In Lingala [1] Mokele-mbembe has multiple meanings depending on where you are and who you are talking to. Loosely translated it can stand for either “one who stops the flow of rivers,” “one who eats the tops of trees,” or more dramatically “half god, half beast.”

Rumours of a large exotic animal resembling a sauropod (a four legged herbivorous dinosaur thought to have become extinct by the end of the Late Cretaceous 65 million years ago) have circulated within Africa’s native community and worldwide amongst missionaries, scientists, explorers and especially cryptozoologists [2] for centuries. The creatures allegedly live in the Likouala Swamp, Republic of the Congo, a largely inaccessible and mostly unexplored region encompassing 55,000 square miles (143,000 square kilometres), an area larger than England.

Pygmies living along the border of Likouala tell stories of not only seeing the huge creatures but also killing and attempting to eat one (apparently it made them ill). It has been described as having a long neck and tail, being mostly brown in color, hairless and with a length that varies between 16 and 32 feet (5 to 10 meters), though word has it that where the swamp extends into the neighboring country of Cameroon creatures as large as 75 feet (23 meters) have been sighted.

Mokele-mbembe appears to be herbivorous feeding on local vegetation of all types with its favorite being a berry encrusted shrub called malambo. Herbivorous doesn’t necessarily mean docile, however, and the huge creatures apparently in defense of their territory have been known to overturn canoes and boats and kill either with a swipe of their tail or by biting.

The first reference to an unidentified animal that could be Mokele-mbembe comes from a book written in 1776 by French priest and amateur naturalist Abbe Bonaventure. While working as a missionary in the Congo he claimed to have seen enormous clawed footprints 3 feet in circumference spaced 7 feet apart and though he never actually saw the creature he did record that “it must have been monstrous.”

In 1909, Lt. Paul Gratz while traveling in central Africa, supposedly heard tales from terrified natives who described a large ferocious creature that made its home in nearby swamps. He referred to it as “a degenerate saurian,” probably the first correlation drawn between the animal and a prehistoric dinosaur.

In 1909 big-game hunter Carl Hagenbeck making reference to the creature in his autobiography titled "Beasts and Men" claimed to have heard rumours of a behemoth that was “half elephant, half dragon.” He also claimed to have had the rumours corroborated by naturalist Joseph Menges who apparently had heard similar stories of a huge animal, which he described as “some kind of dinosaur seemingly akin to the brontosaurus.”

In 1913 the German government sent Army Captain Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz to explore the Cameroon at the time a German protectorate. While there Lausnitz reported hearing about the large animal that was causing so much controversy. He wrote that the locals called it Mokele-mbembe, and said that it was "herbivorous, brownish gray in color, had a long neck and tail and was about the size of an elephant".

By the end of the decade, newspapers throughout Europe and North America were busily printing articles concerning this supposed vestige of prehistory and the hunt for the elusive cryptid was on in earnest.

In 1920 the Smithsonian mounted a sizable expedition which found little of consequence a few muddy tracks and an unidentified roaring sound the sum total of their endeavors. The expedition ended when a train on which they were traveling overturned crushing four team members to death and seriously injuring others.

Exploring West Cameroon allegedly provided some anxious moments for zoologist and cryptologist Ivan T. Sanderson and animal trader Gerald Russell. In 1932, while traveling up the Mainyu River through an area known as the Mamfe Pool they apparently encountered something extraordinary.

According to Sanderson the canoeists were paddling desperately, fighting a strong current which threatened to draw them into a large partially submerged cave, when suddenly the water ahead of them began to boil furiously and from the foam burst a lizard-like head the size of a hippopotamus. Allegedly the monster stared menacingly at the terrified paddlers, then roared loudly, before sliding back beneath the river's murky surface.

The zoologist was to later write “I don’t know what we saw but the animal, the monster, burned itself into my retinas. It looked like something that ought to have been dead millions of years ago. As a scientist I should have been happy of course, but this encounter was so frightening, so nasty, that I never want to see it again.”

Sanderson’s story certainly sounds exciting even convincing, unfortunately it's also apparently a hoax, disproved by herpetologist James H. Powell Jr. who traveled to the exact location of Sanderson’s purportedly horrific encounter and found no evidence of either strong currents, a partially submerged cave, or a monster. He did, though, find a modern railway passing within a few feet of the supposedly secluded Mokele-mbembe hideaway.

In an attempt to uncover the truth, Dr. Roy P. Mackal cryptozoologist/zoologist of Loch Ness Monster fame questioned Sanderson, who admitted to the fraud saying that he "loved to eat lobster,” or to put it another way he loved the good life, a life he afforded through the sale of his books, sales which were increased considerably by a dash of dramatic license and a dollop of embellishment.

In 1980 James H. Powell Jr. arrived in Africa in the company of Dr. Mackal. Unfortunately their objective, Lake Tele in the wilds of Likouala, proved elusive.

In 1981 Mackal returned for what was to be his last expedition this time accompanied by Marcellin Agnagna a Congolese biologist who would later become the centre of a new wave of debate. Mackal once again failed to reach Lake Tele, an unidentified wake and loud splash the closest he came to observing the elusive beast.

In 1983 Agnagna led an expedition of his own to Lake Tele this time succeeding and in the process becoming mired in controversy. The biologist claimed to not only having seen Mokele-mbembe but also to have filmed it. Unfortunately, he maintained, there was no proof because in the excitement of the moment he forgot to remove the camera’s lens cap. Well maybe you might say but then a year later, during an interview, the biologist changed his story stating that he didn’t have proof, not because of a forgotten cap but because the camera was on the wrong setting. This along with personal and financial problems placed both his claims and his credibility in doubt.

In the early 1990s Redmond O’Hanlon, author (his book "No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo" is a great read) and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, traveled throughout the region finding no trace of the cryptid. He did, however, discover that many of the locals believe Mokele-mbembe to be a spiritual rather than a physical entity. His personal opinion is that other animals, perhaps elephants crossing rivers with their trunks in the air, are the reality behind sightings.

The aforementioned notwithstanding, the following is a given:

The Likouala swamp is a huge area and huge areas can hide many secrets.

People believe what they wish to believe.

Hoaxes are as old as humanity.

While strange footprints have been found there is no hard incontrovertible evidence that they were made by a dinosaur.

Many species unknown, thought extinct, or critically endangered are, however, being found on a continuing basis:

In 1902, Oscar von Beringe, a young German military officer, discovered mountain gorillas (at the time an unknown species) on the highest slopes of the Virunga Mountains of central Africa.

In 1938, a coelacanth, a species believed to have died out in the Late Cretaceous, was discovered in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of South Africa.

In August of 2008 the Wildlife Conservation Authority announced the discovery of over 125,000 western lowland gorillas, a species on the critically endangered list, living in the Likouala.

[1] Lingala is a Bantu language spoken by over 10 million people in an area comprising Angola, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

[2] Refering to those who pursue creatures that are (at present) unsubstantiated by modern science their alleged existence based on myth, rumor and eyewitness sightings.

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