Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mystery Animals of South Sudan

Sudan has monsters of its own, for certain. They swim in the Nile, lurk in the swamps and hide in the forests awaiting stray travelers to prey upon. In the fertile South, contrasted by the more arid regions of the country with which Sudan is commonly affiliated, the landscape remains largely undeveloped and human settlement is restricted to a handful of well spaced towns with a countryside sparsely populated by tiny hut villages. Much of the land remains untamed, unconquered and in some areas, much feared for its wildlife. There are areas even today where villagers will not enter for fear of the monsters believed to inhabit them.

Normally in my research I take lengths to avoid the word monster. It’s a primitive term, suggesting something outside the boundaries of the natural world. But since being here, “monster” seems appropriate when contemplating the dangers lurking about in this post-war frontier. Monsters will snatch you from the river bank if you linger too long. Others threaten to encoil you until you’re constricted to death. Then, there are the ones you don't notice at all until, following bouts of illness, you eventually find the protruding shape of a large worm coursing beneath your skin. When faced with such real threats it doesn’t seem to matter how many times one has seen documentaries on crocodiles or pythons or the horror that is Guinea Worm, the realization that one could be dispatched, or in the case of the latter, infected as such, sends a spark into the primitive realms of the mind and quickly we recall what it’s like to be prey, again. What were animals on television become monsters as one nervously fumbles to hasten their bathroom excursion in the secluded bush.

Speak with a local Nuer or Dinka and one finds a curious thing. Their list of recognized fauna doesn’t end with those we as Westerners would be familiar with from zoo visits and Discovery Channel. Each cultural group has their own cultural-zoology, or “ethnozoology.” And it’s here, in the folklore of an indigenous group, that the hunt begins by sifting through tribal lore. As always one must learn to better understand a culture before one can best understand their extra-animals. What is intended to be mythical or serve as a boogey man (as every culture has one) vs. an animal that is regarded as extremely rare? What is only known from oral tradition vs. something that is encountered in recent times? What given traits described to a creature are likely based on a fearful superstition vs. actual observations? In the case of animals like frogs or crocodiles being described as being of extraordinary size or unexpected color (many allusions can be found to “black” crocodiles) do these represent unique specimens or a potentially new species?

There’s also the matter of being a layman to the field of zoology—my having to find out if a seemingly extraordinary animal is necessarily ‘new’ to science or already recognized. One Dinka man described to me a type of antelope that lived mostly in the swampy parts of the Nile and had the ability to swim underwater when startled. He’d heard stories of them but had the rare fortune to briefly observe one during the war while being ferried on a small fishing boat. A diving antelope? Seems remarkable enough but Googling those two words we find this incredible animal (the Sitatunga) can be found within zoos. This strange elongated fish I saw a villager carrying while I was riding along on a supply convoy far into the countryside, was that also recognized species? The basketball-sized frogs from the swamps of the Bor region, could those be of a known species reaching exceptional size or does their given color combination not comply with any of the already recognized frogs in Sudan?

At present I’ve invested a total of seven long months in the semi-autonomous South Sudan. Within my time here I’ve gathered bits and pieces of folklore pertaining to potential mystery critters from various sources. First though, a review of what’s already been written in cryptozoology literature about Sudan’s potential mystery animals. With the assistance of a small but effective circle of email-based research colleagues, we thumbed through our books for anything to do with cryptids in Sudan. Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans includes the following in his “Track of Unknown Animals”:

Chepekwe: Described as a ‘giant Iguana’ which supposedly attacks Rhinos, Hippos, and Elephants. This is mentioned as haunting the basin areas of Sudan and surrounding countries.

Dingonek: Something of a hodge-podge of a saber-toothed tiger with some sort of armor-like hide and as big as a hippo, seen near Mara River or Ngare Dubash which runs into Lake Victoria.

Nyokodoing: a sort of “water panther,” amphibious, large-fanged.

Lukwata: A large aquatic creature supposedly encountered in Lake Victoria (which flows into Sudan).

Lau: An enormous super-snake or aquatic reptile of some sort reputed to dwell in Nile swamps. Possibly the same animal as the Lukwata.

Additionally Michael Newton’s extensive Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology includes for Sudan:

Woadd-El-Uma: described as an unknown hominid or merbeing. Amphibious, covered in brown or red hair. June 1832, Joseph Russeger found strange footprints (identified as this creature by a guide) near the third cataract of the Nile. They were 10 inches long, with four long toes and one opposed big toe.

Netwon also makes reference to a primate-like being referred to as the “Waab” and a single-horned rhinoceros.

My own list of odd critters described to me by locals would include black “mutant” crocodiles, river-dwelling octopus, man-eating humanoids, frogs the size of basketballs, gigantic crocodiles, horned snakes, snakes with feathers on their tails and a gigantic, black, swamp-dwelling, gold-vomiting super-snake.

It’s that last one, known as the lau, that I’ve applied the most effort into exploring through regional folklore. And in the process of learning about the lau we find an inescapable relevance to a certain aerial photograph from 1959 in neighboring Zaire (now Congo).

—Nikolai Sucik
Juba, Sudan

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