WORMWOOD FILES: “Africa’s Killer Cryptids”

By Dr. Abner Mality

The Nandi Bear

Welcome back, fans of the Wormwood Files. Your old cryptid-hunting, ghost-seeking, mystery-loving pal Dr. Mality has spent a few long years in the bush, trying to think up a suitable new subject for an exploration into the unknown. It wasn’t easy but I finally found what I was looking for in Africa.

For hundreds of years, Africa was the Dark Continent of mystery, little explored and full of hidden corners that could be hiding lost civilizations, strange beasts and all manner of wonders. Sometimes the strange beasts even became regular members of the animal community...think of the gorilla and the okapi, for two great examples. But over the last 50 years ago, the mysterious Africa of the past has disappeared down the gullet of man’s rapacious greed. The forests have been leveled, the plains turned to farmland and suburbs and even the mountains have yielded many of their secrets. But not all of them!

Here at the Wormwood Files, we’ve spent some time in Africa before. We’ve looked at the stories of living dinosaurs of the Congo and also tales of the kongamato, the flying monster that haunted the swamps of Zambia. But there are plenty more strange creatures that have called Africa their home and some of them were pretty nasty customers. In this edition of the Files, we’ll put on our pith helmets and go looking for the Nandi Bear and the Mngwa, two of the more violent and brutal cryptids that have ever been recorded.

They may both be gone now. There hasn’t been a report of a Nandi Bear in decades and the Mngwa is seldom seen these days. Like so many unknown animals, they may have fallen to extinction even before they were properly catalogued. But animals are notoriously tough to exterminate. For example, in the jungles of Taiwan, there were recent sightings of a clouded leopard that was officially declared extinct in 1983. So maybe somewhere where the jungle has yet to fall before the axe and the bulldozer, there are Nandi Bears and Mngwas still lurking…

A Nandi and his prey

We will look at the Nandi Bear first. This vicious beast was said to terrorize the highlands of Kenya and Uganda and in the 19th century, it was absolutely considered an animal as real as a lion or a hyena. In fact, many villages would simply pack up and relocate when a Nandi was spotted in the area, so evil was their reputation. But what exactly was a Nandi Bear?

That question has been incredibly hard to answer, because it seems to have the aspects of many different animals at once. There may in fact be more than one type of creature that’s called a Nandi Bear. Is it an actual bear? That possibility is pretty low, as Africa is not known to have native bears with the exception of the Atlas Bear of Morocco, which was declared extinct in 1890 (although just how “extinct” is also in question). And the Nandi Bear seems to have many characteristics of a hyena, but one much larger and broader than any known hyena. It’s also been compared to a baboon, but again, one much larger and fiercer than any known baboon. Other animals the Nandi Bear has been compared to are aardvarks, ratels and even a prehistoric beast called a chalicothere.

One thing is for certain...you would not want to run across a Nandi Bear in a dark alley. They are universally described as ferocious, man-killing beasts that attack on sight and crack open the skulls of their prey so they can feast on the brains. One of the other names of the Nandi Bear is “chemosit”, which means “devil”. They are huge, shaggy brown beasts that have a “hunched” look, leading to the hyena comparisons. They are also known for a bone-freezing howl that sounds like a loud moaning. The beasts seem to be solitary, always hunting on their own instead of a pack. Prior to the 20th century, they were considered one of the primary predators of the Kenyan and Ugandan highlands, but since the 20th century, sightings of Nandi Bears have steadily decreased and there have been no reliable sightings in the 21st century.

The amount of native sightings and encounters with the Nandi Bear were prodigious, almost all involving the slaughter of livestock and human beings. White settlers, hunters and scientists also encountered the beast in the early 20th century. Descriptions were consistent in some aspects, but maddeningly diverse in others. All witnesses agreed on the thick, heavy set build of the creature and its peculiar shuffling gait like a sideways canter. But from there, it was compared to many different animals, including bears, baboons, hyenas and aardvarks.

Perhaps the most famous Western encounter with a Nandi Bear came courtesy of Captain William Hichens, an English colonial official who became a great source of information on both known and unknown African animals. Hichens went to a village in Western Kenya where a Nandi Bear was on the rampage. It had most recently attacked and carried off a six year old girl there. Hichens and his faithful police dog were camped outside of the village in a tent when something awful attacked. Hichens himself describes what happened next…

“...At the same moment, the most awful howl I have ever heard split the night. The sheer demoniac horror of it froze me still. I heard my pi-dog yelp just once. There was a crashing of branches in the brush and then the thud, thud, thud of some huge beast making off. But that howl! I have heard half a dozen lions roaring in a stampede-chorus not twenty yards away; I have heard a maddened cow-elephant trumpeting; I have heard a trapped leopard make the silent night a rocking agony for miles with screaming, snarling roars. But never have I heard, or do I wish to hear again, such a howl as that of the chemosit. A trail of red spots on the sand showed where my pi-dog had gone.Beside that trail were huge footprints, four times as big as a man’s. , showing the imprint of three huge clawed toes...no lion ever boasted such a paw as that of the monster which had made that terrifying spoor...”

Hichens tried to track the Nandi Bear (or chemosit) for a week but never caught up with it or saw his dog again.

After the 1930’s, reports of the Nandi Bear begin to taper off, although bloody encounters with it still occurred. In 1958, a couple of the beasts were shot to death on a tea plantation in Kenya. The bodies were left outside and stripped to the bone by ants and other insects. The bones were sent to a museum in Nairobi, where they were tentatively identified as belonging to “giant forest hyenas”.

The last known encounter with a Nandi Bear was in 1998, when Dennis Burnett and his wife saw a large, shaggy animal cross the road in front of them in a rural area. Again, the comparison was made to a hyena, but one much bigger and thicker than any known hyena.

MNGWA on the prowl

"The Strange One"

An unknown form of large, predatory hyena seems to be the preferred identity of the Nandi Bear...a hyena the size of a large bear, which would make it much bigger than any living hyena. Such a creature would be fearsome indeed, as “regular” hyenas are formidable animals themselves. But some cryptozoologists think the Nandi may also be a surviving prehistoric baboon known as Theropithecus Brumpti, which was roughly the size of a gorilla. That also would be a most ferocious and terrifying animal.

The most unusual theory for the Nandi Bear’s identity is that it is a surviving member of a prehistoric species known as a chalicothere. These were strange looking hunch-backed mammals the size of a bear, with long, clawed arms, short back legs and a horse-like head. But the known chalicotheres were all plant-eaters, while the vicious Nandi Bear was most certainly not.

The Nandis are almost certainly all gone now and unless remains are found, we will never be 100% sure of their existence. But the native people of Kenya and Uganda do not doubt it. Even today, the chemosit is used to frighten kids to keep them from wandering into the wilderness. As mean as the Nandi Bears are, I’m still sad to think they may walk the Earth no more…

We turn now to Tanzania and its thick coastal jungles for our next killer cryptid, known to the Swahili folk as the Mngwa, which translates as “the strange one”. Another common name for the beast was “nunda”. By whatever name, it was feared as one of the most ferocious jungle creatures, one that would not hesitate to hunt and slaughter men even in populated villages.

Unlike the Nandi Bear, where confusion reigns regarding what kind of animal it is, there is no doubt that the Mngwa is a large unknown cat. It is described as bigger than a lion, sometimes even approaching the size of a donkey, but looking more like a tabby cat, with short, brindled grey fur that appears striped. The head was short and heavy set, with small ears and eyes sometimes called “blazing”. One peculiarity of the Mngwa was that it did not roar or snarl like a lion or leopard but would instead make a loud, heavy purring sound when it was hunting.

Mngwa Village Attack

Like the Nandi Bear, the Mngwa was greatly feared by the natives and much superstition arose regarding its habits. But the natives were all clear is stating the Mngwa was a real flesh and blood animal and not some mythological “spirit beast”. They were solitary creatures and hunted alone. They were known for their fearlessness and they often invaded houses and huts to attack the residents.

Captain William Hichens, who made the most detailed reports on the Nandi Bear, also had some close encounters with the Mngwa. He had been dispatched to the village of Lindi in the Tanganyika District where a guard who watched over the village market on an overnight shift had been found terribly savaged by some unknown beast. The man had grabbed a handful of greyish fur from his attacker before expiring...fur that could not have come from a lion or leopard. The Arab governor of the area told Hichens that a Mngwa had killed the man and that such beasts were known to venture into Lindi.

That attack was the first of several in the area. Hichens worked with the locals to try and find the beast that committed the murders, including putting out poisoned carcasses in the hope the Mngwa would eat one and die. Hichens never saw the Mngwa but had no doubt that it was the source of the killings. This particular animal was never caught, but when the attacks ceased, it was speculated that it may have died.

Like the Nandi Bear, the Mngwa has seemingly disappeared and there have been no reliable reports of one in the 21st century. Africa has changed so much and become so overrun with man and his machines in recent years that it seems there is no more room for mysterious creatures stalking the once-lonely places.

What exactly was the Mngwa? It obviously was a feline creature. Some theorized it might be a larger species of the African Golden Cat, a small but ferocious predator. Others have speculated it could be a surviving relative of the saber-toothed tiger that stalked the prehistoric world. The Mngwa fur that the Lindi guard clutched in his hands was sent for scientific analysis, but the result was tepid to say the least, with the authorities only saying it belonged to a large cat.

One highly unusual theory is that there is no real animal known as the Mngwa and that the creature is the fictitious creation of a secret society of murderous witch doctors. There are known groups of “lion men” and “leopard men” who dress in the skins of predatory cats and use steel “claws” to savagely murder their victims. The grey fur could be put in the victim’s hand after they died. It’s a peculiar idea but not one that can be totally dismissed.

I think Africa will always be the home of many cryptic creatures despite its vanishing wilderness. The idea of the continent as a repository of mysterious and strange animals is hard to dispel even today. And although much wilderness has been destroyed, not all of it is gone and there are still remote areas to which monsters can retreat. The Ruwenzori Mountains of the Congo are one such area that can hold a lot of mystery. As vicious as both the Nandi Bear and Mngwa are, my hope is that they still roam somewhere in the Dark Continent.

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