Hailing primarily from the Likouala swamp region of the Central Africa, these gargantuan creatures are far and away the most famous of all the “living dinosaurs,” which have allegedly survived into the modern era.

Said to lurk in river bends and in the deep, sub-aquatic caves which line the shores of Lake Tele, accounts of these bizarre Jurassic throwbacks have emanated from this region since the earliest European explorers ventured into the vast and treacherous realms of west-central Africa.

The first known sighting of this creature was reported by a man named Abbot Proyart, who claimed to have seen a large saurapod-like beast. Since that initial encounter, legends of this amazing LAKE MONSTER have continued to filter out of the Likouala swamp area of the Congolese jungle (formerly known as Zaire) for well over a century.

Described as being of elephantine proportions, with smooth, grayish skin, three-clawed feet the size of frying pans, a long neck and an extended tail — which is reputed to possess even more strength than central Africa’s most feared aquatic predator, the crocodile — the Mokèlé-mbèmbé is a creature which seems to deserve its fearsome reputation.

Even the name “Mokèlé-mbèmbé.” when translated from Lingala — the language of the indigenous peoples of the Congo basin — literally means “one that stops the flow of rivers.”

While most of the locals believe that the Mokèlé-mbèmbé is a flesh and blood creature, there are some native traditions, such as those celebrated in the Village of Boha, which hold that this creature is a spirit rather than a large animal. This is not unlike some Scottish legends, which have surmised that the  legendary LOCH NESS MONSTER is nothing more than the restless spirits of long extinct dinosaurs.

In 2001, the BBC interviewed tribe members who identified a photo of rhino as being a Mokèlé-mbèmbé. This has led some to speculate that the reports of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé are nothing more than a relic memory of the rhinoceroses that once dwelled in the region.

But discrepancies in this creature’s description are nothing new as there are also numerous accounts of similar animals, which mention their having a horn or a tusk-like tooth as well as a rooster-like frill. It would seem that these attributes are not representative of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé, but of another anomalous animal altogether, which the natives refer to as the EMELA-NTOUKA or CHIPEKWE.

Armed with these native descriptions, it did not take much of an intuitive leap on the parts of these early European adventurers to assume that the legends of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé were actually derived from eyewitness encounters with what they  believed were living members of the  long presumed to be extinct family of dinosaurs known as saurapods. It wasn’t long before these intrepid explorers were regaling the rest of the civilized world with tales of prehistoric adventure, which rivaled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s epic “Lost World”.

In 1932, legendary American cryptozoologist IVAN T. SANDERSON came across a set of large hippopotamus-like tracks in an area of central Africa, which was not known to support a hippo population.

During that same expedition, Sandserson watched in awe as he saw a creature that was much larger than a hippo, slip beneath the water while he was boating near his camp. Although the animal did not resurface, Sanderson was convinced that he had seen what his native guides had referred to as “Mgbulu-eM’bembe.”

Sanderson’s guides, who had for generations shared their habitat with these animals, reflected upon how lucky Sanderson was to have escaped with his life. For, even though it was almost universally believed that the creature was a strict herbivore — subsisting primarily on the molombo plants, which dot the sides of the Likouala-aux-Herbes River — these wary fishermen knew full well that an encounter with this territorial beast usually resulted in the destruction of their vessels and, more often than not, the loss of life.

On more than one occasion tribes have told investigators tales of hunters and fishermen who have unwittingly penetrated this creature’s haunt, only to have their boats capsized while their helmsmen were held beneath the muddy waters of the Likouala by the animal’s massive tail. The corpses of these unlucky mariners had often washed ashore with their ribs crushed, but showing no signs of being eaten, which is consistent with the theories regarding the vegetarian diet of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé.

While numerous expeditions have been mounted over the past two centuries — some of the most notable in recent decades including the likes of Dr. ROY P. MACKAL, RORY NUGENT and International Society of Cryptozoology (ISC) Secretary, RICHARD GREENWELL, very little evidence regarding the existence of these “living dinosaurs” has actually surfaced.

One exception to this rule can be seen in the form of a few precious feet of film, which was taken by a Japanese television crew in 1987, while flying over Lake Tele during the production of a documentary featuring this animal. Although skeptics were quick to claim that the image on the videotape showed nothing more than a grainy, birds-eye-view of two men in a canoe — the first one standing, which created the illusion of a head and neck — there are many who staunchly believe that the object captured on that film reel was none other than the Mokèlé-mbèmbé itself.

One of the best eyewitness accounts of this creature was recorded in April of 1983, during a Congolese sponsored expedition to Lake Tele, which was led by zoologist MARCELLIN AGNAGA, of the Brazzaville Zoo. In the midst of their scientific pursuit, a Mokèlé-mbèmbé apparently raised its head and neck in clear view of Agnaga and his team, approximately 800-feet from shore.

According to Agnaga, the creature had a narrow, reddish colored head, large, oval, crocodilian eyes and a thin nose. While Agnaga was convinced of the animal’s reptilian heritage, he insisted that the creature was neither a python, a crocodile, nor a freshwater turtle.

While expeditions for these bizarre beasts have primarily focused on the area known now as the Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been reports of similar creatures in many neighboring nations such as Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Cameroon.

Due to the political instability in the Congo region an organization know as Cryptosafari decided to concentrate their efforts not on the Likouala swamp and Lake Tele regions, as so many had done in the past, but instead to turn their gaze upon a remote area of Cameroon, where reports of gigantic, sauropods had slowly but steadily filtered into the western world via missionary accounts.

So in February of 2001, Cryptosafari assembled a crack team of experienced trackers and Mokèlé-mbèmbé investigators — including Dr. BILL GIBBONS,  Scott Norman and British Colombia Scientific Cryptozoology Club (BCSCC) president JOHN KIRK III — and sent them into Cameroon, in order to investigate these reports. It soon became evident to these intrepid explorers that the animals being reported by the missionaries, although bearing the familiar name of Mokèlé-mbèmbé, were likely not the same species as their Congolese counterparts.

In fact, when Cameroon pygmies were presented with a picture from Mackal’s seminal book: “A living Dinosaur: In Search for Mokele-mbembe,” they seemed unimpressed by the illustration of a proto-pygmy standing next to a relatively small sauropod, but grew extremely agitated when they were shown drawings of the much larger diplodocus and brachiosaur.

According to the Cryptosafari team, these pygmies, upon seeing the illustrations of these gigantic animals, began to excitedly shout: “Mokèlé-mbèmbé! Mokèlé-mbèmbé!” Although, investigators claim that the animal is also known to the Baka pygmies as “Le Kela-bembe.”

This example is indicative of one of the greatest obstacles — besides war, weather, tropical predators and civil strife — which face researchers in their pursuit of this elusive beast; the unintentional misrepresentation of this creature due both to language and cultural barriers. Unfortunately, as many intrepid explorers have learned, Mokèlé-mbèmbé (while representing a specific, sauropod-like animal) has become the generic appellation for any number of different, yet equally intriguing, quasi-aquatic, African cryptids.

Names such as DINGONEK, JAGO-NINI, NSANGA and OL-UMAINA, have all been used synonymously with that of Mokèlé-mbèmbé, and yet each one likely represents a separate and distinct animal. Still, for many researchers, wading through this hazy morass of misidentification is nothing compared to forging through the dense, sub-tropical rain forests of West Africa in search of what could be the greatest link man has to the Earth’s long extinct past.

In the 21st Century most of the heavily publicized investigations have been mounted by television stations such as National Geographic, History and SyFy. While no definitive evidence was discovered by any of the teams, there have been intriguing discoveries such as large underground caves with air vents and sonar readings of long, serpentine, sub-aquatic creatures in Cameroon.

© Copyright Rob Morphy 2002 — 2011