, Ken Archer, General Manager of Eastern Produce Company and a friend of Hutton, was informed that farmers working on plots of land on the Nandi Escarpment road from Chemilil to Nandi had sighted a mysterious animal that they were unable to identify. On 12 August, he and Chum visited the farmers to ascertain the animal's appearance - and discovered from the vivid description given by one of the observers that it matched that of the two beasts shot by Hutton back in the late 1950s. The observer denied emphatically that it had been a baboon or a pig, and did not think that it was a spotted hyaena either.
And speaking of Ken Archer: Chum claimed that in 1981 he had received a request from Hutton via Archer to investigate at Kenya's National Museum (where Chum was of course by now its Curator of Birds) the mysterious disappearance of Hutton's two specimens. This he did, but he could find neither any trace nor even any record of them there. Also of note: Archer had once personally spied what he thought may be a Nandi bear, some time prior to December 1937 (the month in which his sighting had been documented, but not dated, by British governmental administrator Captain William Hichens within an article on African mystery beasts published by the periodical Discovery). Archer had been in the company of a Major Braithwaite when they saw in some long grass what they initially took to be a lioness, until they saw that it sported a snout. Its head was very large, and it stood about 4.5 ft at the withers, which were very high, but its back sloped steeply to the hindquarters. Its coat was thick and dark brown in colour. They lost sight of this curious creature when it disappeared into a belt of trees near the river.
In addition to the Hutton and Archer reports documented by Chum and recorded by me above, I also learned of the following one. In 1962, the father of Nandi-born white hunter Jamie McLeod shot a creature whose unresolved species McLeod himself subsequently spied, and which he too referred to as a giant forest hyaena. According to his description, it was twice the size of Africa's spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta (the largest hyaena species known to exist today), with long shaggy brown hair that tended to be very dirty on its belly, a lion-sized head, large carnivorous teeth, and a sloping back (but not as pronounced as the spotted hyaena's). I'm not aware of any details concerning the fate of the specimen shot by McLeod's father.
From such reports as these, it does seem unlikely at least on first sight that 'giant forest hyaenas' of the type documented here are spotted hyaenas. Occurring throughout eastern Africa south of the Sahara, this latter creature is as noted above the largest of the four modern-day species of hyaena, weighing as much as 120 lb, with a total length of up to 7 ft in exceptional specimens, and a shoulder height sometimes reaching 3 ft. Yet these still fall short of the dimensions required by any hyaena seeking to assume the role of the mystery beasts reported here. Nor does the long, shaggy, drab-coloured fur usually ascribed to the latter cryptids readily recall the typically short-furred, spotted pelage of Crocuta crocuta (although it is true that in terms of individual coat colouration and patterning, this species can be extremely varied – more about which later).
In 2019, a correspondent whose identity is known to me but chooses not to reveal it publicly online, preferring to use the screen name Bradypus Tamias instead (and which, therefore, I shall also do here), kindly brought to my attention a very extensive and thoroughly fascinating but hitherto obscure article on the Nandi bear that had appeared in the October/November 1998 issue of the Nairobi-based SAFARI Magazine (an in-flight magazine that some commercial airlines carry for their passengers to read).
Written by Gordon Boy, it included many of the famous published reports of early 20th-Century Nandi bear sightings (a fair number of which are also documented within my two prehistoric survivor books' very extensive Nandi bear section), as well as the late 1950s Hutton episode documented by me above regarding the two slain but subsequently vanished 'giant forest hyaenas'. Moreover, it also included details of a much more recent Nandi bear encounter, one that was entirely new to me. It took place in February 1998, i.e. just 8 months before the publication of Boy's SAFARI article, and here is his description of that incident:
An expatriate construction engineer, Dennis Burnett, then based temporarily in Kisumu while working on a project for the Nairobi road-building firm Issaco, was driving home at night along the Koru-Kisumu road skirting the base of the Nandi Escarpment with his wife Marlene. It was pouring with rain when, suddenly, a large animal stepped out onto the road in front of their car. “In that instant, I could have sworn it was a bear,” he says.
The Burnetts were lucky enough to get a second look. “We stopped the car and, after reversing slowly back to the spot and then directing our brights onto the side for which the beast had seemed to be heading, we saw it again, for about 15 seconds, passing right in front of us.” It was then, Burnett says, that he and his wife realised that their ‘bear’ was really “an enormous, shaggy hyena – like a Striped Hyena, only very much bigger.”
The striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena is smaller than the spotted hyaena, standing up to 2.5 ft at the shoulder, with a head and body length of up to 4.25 ft plus a tail length of up t0 1.25 ft, and an average weight of around 77 lb, but with confirmed records of up to 121 lb. It occurs throughout East Africa, North Africa, and northwestern Africa (plus parts of the Middle East and southern Asia), and is named after the vertical striping on its flanks. Yet even if an exceptionally large specimen could explain the Burnetts' sighting documented above, it does not correspond with those in which the cryptids were referred to as giant forest hyaenas.
Nor does the only other hyaena species known to exist in East Africa – the aardwolf Proteles cristatus. For although it bears a superficial resemblance to the striped hyaena in terms of its striped coat and body outline, this aberrant species is the smallest, weakest hyaena alive today, and is exclusively insectivorous. So it is highly unlikely to be a plausible identity for the above mystery beasts.
If only the shot carcase of one of these mystifying Nandi-originating 'forest hyaenas' had received an unequivocal taxonomic identification by a relevant scientist and had then been sent to one of the world's premier collections of natural history specimens for a comprehensive second opinion (followed by formal documentation and recognition thereafter in the official zoological literature). In fact, although not previously revealed within the cryptozoological community, that is precisely what did happen – or at least most of it. Moreover, this particular specimen is also potentially of immense zoological significance, because it was identified neither as a spotted hyaena nor as a striped hyaena nor even as an aardwolf.
So here, as a ShukerNature exclusive, is the full story of this very unexpected specimen – an unmasked Nandi bear, no less, but no more either...
In another email to me of 2019, Bradypus Tamias mentioned that he had been seeking sight of an article written by an Angus F. Hutton that had appeared in the October/November 2009 issue of Old Africa, a magazine devoted to recalling East Africa's past and published in Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi, in Kenya. Happily, I was able to track it down online as a pdf file, and sent Bradypus a direct link to it.
Moreover, as soon as I began reading this article myself, it became evident that Angus F. Hutton was actually one and the same as Douglas Hutton, the manager of Chemomi Tea Estate who, according to Chum, had shot the two giant forest hyaenas in around 1957-1958 – except that he hadn't…
Nor, clearly, was Hutton's first name Douglas – just one of three notable errors made by Chum concerning this incident, as we shall now see.
A Life Fellow of the renowned Zoological Society of London who was very well-acquainted with the local Nandi fauna, Hutton opened his article by stating that a few years previously (i.e. prior to 2009), he had been amazed to find online his name linked to:
…a vague report about my shooting two Nandi Bears and the skins being lost! Actually it was only ONE Nandi Bear. I shot it with my .38 KPR Revolver half way between the Nandi Bears Club [a golf club] and Chemomi in the bit of forest at the saddle (where the Nandi used to hold their circumcision ceremonies). I was accompanied by our Cattle Assistant, Harry Tunmer, who had his massive Colt 45 Special Revolver. I had seen the mysterious Nandi Bear several times in that same area…I was determined to obtain a specimen of the Nandi Bear to end the speculation of what kind of animal it was.
I was Senior Assistant Manager and Factory Manager at Chemomi Tea from 1954 to 1962. I had numerous discussions with Dr Louis Leakey about my encounters with the elusive animal.
Dr Louis Leakey (1903-1972) was of course the eminent Kenya-based palaeoanthropologist whose pioneering archaeological work at Olduvai Gorge alongside his wife Mary revealed many highly significant early human remains, contributing immensely to our knowledge of human evolution in Africa. Moreover, at the time of Hutton's communications with him, Leakey was curator of the then Coryndon Museum – his tenure there spanning 1941-1961.
In his article, Hutton then related how, one evening in June 1960 (i.e. not in either 1958 or 1959 as Chum had claimed), while at the Nandi Bears Club, he had received a telephone call from his wife Gen at their Chemomi home concerning their newish cook/houseboy who was armed with a panga (long machete-like knife) and seemed both drunk and half-demented, causing her to fear for her safety and that of their two children. So Hutton, accompanied by Tunmer, left the club at once and drove back towards Chemomi. Then:
Suddenly as we rounded a bend there were TWO Nandi Bears about five yards away on my side of the road dazzled by the headlights. To me they both looked like smallish bears standing upright – about four to five feet in height – till I realized their front feet were still on the ground and the animals, in fact, had all four feet on the ground.
As a famous, longstanding big-game hunter, Hutton was a crack shot, and dispatched the larger of these two peculiar creatures straight away with a single bullet that severed the spinal cord in its neck, so that it dropped dead with its head at right angles to its body. Knowing the scientific worth of its skull if undamaged, Hutton stopped Tunmer from shooting it in the head (which he had wanted to do in order to ensure that it really was dead). As for its smaller companion:
The other animal bolted back into the bush on my side so Harry was unable to get a shot at it, but he had a good view. We could see how the shoulders sloped back sharply to the rump as it disappeared into the forest. He helped me load the corpse into the back of the wagon. I was amazed to see what I had shot. The animal was quite unlike anything I had ever read about or seen. It had long shaggy gingery-brown coloured hair. I was amazed at the height of its shoulders in relation to its very low hindquarters. It had small rounded ears. Its jaw and teeth were massive and its tail very short with a small black tuft on the end. The feet were also black. The sexual organs were huge and absolutely astounding. The animal appeared to be both male and female at the same time.
Hutton and Tunmer drove on swiftly to Hutton's house, where the cook, lying in a drunken stupor outside, took one look at the dead Nandi bear, dropped his panga as he shrieked in terror, then ran off, not returning for three days. Hutton and Tunmer, meanwhile, brought the creature's carcase inside the house, and the following day saw Hutton taking numerous colour photo-slides of it. Then, being an expert taxidermist as well as a very proficient big-game hunter, he carefully skinned and prepared its pelt, dissected its skeleton, and afterwards buried it in an ant heap for the voracious ants to strip every vestige of flesh from its bones. He also returned to the spot where he had shot it, and took plaster casts of the pugmarks from both animals that were still present there.
Hutton then telephoned Dr Leakey at the Coryndon Museum to inform him of what he had obtained, and a very excited Leakey asked him to ensure that everything was preserved. Hutton posted all of his slides to Leakey (but had not obtained copies of any of them beforehand that he could have retained for safekeeping), and some time later the preserved, well-packaged skeleton was delivered personally to Leakey by one of Hutton's friends. Hutton also sent to him the preserved skin and the spoor casts, all of which Leakey safely received, as acknowledged by him in a typewritten letter to Hutton dated 8 August 1960. Confirming this is a photograph of that letter, included in Hutton's Old Africa article. So far, so good – and more was still to come!
In his letter to Hutton, Leakey made the following revelatory statement concerning the identity of Hutton's shot Nandi bear:
There is no doubt it is the Long Haired Brown Hyaena which is almost unknown and has never been properly scientifically described. It was first recorded by Colonel Meinertzhagen, who shot one in 1905 in the Nandi area during the Nandi Wars. He preserved only the skin and sent this to the British Museum Natural History [now London's Natural History Museum] in 1906 on his return to England.
There is another record in our Museum of one, which was found partly eaten by a leopard by a local settler near Tindaret in 1913. However, the skin had to be discarded as it was badly preserved. The BMNS [sic – should be BMNH] specimen also appears to have disappeared which is unfortunate, as I contacted them after receiving your earlier letter, dated October 12th 1958, when my assistant Miss Jane Goodall, made a thorough search of our records.
Two short paragraphs, but containing a wealth of telling yet also sometimes confusing information. So let's start our analysis of their contents at the beginning.
First and foremost, the Long Haired Brown Hyaena is obviously what is nowadays known simply as the brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, the fourth species of hyaena still living today. It is only marginally larger than the striped, and therefore rather smaller than the spotted, but both the striped and the brown hyaena can readily make themselves look much larger than they actually are by erecting hairs up to 1 ft long on their neck and back, which they do during acts of aggression or agitation. Moreover, the brown hyaena is instantly distinguished from all three of the other modern-day hyaena species by virtue of its very long, shaggy, dark brown coat, its tall brown-and-white striped limbs, very large pointed ears, and short, bushy, but fairly inconspicuous tail, which collectively give it a somewhat bear-like appearance.
Needless to say, therefore, if the brown hyaena inhabited East Africa, it would make at least on morphological grounds a very plausible Nandi bear of the 'giant forest hyaena' variety, especially if an unexpected encounter with humans caused it to feel threatened and thus to erect its neck and back hairs, thereby greatly increasing its perceived stature. However, this species, the rarest hyaena alive today, is officially confined entirely to southern Africa, but note my usage here of the word 'officially'…
In 1930, the skull of a supposed baby Nandi bear, which had been trapped on a farm near Koru (now Muhoroni), was presented to Colonel Charles T. Stoneham (a major collector of natural history specimens that later formed the basis of the Museum of Western Kenya). This was because Stoneham was known for his interest in the Nandi bear, having earlier claimed an encounter with a living specimen. However, as has been documented by Heuvelmans and others, Stoneham's detailed description of what he saw gave little room for doubt that it was actually an aardvark – he even likened it to an "anteater".
Anxious, therefore, to avoid any confusion or ridicule this second time, instead of passing any opinion himself Stoneham forwarded the skull to none other than Leakey at the Coryndon Museum. After examining it closely, Leakey had startled everyone by confirming that although a hyaena skull, it was from neither a spotted nor a striped hyaena, but was instead that of an old, full-grown brown hyaena!
Speaking of Leakey: in his letter to Hutton, what did he mean when he claimed that the brown hyaena "is almost unknown and has never been properly scientifically described [and] was first recorded by Colonel Meinertzhagen, who shot one in 1905 in the Nandi area during the Nandi Wars"? In reality, the brown hyaena was formally described and named as long ago as 1820, by Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg, who dubbed it Parahyena brunnea (but it was later rehoused in the genus Hyaena, alongside the striped hyaena). It is also depicted via engravings and its occurrence in southern Africa documented within several 19th-Century natural history tomes that I own. Consequently, what Leakey was evidently referring to was its presence in East Africa, something that even today is not officially recognized.
Moving on to Meinertzhagen: although British soldier and ornithologist Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967) is famous in cryptozoological circles by virtue of his discovering in 1904 Africa's spectacular giant forest hog Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, which is the world's largest species of wild pig, his name is also infamously associated with a number of zoological hoaxes. Among the most notorious of these are ones featuring bird specimens that he claimed to have personally obtained in certain named localities in the wild, only for researchers to discover later that he had in fact purloined them from various collections and had entirely invented their alleged provenances. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, therefore, doubt has been expressed over whether his 1905 brown hyaena specimen really did originate from East Africa.
As for Hutton's earlier letter of 12 August 1958, sent to Leakey's assistant, Miss Jane Goodall: yes indeed, this really is THE Jane Goodall, who went on to become one of the world's foremost field anthropologists due to her pioneering, seminal, and still-ongoing studies of chimpanzee behaviour in the wild. Sadly, Hutton did not include in his Old Africa article a photograph or any details regarding the content of his letter to Miss (now Dr) Goodall, but he did include a transcript of her short letter replying to it, which was dated 20 October 1958. Only one paragraph of her reply mentions the Nandi bear (but as seen below, it very succinctly reveals what he had written about it in his letter to her), which reads as follows:
Your record that the Nandi Bear has been seen by numerous people in your district during the last six months intrigues me. Your description sounds to me like the long-haired brown hyaena which is, unfortunately, little known in this country [Kenya]. Most people are only conversant with the Spotted Hyaena and the Striped Hyaena. The Brown Hyaena, however, does not walk on its hind legs!
As personally experienced by Hutton during his encounter with the two Nandi bear specimens on that fateful June 1960 evening, however, the marked difference in height between their shoulders and their much lower hindquarters can create the illusion that it is standing upright. This in turn could explain Nandi bear eyewitnesses claiming that they have seen such beasts walking upright, especially if these eyewitnesses were sufficiently startled by spying them in the first place or only had an indistinct view of them.
Returning to Hutton's shot Nandi bear specimen: what happened to it after Leakey had identified it as a brown hyaena? Due to its great significance as having been shot not in southern Africa but instead in East Africa, where this species was not supposed to exist, Leakey rightly deemed it to be "a very rare and valuable specimen". Consequently, and albeit reluctantly (because as he noted in his letter to Hutton he would have dearly liked to have retained it at the Coryndon Museum), Leakey decided to send it to London's British Museum Natural History for a full scientific description of it to be prepared there and officially published in the zoological literature. Due to its weight, however, he elected to send it (together with the colour photo-slides and spoor casts) not by air but instead by sea freight, from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. This he did – but apparently this zoologically-priceless package never reached the BMNH!
Instead, to quote Hutton's wry comment in his Old Africa article:
Sadly, probably the world's rarest natural history specimen and the colour slides disappeared between Mombasa and England without trace. Who knows? It might still be sailing the seven seas in a ship's bilge!
But how do we know for certain that it never reached the BMNH? Leakey never received any acknowledgement of its arrival there, so he naturally assumed that it was lost, but there is a lot more than just that to take into account here.
I noted earlier in this present ShukerNature blog article that according to Chum, Hutton's friend Ken Archer had asked him on Hutton's behalf in 1981 to check whether there were any records at Kenya's National Museum of the two Nandi bears shot by Hutton, but that he had found no trace nor even any record there of those specimens. Of course, we now know from Hutton's own article in Old Africa that although he had encountered two specimens, he had only shot one of them, the other specimen escaping unharmed. So Chum was incorrect in relation to this key aspect of that incident – and that was not his only misapprehension concerning it either. I have already mentioned his misremembering Hutton's first name, but he also made a third mistake, which in my opinion was the most profound and far-reaching one.
For of crucial importance here, so please keep this fact firmly in mind, is that whereas Chum had claimed that the two Nandi bears (in reality only one) had been shot by Douglas (in reality Angus) Hutton around 1957-1958, Hutton confirmed in his Old Africa article that he had shot the single Nandi bear in June 1960. So Chum had been wrong not only about Hutton's name and about how many Nandi bears had been shot by him but also about when the shooting had taken place. Yet, paradoxically, this last-mentioned mistake by him actually provides a sliver of hope that Hutton's ostensibly lost specimen might not actually be lost after all!
This is because in addition to searching the records of Kenya's National Museum, Chum had also contacted the BMNH's then mammal curator Daphne Hills, to double-check whether Hutton's specimen had indeed arrived there. We know that significant detail, because Hutton exclusively revealed this in his article by including in it the full typescript of Hills's letter of reply to Chum, which was dated 27 November 1981. In her letter, Hills made the following pertinent statements:
I have recently been curating our hyaena material and can say with some certainty we do not possess a specimen of the Chemoni Tea Estate sent from the Coryndon.
I have also looked at the correspondence from 1956 to 1959. There are a great many letters from Dr. Leakey, but no mention of a hyaena or "Nandi Bears." The "Long-haired Brown Forest Hyaena" sounds a most unlikely name, as the brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea is restricted to S. Africa and Namibia, but it could perhaps refer to an oddly coloured spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta like the one mentioned in the enclosed article by R.I. Pocock. [Hills had enclosed with her reply to Chum a couple of articles, and I suspect that the Pocock article was one entitled 'The Story of the Nandi Bear', published by Natural History Magazine in 1930, which contains details concerning a number of aberrant spotted hyaenas deemed by some to have been Nandi bears.]
Let's dissect those two paragraphs from Hills's letter and annotate them with some relevant information.
Firstly, the BMNH has a number of very sizeable warehouses containing specimens that have been received by it but not presently studied or assimilated into its main collections. Consequently, it is possible that Hutton's specimen did arrive but was passed to one of these warehouses and may still be there today, unregistered and uncatalogued. This could explain why Hills did not encounter it when curating the museum's hyaena material.
Secondly: Hills was obviously at a great disadvantage when attempting to offer an identification of Hutton's specimen, because she had neither the specimen itself nor any photos of it nor even a verbal description to examine, nothing more in fact than the "long-haired brown hyaena" appellation given to it by Leakey. And as the brown hyaena is not supposed to exist in East Africa, it is hardly surprising that she discounted this species as an identity for Hutton's missing mammal.
Thirdly: we now come to by far the most perplexing content of Hills's reply, at least on first sight. She stated that she had looked at the correspondence (on file at the BMNH) from 1956 to 1959, but had not found any letter from Leakey mentioning a hyaena or Nandi bears. When I read this statement, I immediately thought to myself: "Why was she looking through correspondence from 1956 to 1959, when Hutton hadn't even shot the creature until June 1960? Why hadn't she looked through correspondence from 1960 to 1961, instead?" After all, it's hardly surprising that she didn't find any letter dated 1956-1959 from Leakey containing a mention of a hyaena or Nandi bears when the earliest that he would have written such a letter would have been the second half of 1960.
Nor was I alone in being mystified by this chronological conundrum. At the very end of Hutton's article in Old Africa, the magazine's editor had added a single-paragraph conclusion, which included the following line:
And the letter from the British Museum [i.e. Hills] says they checked the letters received from Dr Leakey between 1956 to 1959, but the Nandi Bear specimen was not sent to them until some time after August 1960.
Precisely so. And then I had a thought. As already noted here by me, Chum had been under the misapprehension that Hutton had shot the Nandi bear (or two Nandi bears, as he was also wrong about) around 1958-1959, not 1960. Consequently, it seems very plausible to me that when Chum wrote to Hills, those were the dates that he included in his letter, not 1960 (no mention of that letter's contents were given by Hutton in his article, but this is perfectly understandable, because there is no reason why Hutton would have ever seen it prior to Chum sending it to Hills). If I am correct, this would therefore explain the otherwise incongruous action of Hills looking through correspondence for entirely the wrong years.
However, it also means that in the BMNH's 1960-1961 correspondence there just might be a letter from Leakey concerning Hutton's specimen. If so, and if, furthermore, this letter had not been sent in advance but had actually been included by Leakey inside the package containing that specimen (which after all is a reasonable assumption, as it would instantly explain the package's contents to whoever opened the package upon its arrival at the BMNH), the letter's presence in the BMNH's correspondence would mean that his specimen did reach the museum after all! Consequently, you will not be surprised to know that I have contacted the relevant researchers at the BMNH explaining all of this, and asking if it would be possible for a perusal of communications received in 1960-1961 to be scrutinized in search of such a letter from Leakey. If I receive a response, I shall of course include a relevant update here.
Meanwhile: yet another major aspect of this complex case needs to be considered here. Namely, did Hutton's two sighted Nandi bears constitute representatives of some still-cryptic indigenous East African population of the brown hyaena, or might they instead have been a pair of stragglers that had somehow made their way across thousands of intervening miles from their species' confirmed homeland in southern Africa?
In 1962, Hutton left Kenya permanently (resettling in Australia), but back in his time there and earlier, the Nandi Forest was a dark, forbidding locality, covering a very considerable area and contiguous with the equally dreaded Kakamega Forest. These very dense, wooded expanses were rarely penetrated by their superstitious human neighbours for fear of what horrors they may encounter there. Consequently, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that this rainforest jungle domain did once house a native population of that mysterious hyaena, which in view of its secretive, nocturnal lifestyle and dark coat would only rarely be spied, but which on account of its unfamiliar nature would be blamed for whatever predatory attacks by whatever forms of creature occurred in its vicinity, i.e. regardless of whether the brown hyaena was the actual culprit. So, more of a scape-hyaena or bogey bear than a Nandi bear?
Having said that: if there are (or were) indigenous brown hyaenas in East Africa, genetic isolation from their southern African compatriots may have engendered via evolution a larger body size for them, further heightening the terror that encounters with such creatures would have elicited among the Nandi locals.
Moreover, there is a very notable precedent for exhibiting a discontinuous geographical distribution – and from within the hyaenas' very own taxonomic family. Famously, the aardwolf is known to exist in East Africa and southern Africa but nowhere in between. So why not the brown hyaena too, especially as this latter species is extremely reclusive? (In 2008, I was extremely lucky to spy a brown hyaena while taking part in a dawn safari at the Shamwari private game reserve in South Africa.)
Sadly, however, by the 1980s great swathes of the original Nandi and Kakamega rainforests had been depleted, replaced by cultivated farm land, no doubt leading in turn to a corresponding depletion of the fauna that once inhabited this area. This in turn could explain why modern-day Nandi bear reports are virtually non-existent – any indigenous brown hyaena population that may have formerly existed there is now almost certainly gone, wiped out. To quote Chum in his afore-mentioned East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin article from 1981:
Hyaenas used to be numerous [in the Nandi/Kakamega Forest area] in the past but with the development of tea gardens much of the forest has disappeared and below the escarpment there is a vast sea of sugar cane. A good hyaena environment no longer exists while additionally today there is little food to sustain a population of this animal. The local people and many club members of the Nandi Hills Club [aka the Nandi Bears Golf Club] say they have not seen hyaena for many years though they used to be fairly common.
Alternatively, might any encounters with brown hyaenas in East Africa feature wanderers from southern Africa instead (or even additionally)? This is by no means impossible either. Referring to the Leakey-identified brown hyaena skull obtained in 1930 near Koru, Boy notably revealed in his afore-mentioned SAFARI article:
This was a significant discovery in itself, in that Brown Hyenas, while not uncommon then in some parts of southern Africa, had never before been recorded so far north of the Zambezi. …
When, in the decades that followed, occasional reports emerged, of sightings of Brown Hyenas along the shorelines of the Rift Valley lakes of Manyara, Eyasi, and Natron, in northern Tanzania, the strange case of the Nandi bear appeared, to many, to be as good as closed.
From time to time, it seemed, possibly in drought years, nomadic Brown Hyenas from southern Africa, usually solitary males, would wander northward, following the course of the Rift Valley, where they would sometimes be found scavenging at night around the lakes. Sightings, though, of such beasts were accounted so sporadic, as to persuade many that the Brown Hyena – rarely ever seen, and wholly unfamiliar to people in East Africa – must, indeed, be the basis for the legend of the Nandi bear.
Thanks to Stoneham, Hutton, and Leakey, physical, tangible evidence had ostensibly been procured for the erstwhile existence of at least three brown hyaena specimens in East Africa, and specifically Kenya, although whether these were from an undiscovered indigenous population or were simply rare wanderers that had made their way northeastward from southern Africa remains undetermined.
In conclusion: after reading the articles of Boy and Hutton, I should now favour the brown hyaena as a leading player within Kenya's long-running Nandi bear stage show – but note my usage and emphasis of the word 'should'.
Yes indeed: just when you thought that Hutton's sighted/shot Nandi bears had been conclusively identified as brown hyaenas, albeit on zoogeographical grounds a most surprising identity for them and thence for the Nandi bear as a whole, it's time for me to totally turn this entire ShukerNature blog article upon its metaphorical head, by stating that in my humble opinion, Dr Leakey may in fact have been wrong when identifying Hutton's shot specimen (and thence by association its escaped mate too) as Hyaena brunnea – and here's why.
Throughout my researching and writing this present article, two short lines in Hutton's account of his shot Nandi bear have nagged away remorselessly at the back of my mind when attempting to reconcile Leakey's identification of it as a brown hyaena – and here are those two lines, which appeared in his description of the specimen:
The sexual organs were huge and absolutely astounding. The animal appeared to be both male and female at the same time.
These lines confirm beyond any shadow of doubt that Hutton's shot Nandi bear was a hyaena. For in zoological circles it is well known that adult female hyaenas possess an extremely sizeable penis-like clitoris that is almost as large as an adult male's bona fide penis (and is thus referred to as a pseudo-penis), as well as fused labiae that look surprisingly like testicles (i.e. a false or pseudo-scrotum) – highly unexpected attributes that have often resulted in observers wrongly claiming that hyaenas are hermaphrodites (i.e. both male and female at the same time, especially as adult females also possess teats). Or, to be precise – and which is absolutely crucial here – wrongly claiming that one species of hyaena is hermaphrodite. For there is indeed only one single species of hyaena whose adult females exhibit this extreme sexual condition, and it is NOT the brown hyaena!
On the contrary, adult females of the brown hyaena, and also of the striped hyaena and the aardwolf, all possess normal sexual organs. The only hyaena species whose females possess this bizarre peniform clitoris and labiae-created pseudo-scrotum is the spotted hyaena! (NB – in a May 2007 paper published by the scientific journal Hormones and Behavior, a team of researchers reported transient genital anomalies characterized by a convergence in genital appearance among young male and female striped hyaenas, but not among adult males and females of this species.)
representation of the external genitalia of an adult female spotted hyena,
showing the peniform clitoris and false scrotum. From: Matthews, L. Harrison,
'Reproduction in the Spotted Hyaena Crocula
crocuta (Erxleben)', Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B, vol. 230 (1939) (public
Here is a pertinent quote from the chapter on hyaenas in Volume 6 of the second edition of Encyclopaedia of Reproduction (2018), providing a succinct description of the spotted hyaena's extraordinary anatomical condition:
Whereas the first three species [aardwolf, striped hyaena, and brown hyaena] show the typical mammalian pattern of sexual dimorphism [i.e. the sexes are morphologically distinct], the fourth – the spotted hyena – shows the most extreme form of sexual monomorphism [the sexes look similar] evidenced by any mammal. The female spotted hyena is behaviorally and morphologically “masculinized,” being larger than the male, socially dominant over the male, and possessing external reproductive anatomy that bears striking resemblance to that of the male. Notably, the female has no "external" vagina; instead, the urogenital canal passes through a peniform clitoris, providing the female spotted hyena with a singular opening through which she urinates, copulates, and gives birth.
Moreover, in each of the other three hyaena species the sexes are roughly the same size, but in the spotted hyaena, as noted above, the female is larger than the male.
Time, therefore, to recall that Hutton had stated in his account that it had been the larger of the two specimens encountered together by him and Tunmer that he had shot. This simple statement allows two notable deductions to be made. Firstly, they had to have been a pair of spotted hyaenas, not brown hyaenas (or any other modern-day hyaena species), because of the size difference between the two specimens (both were clearly adults because if one of them had been a juvenile and hence was smaller than the other for that specific reason, I feel sure that Hutton would have remarked upon this, as he was an experienced wildlife observer). Secondly, if they had indeed been a pair of adult spotted hyaenas, then the specimen that Hutton shot must have been the female, because it was the larger of the two. And sure enough, Hutton's statement about its astonishing sexual organs giving it the appearance of being both male and female indicate that it had indeed been an adult female spotted hyaena.
Also relevant here is that if this had been the identity of Hutton's shot Nandi bear, it would have borne teats, which of course would have only added to his confusion as to whether this bemusing beast was both male and female!
Further problems when attempting to reconcile Hutton's specimen with a brown hyaena identity also exist. Note that in his description of it, Hutton had stated that the creature's ears were small and rounded, the specific shade of its brown coat was gingery, and its tail had a tuft at its tip. Yet the brown hyaena's ears are conspicuously large and characteristically pointed, its coat is very dark brown, never gingery, and its entire tail is bushy, not just tufted at the tip. Conversely, the spotted hyaena's ears are indeed small and rounded, its coat is indeed gingery-brown in some individuals, and its tail is indeed only tufted at its tip.
In fact, as noted earlier here and represented visually by a colour photograph depicting a grey-coated specimen and a ginger-coated specimen standing together, the spotted hyaena is extremely variable in terms of coat colour and patterning. Moreover, the same also applies regarding its coat length, especially when its neck/back mane is taken into account. Game warden Captain Charles R.S. Pitman's fascinating book A Game Warden Among His Charges (1931) contains plenty of information on African mystery beasts, some of which he had personally investigated, including the Nandi bear. In his book, Pitman documented some truly remarkable examples of aberrant spotted hyaenas, and included a photograph of an extraordinarily shaggy spotted hyaena pelt whose colour was referred to by him in the photo's caption as being "like a 'blue kerry'". This bizarre pelt had been obtained from Kenya's Mount Elgon, and had been claimed by locals to be from a Nandi bear. Here is Pitman's verbal description of it:
The feet were missing and the tail was damaged. In general appearance it was that of a long-haired sheep-dog, blackish or blackish-brown dappled with whitish…The face is whitish and there is a long, coarse, pale mane – many of the white hairs are tipped with black. The shoulders are blackish, the back being of the same colour dappled whitish and freely interspersed with long white hairs. There is a secondary coat close to the skin of thick, brownish, woolly hairs. The hindquarters on which there are distinct traces of spotting are blackish with a rufous tinge. The tail, as far as could be seen, is generally whitish, but black near the root, and at the tip there is a big, black, bushy tuft. In spite of its peculiarities, even a cursory glance suggested the pelt of a spotted hyena, a creature with whose bewildering colour variations I am familiar.
The above description certainly recalls the shaggy dark brown 'giant forest hyaenas' and thence Nandi bears that have been documented earlier in this present ShukerNature blog article. And readily recalling Hutton's shot Nandi bear is the following hairy, gingery-brown-furred, only very faintly-patterned specimen of spotted hyaena photographed in Kenya alongside her pair of spotted cubs, one of which is reddish, the other grey, but both much more typical of their species in overall appearance:
There can be no doubt, therefore, that spotted hyaena specimens that superficially recall brown hyaenas but are much bigger, being of typical spotted hyaena size, do exist after all, and parsimoniously would make much more likely giant forest hyaenas aka Nandi bears than actual brown hyaenas would, especially as the latter beasts would be also exceedingly out of place in East Africa.
Obviously I cannot offer the following opinion as a statement of fact in the absence of having first seen Hutton's specimen personally or at least some photo-slides of it. Nevertheless, based upon Hutton's very informative description of this specimen, plus what I have presented here regarding unexpected yet fully-confirmed brown-coated, shaggy Crocuta specimens, the likelihood is that his shot Nandi bear was not a brown hyaena at all, but was instead an adult female spotted hyaena, and that, against all expectations, Leakey's taxonomic identification of it was incorrect.
This particular case provides a perfect example of open-mindedly allowing the facts to guide you to your conclusions, rather than adopting the reverse course of action, i.e. close-mindedly twisting the facts to support a pre-conceived notion. For when I began investigating and researching this ShukerNature article, I freely confess that I naturally assumed Leakey to have been correct in his identification of Hutton's Nandi bear as a brown hyaena, and I anticipated on documenting the history of this remarkable but hitherto little-known specimen accordingly. However, during the preparation of my article, I became increasingly uncertain, with Hutton's telling lines describing the creature's sexual organs refusing to be ignored and, in turn, leading me to notice other morphological inconsistencies in this identification too. Consequently, by the end of my article's preparation these facts had guided me into concluding that, notwithstanding Leakey's pronouncement to the contrary, an adult female spotted hyaena, and not a brown hyaena, was the more likely explanation after all.
Nevertheless, after reviewing all of the cases and opinions documented here, not just the Hutton/Leakey episode, it wouldn't surprise me if at least a few brown hyaena specimens had indeed been sighted in and around the Nandi/Kakamega Forest area down through the decades, especially in earlier times when there was much more cover there in which they could remain concealed when not seeking prey. Some of the descriptions of Nandi-spied mystery animals presented above irresistibly recall this very distinctive species. So even though the Hutton individuals must surely have been a pair of adult spotted hyaenas based at least upon Hutton's description of them, perhaps a few brown hyaena specimens have occasionally wandered northward from their southern African homeland, thereby explaining the Nandi people's terror when seeing one, because as noted above they would have no traditional knowledge of this formidable-looking but zoogeographically out-of-place beast.
One final mystery: in a short letter of 12 March 1982 to Ken Archer in which he enclosed a copy of Daphne Hills's letter containing her comments, Chum added a most intriguing comment of his own:
I have looked at the photographs but really cannot come to a definite conclusion though they are hyaena-like, and this is the finding of others who have studied them.
But which photos was Chum referring to in his letter to Archer? All of the photo-slides snapped by Hutton of his shot Nandi bear specimen and sent by him to Leakey in 1960 had supposedly been packaged by Leakey with the specimen itself and sent by him to the BMNH later that same year. Yet could it be that in reality Leakey had kept a few of them back, retaining them at the Coryndon Museum as a safety precaution, perhaps, just in case the package did indeed go astray in transit? If so, and these precious few images of Hutton's specimen are what Chum had looked at, they were clearly still there during the early 1980s, and may still be there today. Another avenue of enquiry that I am therefore currently pursuing.
Speaking of Chum: in view of his prominent place within this very chequered history of the cryptozoological kind, it seemed only fair and proper that the last word here should go to him. Yes indeed, after writing to him on the subject of African mystery beasts in general but African mystery cats in particular, I received a very detailed handwritten letter from Dr Gurner Robert Cunningham-van Someren, dated 24 September 1987, which I still have on file. Although he was interested in the notion of unexpected animals being discovered in the Dark Continent and elsewhere, and discussed various African examples, he seemed less than impressed in the possibility of the Nandi bear ever becoming one of them, confining his entire coverage of this particular cryptid to a single short but memorable paragraph at the very end of his letter. Here is that paragraph:
Sorry I am unable to be more helpful – the Nandi Bear business was really a PR job as the tea planter [Archer, presumably] was so insistent.
In other words, Chum evidently did not consider the matter a serious one, but had searched on Archer's behalf for Hutton's specimen at the Kenya National Museum and had written his letter concerning it to Daphne Hills at London's BMNH simply to stay on good terms with him. Moreover, Chum's apparent disinterest in the Hutton incident may well explain why he had made three separate mistakes when recalling details regarding it, which in view of his renowned reputation as an extremely knowledgeable authority on African wildlife was highly uncharacteristic of him.
All in all, this has been a cryptozoological case that initially promised so much but ultimately delivered so little.
Certainly, and regardless of the taxonomic identity of the creature at its core, it remains exceedingly tragic that a specimen unequivocally identified as a bona fide Nandi bear by the person who procured it and who was very familiar with the local fauna has managed to slip through our grasp and consign this mysterious mammal to continuing official obscurity.
Then again, it may not have done. Perhaps there is indeed a letter from Leakey on file at London's Natural History Museum still awaiting disclosure, and perhaps somewhere in one of this leading scientific establishment's vast warehouses of stored but presently-unscrutinized specimens there are indeed a preserved pelt and skeleton, plus a series of accompanying photo-slides and pugmark casts, testifying to the reality of Africa's most daunting, redoubtable creature of cryptozoology. As noted above, if I do receive word back from the NHM, I'll be sure to let you know.
To be continued…?
For the most comprehensive modern-day coverage of the Nandi bear in published form, be sure to check out my book Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors.