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African Mystery Beasts

by Captain W. Hichens
Late of the Intelligence and Administrative Services, East Africa

EVERY white hunter who has trekked the African big-game trails has heard tell of strange marauding beasts of a kind that never figures on his game-licence, but which, so the natives say, prowl the dark trackways of the bush around the kraals, or lurk in the forest ways and swamps. In one's hunting camp, when the safari porters squat around the scrub-wood fire at night, they tell queer tales of these fearsome brutes; of the ndalawo, that grim, howling man-eater of the Uganda forests; of the mbilintu, a gigantic hippo-elephant of the Congo swamps; of the dreaded mngwa, that furry, silent-padded, purring lurker in the coconut-groves of the coast; of the lau and the lukwata, monstrous beasts whose hideous calls are heard booming through the grey night-mists of the lakes. And someone is sure to set the whole camp peering fearfully into the shadows with a tale of that grim night in the Masai country, when the kerit, ravenous and awful, raided the sleeping-hutsunder the very nose of the white manand dragged away its shrieking victim. These tales lose nothing in the telling. The flickering flames of the camp fire light up with furtive shadows the dark, mysterious wall of the surrounding bush; a slinking hyæna moans dismally, or the sharp startling yap of an inquisitive jackal punctuates the story; while tipsy little komba, the galago, breaks in with cackling, insane cries from his hiding in some camp-side tree. The porters huddle closer to the fire; the white man casts a reassuring glance upon his guns and pours himself a chota peg ... on such nights prowls kiret, the devilbeast of darkness!

It would be easy to dismiss these stories as mere figments of the black man's night-terrors, born of ignorant superstition, or perhaps phantasms due to sitting too long over camp fires and too near to a warm ntulu-beer pot. But that would be a rash conclusion. For these "mystery" beasts, in some form or another, do exist; they prowl, they howl, they lurk, they leap, they kill. So, although one may say that the horrible mngwa, as the fear-stricken natives of the coastal fishing-kraals describe it, must be a myth, there is no blinking the fact that a stretcher-load of clawed, mauled and mangled man dumped at one's tent door, is no myth at all: and call it mngwa or what you will, the beast which attacked him is no myth either, but patently an animal of the kind which it is best to interview with the business end of a .450.

Nor is the African native a fool in the ways of the bushveld and its beasts; he does not assert that a beast is an mngwa when any old woman in the kraal could tell by a glance at its spoor or by the way it attacked that it is a lion, a leopard or a hyæna. Native hunting lore clearly dis-tinguishes the bush beasts. One well-known hunting-song tells of the simba (lion), nsui (leopard) and the mngwa all in one verse plainly showing that there is no confusion in the native mind between these three great carnivores. Moreover, many white hunters, settlers and officials, whose bona fides cannot be doubted, have spoored, heard, shot at and sometimes even seen and grappled with these mystery monsters; and very occasionally one of the "mythical" beasts is shot or trapped, as happened with the nsui-fisi recently. Then the natives say, "We told you so!" and zoologists scratch their heads and mutter, "ex Africa semper, etc.!" But most of the mystery animals have not yet fallen to the gun. Like the okapi, which long was classed as the purest of myths, they are elusive customers. A roar, a howl, a shattering of kraal-poles, bellowing of oxen, screams of terror ... the beast has come: the beast has gone.

Typical of them and their manner of raiding stock or human quarry is an unknown beast which, for some time past has been wreaking havoc over a large tract of the north Cape Province and Transvaal. No one has seen the animal, but its spoor is known and its savage depredations have caused widespread alarm. The natives call it the khodumodumo, or "gaping-mouthed-bush-monster." In stealthy silence, under cover of the darkest nights, this marauder invades the kraals and farms, clambers over the six-foot palisades which pole in the cattle-byres and stock-pens and then, seizing a sheep, goat, or calf, leaps back over the fence, to disappear with its quarry.

 

A Silent Raider

Its spoor on the kraal pathways and bushveld tracks only serves to shroud the marauder in deeper mystery. Its footprints are "round, saucer-like spoor, with two-inch toenail marks," a pug which has so far puzzled hunters to identify, since it does not fit the paw of any known wild beast that raids stock. The khodumodumo's attacks were especially predatory in the Graaffreinet area, where a posse of over a hundred settlers turned out to hunt the beast down, a large reward having been placed on its head. Views as to what it was varied widely; some held that it was a "freak" hyæna; but others objected that hyaenas always drag their quarry; and, certainly, no one has ever heard of a hyæna leaping a six-foot fence with a calf in its jaws. More, the hyæna is a noisy thief, moaning before a kill and shrieking like a demon afterwards; and this beast is silent. The leap-and-grab attack pointed to a lion or a large leopard. Some lions do raid silently, and I have more than once known them jump a six-foot kraal fence and carry off a beast; for their strength is colossal. But they always grunt in a husky undertone during the kill and often roar later; often they try to stampede coralled stock by roaring at them. This beast was silent.

Many of the hunters in the posse, too, were old hands who would at once recognise lion or leopard spoor, quite apart from scent and other clues. But the khodumodumo has not yet been caught and a useful reward awaits the hunter lucky enough to get this uncanny raider. It is not impossible that the khodumodumo may yet prove to be an animal hitherto unknown. The nsui-fisi was a brute of a similar kind.

Its name means "leopard-hyæna," and many hair-raising tales are to be heard of it in Rhodesian kraals. For many years natives have told white hunters of this beast, averring that it was incredibly cunning, swift and ferocious, as one would expect of a hybrid " killer" combining a leopard's ferocity with the hyæna's slinking guile. It always attacked, the kraalsmen said, at night, and smashed its way through the flimsy doors or roofs of stock-pens, making off with goats and sheep, anal often turning the pens into a veritable shambles. It was like a leopard, the natives declared, but instead of being spotted, it was barred, white and black, like a zebra, and not unlike a striped hyena. But no such beast was known to white hunters and so the nsui-fisi was pooh-poohed into the limbo of "it's just native superstition, of course!"

In this case, however, the native was right. No less an authority than Mr. R. I. Pocock was able to lay on the table of the Zoological Society not long ago, a skin of the nsui-fisi, one of a number obtained in Rhodesia. It was shown to be a new species of cheetah (Acinonyx rex), not spotted, but striped like a zebra, as the kraalsmen had been saying for many years! As Mr. Pocock remarked, it was "most extraordinary that so large and distinct a species should remain for so long unknown." The natives were wrong in supposing the nsui-fisi to be a leopard-hyaena cross, but that is certainly what it looks like to anyone other than a skilled zoologist. It would thus be rash to assert that other "mythical beasts" like the nsui-fisi cannot exist, and it is by no means impossible that the mngwa, kerit, and ndalawo may yet prove to be as real. By description all these beasts are well known.

 

The Terror of the Coastlands

The mngwa, according to natives in the fishing villages strung along the East African coast, is a gigantic cat, striped like a tabby, but as large as a donkey and far more ferocious and fearsome than any lion. It can be said that such a beast is "impossible"; but, having trekked many a long mile in its reputed haunts and helped to patch up more than one of its mangled victims, I am convinced that some beast answering to the mngwa's description does lurk in the dense jungle which fringes parts of this coast. Patches of this dark jungle-growth have not been trodden by human foot for centuries, as may be judged from the fact that a large town of ruined stone mansions has stood in the bush not an afternoon's car-drive north of Mombasa, for over five hundred years, and was utterly unheard of until rediscovered about four years ago. What other secrets does this jungle-belt hold ? The natives swear that it is haunted; and so it may be, by strange beasts. In any event, the mngwa, as a beast distinct from the lion and leopard, has been known to the coastal natives for more than six centuries. A 13th-century song of one of their famous hunter-sultans contains the lines:

 

"I do not dally in the towns, but press into the forest, to be devoured by the mngwa!

And if the mngwa seizes me, devouring my flesh, that is the fortune of the hunt!"

 

Down the years the beast figures in stories, and any native on the coast to-day can tell horrible tales of the mngwa's ferocity and periodical raids. All that is not to be lightheartedly dismissed as "nonsense." Not long ago a man was brought in to me at Mchinga (a small Tanganyika coastal village), on a litter and terribly mauled by some great beast. He said it was a mngwa, and as he himself was a brave and skilful native hunter, who had often tracked down lions, leopards and other "killers" with me and other white men, why should we suppose that in this case he mistook a lion or a leopard for some other beast? He had nothing to gain by telling me lies; on the contrary, as a hunter he depended for his livelihood on being absolutely truthful and trustworthy. On another occasion, at Lindi, another Tanganyika town, a mngwa took to prowling the village at night, killed several villagers and, finally, a policeman on point at the market. For nights the whole town lived in fear, and although we doubled the police-guards we had difficulty in getting the men to go on duty. But I have seen those same men rout a lion out of a bush-patch with sticks! They swore that this beast was not a lion, nor a leopard, but a mngwa. We made every effort to waylay it, but, unfortunately, were not successful; nor did we get a lion, as we might reasonably have done had it been one.

 

The Nandi Bear

The kerit is another monster which, in some form or other, unquestionably exists and remains to be discovered. It is sufficiently notorious under the name, "The Nandi bear." On the Kenya coast the natives call it the dubu; the Lumbwa, up-country, call it the getet, and the mere mention of it evokes cries of horror throughout the East African kraals as far west as Ruanda, where it is known as the ikimizi and, elsewhere, as the kibambangue. It would be stupid to assert that this widespread native belief in the kerit is mere baseless superstition. The kerit is the author of numerous raids of the most frightful description. I have heard it described as a beast, half-man half-gorilla, breathing fire, with one flaring eye in the centre of its head, and emitting a fearful yowling howl. That is the kerit as terror sees it. But as to the howl I can testify, having heard it and having shared the experience of many other white men in hunting the monster. Though it does not always howl, it always attacks under cover of dark, moonless nights and with the swiftness and ferocity of a veritable devil. It is certainly not a lion or a leopard. The kerit will plunge into the thick of a sixfoot thorn zareba (a "wall" of piled spiked and hooked thorn-scrub), whereas lions and leopards are very chary of tackling such a defence, the tangled thorns in which painfully lacerate their tender pads and muzzles. I have known man-eating and cattle-snatching lions leap over zarebas; but I have yet to hear of a lion boring through one as the kerit does, like a mole through earth.

 

Six Pads and Six Claws

Again, the kerit's spoor is nothing like a lion's or leopard's pad. Opinions vary upon it, but there is a body of evidence that this astounding beast leaves a pug-mark with six pads and six claws showing on each paw. I was assured of that as long ago as 1912, and since then, with other hunters, have seen this unbelievable spoor at more than one kraal where the kerit has raided. Many white hunters have actually seen and shot at what has been thought to be a kerit. One of the best accounts is that of Major Braithwaite and Mr. C. Kenneth Archer, two well-known Kenya colonists, whose experience and word are not lightly to be imputed in such matters. They saw the animal in grass and scrub and took it for a lioness; later, a side-view of its head gave the impression of a snout, the head being very large, while the beast stood very high forward, 4 ft. 3 ins. to 4 ft. 6 ins. at the shoulder. "The back," they say, "sloped steeply to the hindquarters and the animal moved with a shambling gait which can best be compared with the shuffle of a bear. The coat was thick and dark brown in colour. Finally, the beast broke into a shambling trot and made for a belt of trees near the river, where it was lost." Many other observers have given similar accounts of the kerit.

The beast may be, as some suggest, an enormous hyæna; and an hyæna which stood 54 inches at the shoulder would indeed be enormous! But one of the kerit's tricks is to lie up in trees and, waylaying natives passing on the track below, to reach down a hairy paw and rip open their skulls. No hyaena can do that. Some of us who have hunted the brute share the view that it may be an anthropoid. Its raids invariably occur on the skirts of forest land, which might be the haunt of one of the great apes. To those who would object that the apes are not man-killing carnivores, the answer is that one is not so sure; the chacma baboon is a desperate "carnivore" and is a serious menace to sheep-farmers in South Africa, where the baboon-packs raid the flocks, ripping up the lambs with their long-clawed thumbs and lion-like fangs and carrying off the carcases to their kopje haunts. Be that as it may, the Game Warden of Uganda, who speaks with an intimate knowledge of the fauna, may have the final word. He says, "I believe in the Nandi bear; it may be a giant hyæna; it may be something different from anything we know." In any event, some fearsome monster, named kerit, lurks the forests of East Africa and yet awaits capture and identification.

The same is true of the ndalawo, a fierce man-killing carnivore, the size and shape of a leopard, but with a black-furred back shading to grey below. Here again, the disbelievers say, "It is a hyæna"; but this hyæna explanation becomes somewhat threadbare when so glibly put to every mystery. Hyænas are cowardly brutes. They do attack humans occasionally when in packs; and sometimes a lone hyæna will sneak in and snatch away a child. But there is nothing in this dodge-and-sneak behaviour comparable with the ferocity of mngwas, kerits, and ndalawos. Natives, moreover, are not afraid of hyaenas, and any old dame in the kraal is prepared to shoo them away.

 

Water Monsters

In quite a different class of mystery animals are the water-monsters, the lau and the lukwata. These may be one and the same animal. The lau is an immense water-serpent, which is said by the natives to haunt the swamps of the Nile, around Lake No, and the depths of other lakes and marshes. They describe it as an enormous snake, up to a hundred feet in length, with the body-girth of a donkey. Here again, terror of the monster has adorned native stories of it and one hears that its eyes flash deadly fire and that it feeds on men and large animals, which it seizes with monstrous bristling tentacles protruding from its muzzle. At night it makes a loud, booming cry and a rumbling noise like the typical after-dinner rumble of a herd of elephants. There are, of course, large water-snakes in Africa, and one shot in Tanganyika a short time back by a Greek settler is said to have measured forty feet in length, though this is questionable. Natives declare that the lau takes heavy toll of men and cattle, and various white men have recorded both seeing and hearing monsters that may be laus. The late Sir Clement Hill has described how, in the gulf near Mount Homa on Victoria Nyanza, a monster rose up from the lake and tried to grab the native who was on look-out on the prow of the steamer; it was the man's cry which attracted Sir Clement's attention.

He particularly noted the monster's long neck and small head, and it was, the natives averred, the lukwata, the lake monster that attacks fishermen. Grant, the explorer, saw a similar beast near Jinja, and only recently Mr. E. G. Wayland, Director of Geological Survey in Uganda, recorded that he was shown a fragment of alleged lukwata bone. He found belief in the animal very strong in the Kavirondo country, where the natives said that the lukwata fought with crocodiles and thus lost pieces of its body, which were highly prized as charms. They, too, asserted that its booming voice can be heard at great distances, and Mr. Wayland states that he has himself heard it and can offer no other explanation than the native one, that it is the voice of the lukwata, whatever the monster may be.

 

Colossal Lizards

The largest, most frightful and least credible of all the African mystery beasts is the mbilintu. Its very name means, "the frightful unknown monster," and it is said to be an enormous elephant-hippo-like beast which haunts the Congo swamps and the regions of lakes Bangweulu, Mweru and Tanganyika. Native accounts of it vary widely. From some, it might be a Chalicothere, that remarkable beast of the late Pliocene period, with a horse-like head, and toed, clawed "hoofs," a horse-cum-sloth creature in appearance. Other accounts speak of a gigantic lizard, with a neck like a giraffe, legs like an elephant's, a small snake-like head and a tail thirty feet long. Several white hunters have asserted that they have tracked what must be such beasts, and the Smithsonian Institution some years ago sent an expedition to locate this animal, but the project, unfortunately, met with disaster and never arrived in the field of search. Likewise, the chief Lewanika reported years ago to the British Resident in Zululand that a huge lizard, "ten times as big as a crocodile, which has made a trail in the reeds like that of a large trek-wagon from which the wheels had been removed " (he meant, made by something large dragged along, and the size of what to him was the familiar Boer veld wagon), and that he had given strict orders to his warriors to keep watch for the beast that he might see it for himself; but it was never seen again. The natives still talk of this monster under the name isiququmadevu.

 

A Mystery Explained

Of the small fry, there is an endless number of animals concerning which the African savage can tell extraordinary tales. One was the mlularuka or " flying jackal," which, the kraalsmen said, was just like a jackal except that it had wings to ruka kama popo, (fly like a bat), and that it often flew in their fruit-gardens, raiding mango trees and pomegranates and crying out loudly in the dusk. No one believed it. But Mr. Loveridge found not only one, but two species of mlularuka when he was collecting for the Harvard Museum in Tanganyika in 1927. They were two entirely new species of flying squirrel, and one at least is over two and a-half feet in length!

A beast over which controversy rages at this moment is the "crowing crested cobra," which, the natives say, is a snake, like a cobra, with a crest on its head and a loud, distinct cry like the crow of a cock. Mr. Boulenger and other authorities declare it impossible; on the other hand white hunters and others swear that they have heard it and other snakes, which not only crow but make a variety of calls ranging from a "bell-note" to a continuous "bleat like a deer!" This reptile has yet to be caught.

 

The Little Furry Men

Lastly, there are mystery men-beasts, such as the agogwe, little furry men, which are said to lurk in the Ussure and Simbiti forests on the western side of the Wembare Plains. Some years ago I was sent on an official lion-hunt to this area and, while waiting in a forest glade for a man-eater, I saw two small, brown furry creatures come from the dense forest on one side of the glade and disappear into the thickets on the other. They were like little men, about four feet high, walking upright, but clad in russet hair. The native hunter with me gaped in mingled fear and amazement. They were, he said, agogwe, the little furry men whom one does not see once in a lifetime. I made desperate efforts to find them, but without avail in that well-nigh impenetrable forest. They may have been monkeys, but if so, they were no ordinary monkeys, nor baboons, nor colobus, nor Sykes, nor any other kind found in Tanganyika. What were they?

The natives of the local villages told me strange tales of them; how, if one put out a gourd of ntulu-beer and a bowl of food in the grain-gardens, these little folk would take the food and do some hoeing and weeding at night, as thanks. That, I can well believe, is myth; but my little brown men were real enough. They may yet be found. One could tell as yet other mysterious creatures, the irizima of the Congo; the ngagia, the chiruwi, the kitunusi and the ngojoma; some are definitely mythical, but it would be rash to aver that all are so. One must not forget that the okapi was once a "mythical beast" and once no one believed in the platypus or in Tibet's giant panda. Yet all these have been proved to be "real." So with the mystery beasts of the African bushveld and forest-ways, they may be improbable, but they are by no means impossible; and the afternoon may well be near when, at the hair-raising hour when the Zoo broadcasts its jungle voices on the wireless, we shall hear in our homes the hideous snarl of the mngwa and the spine-freezing howl of the kiret.

Hichens, W. 1937. African Mystery Beasts. Discovery (Dec): 369-373.

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