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Pygmy Hippos The forest-dwelling pygmy hippopotamus is alive and well in West Africa.
Fantastic Creatures
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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."

Komodo Dragon Named for the Indonesian island that is its chief remaining habitat, the Komodo dragon is the world's largest lizard.

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.

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.

Gorilla 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
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