Mokele-Mbembe: Swamp Monster of the Congo

The name Mokele-Mbembe means “one who stops the flow of rivers.” That gives an indication of the traditional awe and dread that people of the Congo Basin have held for Africa’s version of the Loch Ness Monster. In legends, it sometimes is described as having a gray-brown elephant-like body, with a long neck and small head. 

According to Roy P. Mackal’s 1987 book A Living Dinosaur? In search of Mokele-Membe, the earliest account by an outsider of Mokele-Mbembe was published in 1776 by a French priest, the Rev. Abbe Levain Bonaventure Proyart, who reported that missionaries in the Congo had happened upon the tracks of an enormous animal whose whose feet were a yard in circumference. The animal apparently had claws, which elephants and rhinos do not. Mackal also cites the reports of a German explorer, Freiherr von Stein zu Lasnitz, who visited the region just before the outbreak of World War I. Lasnitz wrote that he was told by natives of an immense semi-aquatic animal with a long neck and a muscular, alligator-like tail:

Canoes that come 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 their bodies.

The gigantic herbavore cryptid has been hunted repeatedly over the past century by expeditions of explorers and researchers, including Mackal himself. Some claim to have come tantalizingly close. Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark’s 1999 book Cryptology A to Z  recounts the testimony of Congolese biologist Marcellin Agnagna, who in 1983 reportedly caught a glimpse of a Mokele-Mbembe wading into Lake Tele. He described it as having a long-necked form, but he was unable to see the legs or tail. Agnagna attempted to film the creature with his movie camera, but in his excitement failed to notice that he had not removed the lens cap. In 1992, a Japanese film crew, while shooting panoramic footage for a documentary, caught a 15-second shot of what appears to be a large object with a protruberance that could be a long neck, swimming briefly on the lake surface before diving.

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Part of outsiders’ enduring fascination for Mokele-Mbeme stems from the belief that it might be an extant dinosaur, one that somehow survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction Event 65 million years ago, which scientists believe was triggered by an immense asteroid striking a spot under what is now the Yucutan peninsula of Mexico. Some descriptions of the creature do evoke the actual long-necked dinosaurs who roamed the region tens of millions of years ago. Those creatures, who weighed upwards of 50 tons, may have been the largest land animals in the history of the planet. Their huge size and long necks may have been an evolutionary adaptation that allowed them to reach vegetation that was too high for less imposing creatures. Sauropod teeth have been found in the Koum basin in neighboring Cameroon.

If Mokele Mbeme was found and turned out actually to be a living example of a sauropod, it might rewrite natural history–a prospect that no doubt delights Creationist critics of evolution. The website of the anti-evolution Institute for Creation Science, for example, offers this lengthy article on Mokele-Mbeme by William J. Gibbons, who since the mid-1980s has gone on several quests in search of the Congolese cryptid. Gibbons claims that inhabitants of the area know exactly where to find the Mokele Mbeme, so far they have resisted revealing the secret.

…they believe that to speak openly of the animals to white outsiders means death. It was nothing more than fear and superstition that was stopping us from making a major discovery.

All of that falls short of conclusive evidence. But cryptozoologists continue to search, in the belief that if dinosaurs do still exist in some wild, unexplored area, the Congo might be a likely spot.

Be sure to catch Beast Hunter: Swamp Monster of the Congo this Friday at 9P et/pt. Check out this video preview until then: