The forest-dwelling pygmy
hippopotamus is alive and well in West Africa.
Part 2 | back to part 1
Local people's tales of fantastic creatures should not be dismissed out of
hand. For centuries, Europeans traveling in remote areas were wont to
disregard any legend an indigenous person might have of beasts that they
themselves had not seen. This was part paternalism, part justifiable caution in
the face of the possibly apocryphal. Yet indigenous people often know whereof
they speak. In 1840, for example, outsiders first heard of a dwarf version of
the hippopotamus that native Liberians claimed they hunted in the jungle. But
since no Europeans had seen a live one, it was not until the early part of this
century that biologists finally conceded that the West African pygmy hippo
actually exists. In Africa alone, there are
myriad instances of animals that foreigners thought fabulous even as locals
calmly informed them they were quite real. "Most of these animals were known
first from native reports about them," writes the late naturalist Gerald
Durrell, adding facetiously "and, of course, primitive tribesmen all over the
world spend their time making up stories about animals in order to confuse and
delude European zoologists."
Just because a scientist hasn't seen it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
In 1912, a pilot crash-landed his plane on a small island in the heart of
the Indonesian archipelago. "The airman came back with a tale that he had met
fierce and monstrous dragons, at least four meters [13 feet] long, which
according to the inhabitants ate pigs, goats, and deer, and even attacked
horses," writes Bernard Heuvelmans in his classic 1955 work On the Track of
Unknown Animals. Needless to say, nobody believed a word of his story."
Soon, however, a Dutch botanist based in the region, following up on a story by
locals of a boeaja darat, or "land crocodile," traveled to the island
and "discovered" the Komodo dragon.
Named for the
Indonesian island that is its chief remaining habitat, the Komodo dragon is the
world's largest lizard.
One of the most famous of once-fabulous creatures was first described in 1625.
That year, an English adventurer named Andrew Battel published a story about a
monster in the heart of Africa known as the pongo.
It wasn't until
two and half centuries after a European first described the gorilla that this
hefty primate was finally described scientifically.
This Pongo is in all proportion like a man, but . . . he is more like a Giant
in stature, than a man: for he is very tall, [and] hath a man's face,
hollow-eyed, with long haire vpon his browes. His face and eares are without
haire, and his hands also. His bodie is full of haire, but not very thicke, and
it is a dunnish colour. . . Hee goeth alwaies vpon his legs, and carrieth his
hands clasped on the nape of his necke, when he goeth upon the ground . . .
They goe many together, and kill many Negroes that trauaile in the Woods . . .
Those Pongos are neuer taken aliue, because they are so strong, that ten men
cannot hold one of them . . . .
Despite such a detailed portrait by a white man, few Europeans believed such a
beast existed. A full century and a half after Battel's story appeared, one
writer claimed that "the large species, described by Buffon and other authors
as of the size of a man, is held by many to be a Chimera." It was not until the
mid-19th century that biologists finally described the animal, giving it the
scientific name Gorilla gorilla.
Fantastic Creatures |
Birth of a Legend
Eyewitness Accounts |
Experimenting with Sonar
Site Map |
Loch Ness Home
Editor's Picks |
Previous Sites |
Join Us/E-mail |
About NOVA |
Site Map |
PBS Online |
NOVA Online |
© | Updated November 2000