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Thursday, February 26, 2009

OLL LEWIS: The Nandi Bear

Like the chupacabra, the Nandi bear has become a catch all term for every strange beast seen in a certain part of the world, in this case East Africa - particularly in the Nandi district of Kenya. This has led to an array of differing descriptions being attributed to Nandi bears and makes it easy for knee jerk sceptics to loftily proclaim that because not all descriptions tally it can’t possibly exist. When this happens, it falls to one reasearcher to take the time to untangle the Gorgon’s knot of witness sightings and other evidence from each other. Heuvelmans undertook this challenge in ‘On the Track of Unknown Animals’, attributing sightings to that of ratels, aardvarks, giant baboons and giant hyenas.

Most witnesses report a creature as big as a man with four limbs and a sloping back covered in fur. The creature is sometimes seen ‘standing up’ on its hind limbs, but invariably seems to run on all four legs. Attacks attributed to Nandi bears are usually extremely violent in nature and the creature is said to have a taste for brains, often scalping its victims and cracking open skulls as if they were egg shells. Occasionally witnesses attribute feats of athleticism to the Nandi bear like being able to leap two metre high fences in a single bound and jump to the top of huts. It is also said to emit fearsome noises before or immediately after killing that can strike fear into all but the bravest of men.

Heuvelmans postulated that the reported Nandi bears that bore a resemblance to large baboons could be caused by sightings of a surviving example of Simopithecus (a supposedly extinct gorilla sized ancestor of modern baboons). There is little evidence however to suggest that Simopithecus, now renamed as Theropithecus oswaldi and Theropithecus brumpti, survived into the Holocene. (See picture at top)

However, the sightings of giant baboon-like animals, that make up the bulk of Nandi bear reports, might have been caused by… giant baboons. The average height of a male olive baboon (Papio anubis) is 70cm but occasionally baboons do get reported of a larger size and most baboon species can hybridise with each other. Baboon hybrids have not been widely studied, but there are several baboon populations known to contain hybrids, including several in Ethiopia, and it is certainly within the realms of possibility that some hybrids could be a lot larger than most other baboons. Colonel C.R.S. Pitman reported an outsize race of baboons in the Mabira forest, which locals claimed were as big as men. Eventually he acquired a very large specimen and sent it to the Natural History Museum in London who identified it as an example of Papio anubis.

As well as giant baboons, there are other potentially cryptozoological creatures that have been classed as Nandi bears; the ‘giant hyenas’. In East Africa itself this form of Nandi bear is known as the chimiset or chemosit. In 1928 Captain William Hichens recalled when he had been sent to a Nandi village to investigate the death of a 6 year old girl allegedly caused by a chimiset that had smashed its way though a huts mud wall just to get to her. The village chief informed the Captain that the chimiset usually inhabited a small, forested hill 5 miles from the village and Hichens set off to investigate with his hunting dog.

Captain Hichens’s search was unsuccessful, but one night he set up his tent and went to sleep having tethered his dog to one of the tent poles. During the night Hichens was awoken by a blood curdling scream and the tent collapsing upon him. When he escaped from the tangled mess his tent had become he saw a trail of blood across the sand along the route that an animal, presumably the chimiset, had taken his dog’s body after snatching him. Hitchens later recalled the scream emitted by the chimiset was more frightening than the roar or a lion, the trumpeting of a maddened cow-elephant or a trapped leopard. Alongside the blood trail were paw-prints 4 times larger than a man’s hand, which showed the imprints of claws. The prints reminded Hichens of a lion but without retractable claws and the size was much larger than any lion he had seen, and Hichens had seen some pretty big lions in his time. Hichens followed the trail at dawn with some men from the village and found it led to the forested hill where the chimiset was reputed to live, but he found nothing.

Hichens certainly didn’t think that the chimiset was a hyena, saying that explanation seemed more like an evasion than an explanation because hyenas are as common around African ones as rabbits around English villages. Hyenas cannot do many of the things ascribed to Nandi bears by witnesses like standing on their hind legs and jumping over fences almost 2 metres high, but hyenas CAN account for some sightings. Remains of hyenas twice the size of the common spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) have been found in Kenya. In the late 1950s Douglas Hutton, the manager of a tea plantation in Nandi, shot two such animals and after workers at the tea plantation had viewed them the bodies were left to have the flesh cleaned off them by ants and the bones were sent to Nairobi Museum to be examined. Frustratingly all the museum came back with was that it was a giant forest hyena, which could mean just about anything and didn’t attribute the bones to any known species and did not state whether or not they were the bones of a new or un-described species. Karl Shuker has postulated that some Nandi bear reports may be sightings of the short-faced or giant hyena (Pachycrocuta brevirostris), which is thought to have become extinct 500,000 years ago.

Giant baboons and giant hyenas are both plausible explanations for Nandi bear sightings, but there have also been some candidates that have been proposed over the years that are a lot less likely. Chalicothere were creatures related to horses rhinoceroses and tapirs, that had a sloping back as a result of their front limbs being longer than their back limbs that are thought to have become extinct 3.5 million years ago. It would seem that the only reason they have been suggested as a possible explanation for the Nandi bear is their sloped back. The fact that they are thought to be long extinct and that they were herbivores does count against them. Another suggested candidate for Nandi bear sightings is the Atlas bear (Ursus arctos crowtheri). This is also complete poppycock, not because the Atlas bear is supposedly extinct, although there are occasional reports that may refer to it, so it may yet still exist in very small isolated populations, but because there is no evidence of Atlas bears south of the Sahara desert and also because, despite the name, the Nandi bear is not actually a bear.


Jum said...

FWIW, it's "Gordian Knot" - in myth and legend the GK was a devilishly complex knot which ancient prophecy foretold could only be un-knotted by the one who would be king of all Asia. As the story goes, young Alexander the Not-Quite-Yet-Great came upon the knot, became frustrated when unable to untie it, and so with heroic recourse to the basics, took out his sword and with one stroke slashed it in two, thus "solving" the knot and fulfilling a prophecy of his future greatness.

As for "Gorgon", that of course was the dread and terrible mythical beast which to look upon would turn a man to stone. Medusa, with hair of writhing snakes, whom Jason so famously turned to stone by using her reflection against her, was a gorgon.

I am confident you were quite aware of both the knot of Gordias and the Gorgon, and merely, as do we all, dozed for a moment at the keyboard while continuing to type. I wish you success.

Markus B├╝hler said...

Some baboon species really inbreed in the wild, but those hybrids are not considerably larger than their parental species. They sometimes show very weird tooth-anomalies like additional teeth, and especially the males sometimes show a very robust phenotype and large body size, but by far not giant and still smaller than for example the large mandrill.
Even the extinct giant forms like Theropithecus oswaldi were not that giant at all. Even the largest known specimens of Theropithecus oswaldi hardly exceeded 100 kg.