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Mokele-mbembe
By Nik Petsev

Amidst the dry leaves and fallen branches, nearly indistinguishable, lay the footprint. It was rather small yet puzzling. After examining it intently, Dr. Roy P. Mackal concluded that, despite the lingering possibility, it might have also been made by a small elephant. Yet, what is this lingering possibility? He believes it may be a dinosaur, one of many creatures that once roamed the earth, and vanished. Could it indeed be that a prehistoric relic still roams the jungles of the African Congo, could it just be a case of misidentification, or is it nothing more than a vision that drives our imaginations? Or perhaps, is it something totally new to science? After all, humanity needs mysteries, and solving all of them would be a shame. But the sheer thrill of learning of these mysterious and puzzling conundrums pushes us, and so we must push into the past, where the enigmatic beginning of this story lies.

Humankind itself originated in Africa, and it comes as no surprise that the story of Mokele-mbembe stretches far into history. The first written accounts came from odd claw marks found in the Congo in the year of 1776. After 134 years passed, Captain Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz spoke to the natives and was shown footprints of the creature.
"The animal is said to be of a brownish-gray color with a smooth skin, its size approximating that of an elephant; at least that of a hippopotamus. It is said to have a long and very flexible neck and only one tooth but a very long one; some say it is a horn. A few spoke about a long muscular tail like that of an alligator. Canoes coming near it are said to be doomed; the animal is said to attack the vessels at once and to kill the crews but without eating the bodies. The creature is said to live in the caves that have been washed out by the river in the clay of its shores at sharp bends. It is said to climb the shore even at daytime in search of food; its diet is said to be entirely vegetables. This feature disagrees with a possible explanation as a myth. The preferred plant was shown to me; it is a kind of liana with large white blossoms, with a milky sap and apple-like fruits. At the Ssombo River I was shown a path said to have been made by this animal in order to get at its food. The path was fresh and there were plants of the described type nearby."
Three years later, another German expedition into the area stumbled upon the natives. They were also told about Mokele-mbembe, which translates into "one that stops the flow of rivers." It is then that legends, stories, and encounters were put forth in detail and revealed to the rest of the world, sparking interest that would lead to many journeys and expeditions set out to capture the beast, and bring back evidence of its existence back to civilizations.


One fantastic tale, not bearing much difference from a legend, tells how the locals, or pygmies, built a barrier of stakes to keep the Mokele-mbembe from entering Lake Tele. That way, the pygmies could fish in a safe haven. This particular story is actually quite recent, somewhere around the 1930s to be precise. As the story goes, two of the creatures, obviously displeased with the course of action taken by the natives, attacked the wall of stakes. The pygmies attacked and speared one of the creatures to death. To memorialize this achievement, the pygmies cooked the animal and feasted over its flesh. It is said that all who tasted the meat died. This, of course, might just be an exaggeration, an effect evident on all stories that travel through time. The pygmies believe that the magical and mystical properties of the Mokele-mbembe were released after this event.

Since then, there have been many major expeditions to this particular region in the Congo, all concentrating on this mystifying creature. Yet, what could it be? Long neck and tail, massive body and thick legs? It comes as no surprise that people immediately considered the Mokele-mbembe as a surviving sauropod. A sauropod is one of many dinosaurs beneath which the ground once trembled. They are herbivorous beasts, typical, with their long necks and tails, small heads, bulky bodies, and thick, elephantine legs. It must be emphasized that throughout the millions of years since the demise the "terrible lizards", Africa has changed relatively little, climatically and physically. To lend support to the theory that Mokele-mbembe is a remnant of the dinosauria, the pygmies have been given a certain test many times over. The test involves a group of pictures of animals that live in the area. The pygmies would recognize the drawings of leopards, gorillas, and elephants, among other creatures. After this, they would be shown a depiction of a typical sauropod. The pygmies usually replied with a simple, instantaneous reply, "It's Mokele-mbembe!"

When recently repeated, this experiment bore different results. The BaAka tribes recognized the gorillas, calling them Ebobo. They easily recognized the elephant, calling it Doli. Then, they were showed a picture of a rhinoceros, and replied just as before, "Mokele-mbembe!" Indeed, a rhinoceros seems a likely candidate for a misinterpretation of this mysterious creature. Some reports point toward Mokele-mbembe having a horn, being like a hippopotamus, yet bigger. This truly seems like a fitting description of a rhinoceros.

Mokele-mbembe is reputed as a rather aggressive animal. It is known to turn over boats, and even to have killed by biting or hitting with its tail. One important detail, as stated by Captain von Stein, is that the creature never fed on its victims. This particular detail shows that this behavior is not hunting, but more of a territorial aggression.

Malambo fruit
(displayed under Fair Use law)

So Mokele-mbembe is herbivorous, just like the rhinocerous or dinosaur some say it is. The river-stopping animal is particularly prone to the Malambo plant, or so say the natives. There is the Landolphia manni genus and the Landolphia owariensis genus, both of which are referred to as the Malambo plant. The Malambo plant is a shrub, with berry-like fruits covered in seeds. According to Mackal, these fruits have an "acrid sweet taste". Both, state the pygmies, are a favorite aliment of the Mokele-mbembe.

The story of Mokele-mbembe spread when increasing amounts of trustworthy sources began reporting tales no stranger than legends. African hunter Nicolas Mondongo later recalled: "Without warning, the waters parted and a huge animal surfaced-beginning with an extremely long, slender neck and well-defined head, followed by a very bulky, elephantine body rising up on four massive legs, and finally revealing lengthy, tapering tail."

Roy Mackal on his expedition, with Marcellin Agnagna
(displayed under Fair Use law)

From the early 80s, up until today, there have been numerous expeditions to the Congo in search of this elusive animal. A large portion of them, including the first one in 1980, was led by American biochemist from Chicago, Roy Mackal. He would later lead an expedition in December of 1981 and lead the Congo Ministry of Water and Forests in April and May of 1983 to search for this animal once more. Despite his persistence, Mackal did not once catch sight of anything. But, he did come close.

Rhinoceros in the water
© Rick Cameron 1994-2002, http://racphoto.com
       
Hippo in the water
© Rick Cameron 1994-2002, http://racphoto.com

It began with a loud splash behind the boat, which was floating down the Likouala River. Not long after came a large wake. The pygmies that accompanied Mackal started yelling, "Mokele-mbembe! Mokele-mbembe!" Mackal never saw the creature behind the commotion, but he does believe it was indeed the creature that he was seeking. He figured the only logical explanation for the splash would be a large water-dwelling animal such as a hippopotamus, yet no hippopotamuses have been recorded in that part of the Congo. Could Mokele-mbembe perhaps be just that? Nonetheless, Mackal is convinced that is chasing more than the wind. "I admit that my own views are tinged with some romanticism, but certainly not to the extent that I would endure extreme hardship, even risk my life, to pursue a dream with no basis in reality."

Marcellin Agnagna
©Copyright 2001 The WILD Foundation® http://www.wild.org/

Marcellin Agnagna, a Congolese biologist who had accompanied Mackal on his second expedition, led his own expedition in 1983. It was in Lake Tele, the lake where it is believed that the Mokele-mbembe resides. He claims that he saw the creature's neck and back, but the legs and tail were submerged. For 20 minutes, the creature moved about the lake. The Congolese biologist had a camera and started filming. However, because of his excitement (some say to his convenience) he forgot to remove the lens cap, thus the creature once more slipped away from what could have been conclusive proof. It seems odd that this man would lead his own expedition and immediately find the creature, even odder that he did not get it on film. We must keep in mind that Agnagna is a respected biologist. Something of this sort could indeed happen, people behave erratically when excited. However, the man claims he observed the creature for 20 minutes, and that should have been enough time for him to finally come to some realization, and to actually get some hard evidence. We may never truly know whether it was excessive excitement or a way to earn publicity.

Another encounter involved Herman Regusters from Seattle during the September of 1981, when he led his own expedition into the Congo. Through his binoculars, he observed an animal that "appeared to have a slender neck about 6 feet long, a small head and about 15 feet of back." He estimates that a counterbalancing tail would put the creature's length at about 30 to 35 feet long. He never saw the body, legs, or tail. One way to rationally explain cases of this sort would be an elephant. The elephant swims by being mostly submerged with its trunk held above the water so the animal can breathe. It is entirely plausible that the trunk could be mistaken for a neck. Herman Regusters, however, disagrees. "It certainly was much larger than an elephant."

His story has a twist that does not differ much from Marcellin Agnagna's. He shot 23 rolls of film, all of which came underexposed, because of jungle conditions. This is more believable, however. The jungle is moist and a rough place to be, leading to a more plausible excuse. But, he did not return completely empty-handed. With him, he carried droppings, casts of footprints, and even sound recordings of the alleged Mokele-mbembe.

Rory Nugent in Africa
(displayed under Fair Use law)

Rory Nugent's luck was no better. After four months of searching for the beast in Lake Tele, he returned empty handed, but not without his own mild encounter. He claims to have seen a shape like that of a thin neck. He naturally wanted to get closer, but his pygmy guides held him back. "The god can approach man," they told him. "But man never approaches the god."

Without a doubt, the most tantalizing evidence for the Mokele-mbembe has come in the year of 1992 from a Japanese television crew that was not particularly looking for the animal. Instead, they were shooting a documentary. From a small plane above Lake Tele, while getting aerial shots for the documentary, they spotted something moving about the lake. The cameraman focused, and got something quite extraordinary for about fifteen seconds before the 'thing' plunged back down into the murky lake.

Upon analysis, a black object can be seen, with clearly discernible protrusions above the water. A neck, some suggest. The object is moving at a rapid pace, leaving a V-shaped wake behind it. If one looks for it, they can also see a hump and tail. However, as with most lake monster videos, it is a Rorschach test where one can see whatever he or she wants. Still, because of its protrudances, a crocodile can be ruled out. Its rapid pace also rules out elephant. One thing that it does somewhat resemble is a boat with persons inside it, some say, but its rapid pace and mysterious sinking oppose this explanation.

So, where does all of this evidence point? The prospect of a surviving dinosaur intrigues us all, but we must also be realistic. Everyone should keep an open mind and ponder at the mysteries of the earth. When, and if, Mokele-mbembe is revealed, many will be disappointed, for it will be the death of yet another mystery. This story of adventure and wildlife will drive our imaginations forth, well into the next decade. Our imagination or not, humanity needs great mysteries. This is one of them.

   

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