Mokele Mbembe is a huge dinosaur reportedly still living in the rivers of Western Africa. Sounds like it should be easy to spot, right? Not so fast. CryptoVille investigates this mystery to see if there is any truth to this huge cryptozoology tale. Are the regional natives right about the existence of a huge water creature that looks very much like a dinosaur? Let’s see! (Artwork right by Ben Wootten.)
I recently watched an excellent episode of Monster Quest (S 3 E 18) where they explored the legend of the Mokele Mbembe. I had heard of this creature before in an episode of Destination Truth, when Josh Gates and his crew went looking for the animal, but came up empty. I thought that was pretty much the end of it. But the Monster Quest show has got me thinking again, and I’d like to share this with you.
The Mokele Mbembe (whose name translates to “one who stops the flow of rivers”) lives in the rivers along the border of the African countries of Cameroon and the Congo. Three rivers converge there and of them the Dja River is a hotspot according to the local people, and so is river that converges with it, the Boumba River. What I didn’t realize about this area is that it’s classified as a rainforest so the area is remote and very hard to access.
Making access even harder is the political situation in the Congo. It’s a wild and dangerous place and the people that live there seem to be wary of straying across any borders or territories, apparently for good reason.
Cameroon is about the size of California with less than half the population, according to Monster Quest, so that leaves plenty of room for large animals to hide in the rainforest.
There’s only one major problem. Mokele Mbembe is said to look like a sauropod dinosaur, but they died out before the great mass extinction, so how could one have survived this long? Further, it would require quite a few of these animals to ensure a successful breeding population. Could the area hide that many huge creatures?
A guest of the Monster Quest program, biologist Dr. Ray Mackal (retired from the University of Chicago) said the first mention of this beast in the Western world occurred in a priest’s notes in 1776. His name was Abbe Lievain Bonaventure Proyart and he was writing about the area’s natural history. He noted a creature, “which was not seen but which 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 a German, Hans Schomburgh, and a hunter from England told naturalist Carl Hagenbeck about an animal described as a “huge monster, half elephant, half dragon.” They both said it lived in the swampy areas of the Congo.
There have been other sightings and expeditions to search for the animal in recent times. If you want to see a complete list, see the Wiki link in my References section below.
The natives living in the area for ages have known of its existence and accepted it as part of their world. They are afraid of it, though, because they said it can break their wood-hewn canoes and kill people.
In 2006, someone named Peter Beach was exploring the area for the Mokele Mbembe and claims to have found huge footprints in a muddy shoreline (Photo right). He took photos and also made plaster casts of the impressions. Science doesn’t seem to have been convinced by the footprint cast, so it seems we have to set that aside, at least for now.
Beach’s theory was that the creature was eating leaves from the tree canopy overhead when it made the impression in the mud.
Appearance and Behavior
Natives describe the creature as between 25-30 feet tall (7.6 – 9 m), 26-29 feet long (8 to 9 m), reddish brown colored, with a frill of some sort along its very long neck. The head is supposed to be snake-like. The locals say it mainly stays submerged in the rivers, but at night comes to the shore to eat leaves.
Mokele Mbembe is seen during the rainy season, but in the dry season, it disappears. The locals say they believe it goes down and hibernates in the natural caves that line the river, particularly along the Congo side of the river. They report seeing what can only be described as air passages dug along the riverside that go far back, beyond anyone’s ability to see into. Once the passages are dug, they dry out in the air and become as hard as cement, thus insuring a steady supply of air to the creature(s) somewhere below.
The Monster Quest show found structures that looked just like air passages but were unable to explore more thoroughly because of the danger of militias appearing from the forest at any time.
When they searched the river with a fish finder they saw many intriguing serpentine shapes, all of large size but nothing more definite than that. The problem is the poor visibility in the river. As one of the explorers said it’s like searching through chocolate milk, you can’t see anything.
Adding to the difficulties, explorers have to contend with violent thunderstorms from which they have to run and seek shelter. Then add in the known animals living in the area that pose threats to humans, plus the snakes, alligators, and bugs of every sort and variety. It’s a very tough job.
Science Looks Into the Mystery
In an article for Live Science, writer Benjamin Radford describes the Mokele Mbembe with several major differences. Instead of being a reddish-brown color, he reports it is brownish-gray. Further, Radford describes them as supposedly eating elephants, hippopotamuses, and alligators! If this beast is some sort of sauropod, then it was an herbivore. I don’t know where he got this data from, but it does not correlate with the description given by the local indigenous people.
Radford is a confirmed skeptic, as demonstrated in his article for Live Science. He claims there is no real evidence as to the existence of these creatures and he sites several failed expeditions in the modern era to prove his point.
He even begins his article with an explanation of how fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 thriller, The Lost World, through to Jurassic Park, has formed our opinions on the likelihood of dinosaurs still living in remote areas of our world today.
Don’t Be Discouraged
What I find amusing about Radford’s article is that right next to it in the margin is an ad for another Live Science article from August, 2008 by Jeanna Bryner, Surprising Number of Lowland Gorillas Discovered in Africa. The author describes how surprised science was to find so many of this known-by-science species of apes living in the Congo. They had no idea they were there.
I wonder why they are surprised? What have we just said about the Congo? It’s remote, it has few inhabitants, it’s ravaged by political infighting, it’s riddled with predators ready to kill humans, and if you survive all that, the weather will kill you.
In the case of the Mokele Mbembe, add this to the roster of problems: they live in a murky river where visibility is almost non-existent. And they wonder why no one has caught any meaningful evidence of this beast?
Let me share these related fun facts with you, to highlight how science can be a bit thick at times. It wasn’t until 1998 that science got adequate proof as to the existence of a 4,000 pound land mammal – the Javan rhino. How do you miss a 4,000 pound mammal that lives in scrub land and from the photos I’ve seen is plenty tall enough to be seen over the scrubby grass and bushes? (Photo left.)
In a December 2013 article for inhabitat.com, Tamsin Woolley-Barker shares with us the news of a newly discovered pygmy tapir (Tapirus kabomani) that is the largest terrestrial mammal found since 1992. (She may not have heard about the Javan rhino.) She describes the tapir as “a shy and elusive fellow, living below the radar in the grasslands and forests of Brazil and Colombia.” This animal (photo below right) weighs a quarter of a ton. How does one miss a 500 pound animal anywhere? Did the locals know about its existence? Of course they did.
Now just because science has missed the boat in both these instances (and probably more), I have to say, that alone does not mean the Mokele Mbembe really exists. As much as science annoys me in this regard, I do hold it in high esteem because it gives us plenty of insight and principles on which to operate in our natural world. That’s a very good thing.
Believing in Possibilities
I’m not a scientist and I’m not a “cryptozoologist.” I am just a woman who wants to know the truth, and that’s probably true for many of my readers, be they men or women.
I believe in possibilities. To begin with, I listen to what the locals have to say about their environments. Who knows it better than they do? Add to that, the descriptions they give follow a natural order, in other words the animals are behaving in a way we can understand based on what we know about other animals already recognized by science.
Finally, science is discovering new, unknown species of animals every year, by the hundreds. So it’s a learning process for all of us.
I think there are very tantalizing clues that there may just be some large reptilian sort of creature living in the rivers of western Africa. The Monster Quest show really captured my interest, further supported by Josh Gates’ exploration of the area. It doesn’t have to be a “leftover” dinosaur either. Evolution may have coughed-up an extraordinary reptile or something else.
There may be something there. It reminds me of the hunt for Champ, the Lake Champlain creature. There is no smoke without fire, right? It’ll be interesting to see how these searches go. (Artwork right by Sebastien Ecosse.)
For now, I think the Mokele Mbembe is firmly hidden behind all the conditions that make it extremely hard to travel there – political and natural. I guess for now it’s going to remain a mythical beast until hopefully one day, someone will be able to get science the evidence it needs to prove the existence of this tantalizing creature.
What do you think about the Mokele Mbembe?