Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Giant sauropod alive in Africa?

The Congo's elusive brontosaur

By John L. Guerra

For thousands of years, tribes in the Congo have reported sighting a hippo-killing brontosaur they call "Mokele-mbembe."
This species of dinosaur lived during the Cretaceous period, which ended 65 million years ago when a large asteroid slammed the Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula, yet these giant plant eaters allegedly have found a way to survive in this remote part of the world. In fact, local fishermen build large fences to protect their catches from the beast.

So if dinosaurs have been gone for so long, why would villagers in the remote parts of the Congo River Basin fell trees, which they sharpen and sink into the river bottom to create a fence to keep a beast they called "Mokele-mbembe" from trashing their fishing grounds?
Consider this: the Smithsonian Institution took rumors of a dinosaur seriously enough to send a group of scientists to find it. As you'll read in a little bit, the expedition ended in tragedy.

Don't ask me, ask the natives
Is there a living dinosaur in the gigantic Congo River Basin, the enormous wetland system on the Equator in Africa.
The Congo River itself, which winds 2,900 miles through the Congo's and Zaire's thickest jungle, is surrounded by more than a million square miles of wetlands. It is an endless network of smaller rivers, lakes, and those wetlands, much of which has never been punched through by canoe. Which means the area is hot, wet, and judging by those 1940s dioramas of meat-eating triceratops I grew up staring at in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the area is a perfect place to find brontosaurs.
Being a cryptozoologist, to write with any authority on the subject, I need only dig online to find people who have heard, and even seen, this "big-ass animal"--another technical term used by cryptozoologists.
I ran across a list of expeditions that have tried to find the creature and the results of their efforts. These lucky few have undertaken my dream trip.

The imprint is purported to be the footprint of a dinosaur that still lives in the Congo River Basin.

  • In 1776, a French missionary to the Congo, Abbé Lievain Bonaventure claimed to have seen enormous footprints in the region. The creature that left the prints was not witnessed, but Bonaventure wrote that it "must have been monstrous: the marks of the claws were noted on the ground, and these formed a print about three feet in circumference."
  • In 1909, Lt. Paul Gratz (of Germany) traveled to the Congo and heard Zambians speak of a creature known as the "Nsanga", which was said to inhabit the Lake Bangweulu region. Gratz described the creature as resembling a sauropod. This is one of the earliest references linking an area legend with dinosaurs, and has been argued to describe a Mokèlé-mbèmbé-like creature. In addition to hearing stories of the "Nsanga" Gratz was shown a hide which he was told belonged to the creature, while visiting Mbawala Island.
  • When on safari in the Congo in 1909, big-game hunter Carl Hagenbeck noted a lack of hippopotami in the river; his native guides informed him of a large hippo-killing creature that lived in Lake Bangweulu, part of the Congo River Basin ecosystem.

  •  In 1913, a German captain in the region, charged with conducting a census of German nationals living in Cameroon and Congo, wrote of how local tribes people described the creature:
"The animal is said to be of a brownish-gray color with a smooth skin, its size is approximately 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 shores even at daytime in search of food; its diet is said to be entirely vegetable. 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. But since there were too many tracks of elephants, hippos, and other large mammals it was impossible to make out a particular spoor with any amount of certainty."

  • Finally, my favorite--The Smithsonian Institution in 1919-1920 sent 32 men to explore the region and study its ecology. The museum understood the natives had spoken of a brontosaur-type creature and included inquiry into the animal into the overall expedition mission. The expedition's African guides found large, unexplained tracks along the bank of a river and later in a swamp the team heard mysterious roars, which had no resemblance with any known animal." However, the expedition was to end in tragedy. During a train-ride through a flooded area where an entire tribe was said to have seen the dinosaur, the locomotive suddenly derailed and turned over. Four team members were crushed to death under the cars and another half dozen seriously injured

Mysterious roars

I love the part about the mysterious roars while the group was camping. I wish I had heard that sucker out there in the jungle at night. That would make my life complete!
Over the next century, at least one explorer claims to have seen Mbembe, though the animal was badly wounded as it stumbled into the water and swam off. Another account has natives explaining that the dinosaur is not a physical thing, but a spirit that can change the course of the rivers. Expeditions in the modern age include TV crews and documentary producers.
Cryptozoology is great fun. It's interesting to think that isolated pockets of unexplored Earth contain lost populations of dinosaurs or large hominids like Big Foot, Yeti, and their cousins all over the world. When people laugh at the idea of unknown species of ape, I point to the Bonobos.

A new find in the Congo

Again, we must go to the Congo. Though chimpanzees were well-known north of the Congo River, rumors spoke of a group of two-legged creatures, much larger than chimps, that lived south of the Congo River. Locals told explorers that the creatures had head hair parted in the middle and that they walked on two legs much more often than chimps did.
In spite of extensive searches for the creature, it wasn't until 1928 that German anatomist Ernst Schwarz is credited with having discovered the bonobo. Because chimps can't swim, it is believed the Bonobos were kept to one side of the river, and for some reason developed as a separate species from their northern counterparts. Scientists believe there are now about 50,000 of the creatures left. Deforestation, of course, being the main culprit for the animal's position on the endangered species list.

 --John Guerra