WORMWOOD FILES: “Dinosaurs of the Congo” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

Today I put on my pith helmet and grab extra supplies of OFF! I am headed to Africa...more specifically, to the depths of The Congo, in search of the prehistoric past come to life. I am on the hunt for the dinosaurs of the Congo!

It was 1912 when Arthur Conan Doyle brought the fantasy of every dinosaur lover to life with his novel “The Lost World”. Now it seems inconceivable in this age when GPS and Coca-Cola have penetrated every corner of the planet, but in the early 20th century, there were still blank spots on the map that were filled with mystery. Africa, South America, southeast Asia, the Australian Outback were still unknown to Euro-centric society. What better place for monsters to lurk?

Africa was ground zero for explorers searching for lost civilizations and unknown creatures. Great excitement was stirred when some of those unknown creatures stepped out of the mist and into reality. The stories of giant hairy man-like beasts were proven true when the mighty gorilla was finally categorized by science. And tales of a strange half giraffe-half antelope were also confirmed with the discovery of the okapi. So perhaps in some godforsaken jungle or swamp, the antediluvian behemoths of remote past might still be hanging on…

The thick and almost impenetrable swamps of the Congo are still very difficult to navigate even in the modern day, choked with clouds of buzzing insects and riotous vegetation. It is from this steaming fastness of green hell that tantalizing tales are told of true monsters, the mokele-mbembe, the emela-ntouka, mbielu-mbielu-mbielu and others. Legends, fantasies, the desperate longing of mankind to find real monsters…or just maybe the last sanctuary of prehistoric Earth? In this edition of the Wormwood Files, we will briefly look at the improbable monsters of the Congo.

As always, the native folk of the Congo knew about the strange creatures there from time immemorial. They were considered part of the natural landscape. And also as usual, their reports were roundly ignored until men from the West began to see and hear of unusual animals there. Perhaps the very first report dates to 1776, when a French missionary, who may very well have been the first white man to ever visit the Likouala swamplands, spoke of seeing the imprints of enormous clawed feet, far larger than those of a crocodile, embedded in the mud of a remote riverbank.

That was the first known report, but certainly not the last. The legend of the mokele-mbembe, the “god-beast” that could make rivers move, really exploded after famous zoologist and animal trapper Carl Hagenbeck wrote about the possibility of a dinosaur surviving in the Congo basin. He believed the monster the natives spoke of was a living example of a sauropod dinosaur...long necked, long tailed and heavy set herbivores who lived in watery areas. Dinosaurs were a hugely popular topic at the time of Hagenbeck’s book “Beast and Man” in 1909 and the general public latched onto the idea right away. Suddenly, there was serious interest in investigating the wilds of the Congo for actual dinosaurs.

Such a prospect was roundly scorned by most scientists of the day...a position that hasn’t changed with the passage of years. To be honest, the chance of a large lifeform reproducing in exactly the numbers needed to sustain a breeding population but no more than that is astronomical. The dinosaur’s genetic diversity and health would surely suffer with inbreeding, leading to a gradually weaker species. And if the species was successful, then it would certainly grow and expand beyond such a restricted range. Make no mistake, the possibilities of dinosaurs surviving into human times is remote.

But if there was any place that was ideal for such creatures to hide, the Congo swamps around the Likouala River and Lake Tele would be ideal. It’s impossible to overstate how difficult it would be for a well-stocked scientific expedition to make its way through this almost impenetrable area, one full of strange diseases, biting insects and thick vegetation. Not only that, but the political situation in the Congo is very unstable and dangerous and violent groups of outlaws are known to hide in the jungles.

The first really detailed description of the mokele-mbembe was given by the German explorer Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz, who was in the Likouala area in 1913. He did not see the creature himself but took down detailed reports made by many natives of the area. The description still holds up as one of the best and was as follows…

      “The animal is said to be of a brownish-gray color with a smooth skin, its size approximately that of an elephant; at least that of a hip-popotamus. 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 vegetable.”

As Europeans pushed further into the African bush, they encountered more tales of this strange monster of the swamps. The natives were remarkably consistent in their descriptions of the beast, but there was a unusual dichotomy in their concept of the mokele-mbembe. On one hand, it was an animal, much like the elephants, crocodiles and other creatures of the Congo; on the other hand, it was a mystical god, with the power to kill from a distance. This blurring of the lines between factual animals and mythical beasts is a persistent problem when it comes to native descriptions of cryptids.

In the 1930’s, pioneering cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson came very close to what he thought was a mokele-mbembe when he was exploring the Congo Basin. He found some tracks that resembled those of a hippo but were much larger. His native guides told him they were the tracks of "mgbulu-eM'bembe." While boating down a weed choked river, Sanderson claims to have heard the roar of what must have been some enormous beast. One of the world’s most learned zoologists, he had never heard anything like it. He later thought he saw some creature larger than a hippo swimming in a lake, but before he could get closer, it submerged. Tales like these where explorers “almost” come across the monster are frustratingly frequent.

Although no outsider has ever been close to a mokele-mbembe, there are many native accounts of the creatures. In almost every case, their description is close to that of a sauropod dinosaur about 30 to 35 feet in length, with a long, rubbery neck and an equally long tail. The skin is said to be brownish-gray and very smooth. The creatures are said to be vegetarians exclusively, but very ill-tempered; they will attack hippos and water buffalo on sight and will try to overturn boats that enter their territory.

In 1959, there was a major sighting of the creatures. The northern area of Lake Tele, a monster hot spot, was inhabited by the pygmy Bangombe tribe.  Two mokele-mbembes had entered the lake through a channel that the pygmies used for fishing and had driven many fish away. The pygmies built a barrier of sharpened stakes to keep the giants out. One of the creatures had been caught up in the barrier and the pygmies arrived to battle the beast with spears. Eventually they killed the mokele-mbembe and spent the next few days cutting up the body for meat. One unique part of their description of the monster was that it had a comb on its head like a rooster.

The incident was cause for celebration, but the celebration was short lived. Those who ate the flesh of the mokele-mbembe died of stomach disorder, devastating the tribe. Years later, the survivors spoke to the Powell-Mackal expedition of the 1980’s and readily identified pictures of an apatosaur as mokele-mbembe. Their description matched that of a sauropod in every detail and it seemed clear they were talking about a real animal, not a creature of magic or myth. If the bones of this individual are ever found, it could overturn all conventional zoology. But more than 20 years separated the time of the incident from when survivors were interviewed.

The expedition mentioned above was one of the next major investigation of the monsters. In 1980 and 1982, Prof. Roy Mackal of the University of Chicago, who had led investigations into the Loch Ness Monster and other cryptids, led these expeditions, accompanied by reptile expert James Powell and other scientists. These expeditions endured horrendous conditions, disease and some frightening run-ins with armed rebels. They failed to get any direct evidence of mokele-mbembe, but gathered many native eyewitness reports. Mackal got a sonar reading of a large body over 20 feet in length deep in a river, but this may have been an enormous Nile crocodile or possibly even a monstrous catfish.

The Mackal expeditions were the most famous ever launched in connection with mokele-mbembe and brought a lot of fame to the creature, which previously had been little known in the West. The 80’s were a time of multiple safaris into the Congo in search of mokele-mbembe and other cryptids there. Herman Regusters and his wife Kia said they had several “near misses” and even recorded a deep growling that was said to be from one of the creatures. But many doubted the sincerity of the pair, since no one else could corroborate their reports and the recording was inconclusive.

Explorer Rory Nugent’s experience hunting for the mokele-mbembe was so negative that he came back saying he was convinced there was no such animal. He made an important point by saying that a kind of “monster economy” had grown up around foreign expeditions to find the mokele-mbembe, with natives eager to cash in and get as much money as they could from those expeditions. This is certainly a point to strongly keep in mind when evaluating reports from the area.

Nevertheless, expeditions continue to visit the swamplands of the Congo and Cameroon in search of the living dinosaur. A 1992 Japanese safari actually produced moving photos of a large form crossing Lake Tele. While the footage is tantalizing, it’s far from being a “smoking gun” and many believe it is footage of an elephant with upraised trunk crossing the lake.

Sightings continue to be made of the mokele-mbembe and expeditions will no doubt keep venturing into the dangerous morass. Few scientists will admit the possibility of a living dinosaur. But the area remains so remote and so “primeval” that it’s easy to believe that some large unknown creature may have escaped detection there. And believe it or not, mokele-mbembe is not the only dinosaur-like creature reported from the Congo and Cameroon. In fact, the area is almost a virtual “Lost World”, if other reports are to be believed.

A monstrous beast known as emela-ntouka or “elephant killer” is also reported from the area. The natives know it as well as mokele-mbembe and if anything, they fear it even more. It is described as being slightly larger than a bush elephant, thickly built with four stumpy legs and a long, very muscular tail. Its most notable trait is a long straight horn that juts from its head. It uses the horn as a weapon, mostly against elephants, which it hates and attacks on sight. They are said to be extremely aggressive and able to live partially in water.

The first really detailed description of emela-ntouka came from a Congolese game inspector named Lucian Blancou, who wrote about the animals of the Likouala Swamps in detail for the first time in 1954. He said the pygmies of the area considered this creature the most dangerous animal of the swamps, even more than the giant crocodiles, vicious hippos and mokele-mbembe itself. Western cryptozoologists noted that emela-ntouka sounded like a horned dinosaur or ceratopsian. That family included not only the three horned triceratops but also a dinosaur known as Monoclonius, which had a single horn.

When Roy Mackal was on his mokele-mbembe expeditions of the 80’s, he also collected reports of emela-ntouka. One of these animals was said to have been killed by natives around 1930 but exactly where was unknown. The cryptozoologist Loren Coleman believes that it may be a kind of very large, water-loving rhinoceros instead of a dinosaur.

If the mokele-mbembe and emela-ntouka aren’t brain-spinning enough for you, how about a critter called mbielu-mbielu-mbielu? This oddly named beast, which we shall now designate MMM or Triple M, is yet another one of the “lost dinosaurs” of Africa. Reports on Triple M are much scarcer than those of mokele-mbembe or emela-ntouka. It is said to be restricted to the swampy areas bordering the Likouala-aux-Herbes river. It’s a large, ungainly creature with four stumpy legs and a long tail, but the most striking characteristic is that it has large plate-like growths running down the length of its spine.

The creature is also known as “the beast with planks in its back” and is considered a placid herbivore that lives in shallow water. When some scientists heard the description of Triple M, they became excited, because there could hardly be a better description of the dinosaur known as a stegosaurus. This animal has been extinct for many millions of years, but what the hey? If horned dinosaurs and long necked sauropods are hanging around the Congo, why not a stegosaurus as well?

No Westerners have ever seen mbielu-mbielu-mbielu, but there are some natives who are familiar with it. They all agree that it looks much the same as the pictures of stegosaurs in books that zoologists have shown them. 

And that’s not all. There is also a large reptilian cryptid in the Congo known as the nguma-monene. This seems to be like a giant monitor lizard over 30 feet long, built low to the ground and with small ridges on its back, although the ridges are not as big as the “planks” found in the Triple M. This creature has been seen by Westerners, most notably Father Joseph Ellis in 1971. Ellis made a detailed description of the animal, but when he mentioned it to the local natives, they became alarmed. The whole subject of nguma-monene was a taboo to them. Roy Mackal gathered more reports of the nguma-monene during his expeditions...some theorized that this is a large, undiscovered type of monitor lizard, as opposed to a prehistoric survivor.

The Mahamba may be the most fearsome of the prehistoric monsters. It’s said to be very much like an enormous crocodile, but one approaching 50 feet in length. This really would be a nightmare to encounter. The emela-ntouka and mokele-mbembe are said to be dangerous, but they are plant eaters. A crocodile of 50 feet in length would have to eat an enormous amount of meat to survive and it would certainly not be too particular where it found it. It could possibly even prey on the other dinosaurs of the Congo. Many feel that the Mahamba is an exaggerated version of a Nile crocodile. Some of those are known to approach 30 feet in length and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for frightened natives to add a little extra length to the creature.

It would seem to be extremely improbable, if not impossible, for all of these animals to be found in the steaming depths of African swamps. The Likouala region would literally be a “Lost World” on a par with the fictional one described by Arthur Conan Doyle. Even in these remote areas, people are penetrating more and more and it won’t be long before they are tamed like much of Africa’s former wilderness. Indeed, you would think that folks would be bumping into mokele-mbembes and Mahambas with a lot greater frequency.

Certainly physical evidence should be easier to come by. But this is the case with almost every cryptid. The Likouala swamps are a lot more rugged and isolated than the Oregon Coast, where Bigfoot is reported with frequency, or Loch Ness, which is minutes away from major population centers that are easily accessible.

Do dinosaurs exist in the Congo? I think almost everybody curious enough to read about the subject wishes it were so. I know I do. Even if actual prehistoric dinosaurs are no longer there, they may have been there in the fairly recent past. Or perhaps it’s the lair of other large unknown creatures that aren’t dinosaurs but are still extraordinary creatures. It’s probably even harder to reach the depths of these swamps today than it was 20 years ago. We here at Wormwood Laboratories stand ready to assist in the search for prehistoric survivors!

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights...