"At the bottom of the valley and near its eastern extremity, we came to a deep tarnlike lake about a mile in diameter, the sluggish oily water of which overflowed into a tortuous reedy canal that went into the recesses of a black forest composed of jungle below and palms above. A path diverging from its southern side struck boldly for the heart of the forbidding and seemingly impenetrable forest.
My interpreter Hendrick led the way along this path, I following closely, and behind me a curious rabble of Mkodos, men, women and children. Suddenly all the natives began to cry “Tepe! Tepe!” The sluggish canallike stream here wound slowly by, and in a bare spot in its band was the most singular of trees. Imagine a pineapple eight feet high and thick in proportion, but a dark dingy brown, and apparently as hard as iron. Eight leaves hung from the tree, each about elf feet long, and tapered to a sharp point. These leaves hanging thus limp and lifeless, dead green in color, had in appearance the massive strength of oak fibre.
A clear, treacly liquid, with highly intoxicating properties, trickled from the centre. A series of hairy, green eight feet long tendrils stretched out in every direction. Suddenly, after the natives had offered up prayers to the tree, they encircled one of the women and forced her to climb its trunk. When she stood at the top, surrounded by its dancing tentacles, she bent down and drank the treacle-like fluid, then became wild with hysterical frenzy. But she did not jump down, as she seemed to intend to do. The atrocious cannibal tree came to sudden savage life. With the fury of starved serpents quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms. Her screams were replaced with a gurgling moan. And now the great leaves slowly rose and stiffly, like the arms of a derrick, erected themselves in the air, approached one another and closed about the dead and hampered victim with the silence force of a hydraulic press.
The retracted leaves of the great tree kept their upright position for ten days. When I came by one morning, they were prone again, with the tendrils outstretched, and there was nothing but a white skull left at the foot of the tree."
That is how German traveller Karl Liche described his eyewitness experience in a letter to Polish savant Dr Omelius Fredlowski at the end of the nineteenth century. The letter was published in several newspapers and magazines and attracted a great deal of attention.
It was first published by German popular magazine Graefe und Walther of Karlsruhe in 1878 and then by Indian Mail published in Madras. New York based World and Australian Register followed in 1880 and a year later the story appeared in Antanarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine published by missionaries in Madagascar. The discovery of a man-eating tree, however, went unnoticed by botanists as well as travellers, and so it slowly fell into oblivion.
A new wave of interest was created by a Sunday supplement of American Weekly published on Sept. 26, 1920 even though it did not bring any new information but a dusted-off and dramatised version of Liche's letter that ran accompanied by a cartoon of a naked blonde entrapped by thorny leaves of the terrible tree. The article, however, inspired Michigan governor Chase Salmon Osborn to a trip to Madagascar to this botanical anomaly.
Osborn had criss-crossed Madagascar but did not find the tree anywhere. All natives he met, however, had allegedly told him about the tree. American Weekly published his travel experience in October of 1924. And for the third time, American Weekly returned to the subject in January 1925. A story titled `Escaped from the Embrace of the Man-eating Tree` described an expedition of traveler W. C. Bryant to one of the Philippines islands where he had discovered human skeletons in branches of a strange and unknown tree.
These articles, though, met with a harsh reaction from botanists. "Carnivorous plants entrap and consume only insects the size of several millimetres," they raged. "A man or a bigger animal can never become their prey."
Science magazine American Botanist closed the unmerciful criticism saying: "Field and forest do not teem with poisonous plants and animals. They are far more peaceful and harmless than the streets of any city. If there is such a plant as those have been described in tabloid press, we hereby offer ten thousand dollars for a living specimen."
Hard to say whether it was a prospect of the reward or just a desire for an adventure that in 1935 took former British army officer L. Hearst searching for a man-eating tree to the Madagascar rainforests. And even though he had not met natives of the Mkodo pygmy tribe who would have taken him to their worshiped tree, he was not quite that unsuccessful. He met with a tiny black hillman who assured him that the Devil tree does trap and devour human victims and that secret religious rites and tribal sacrifices are offered to it even today.
This encouraged Hearst who then spent four months on the island searching for the trees until he finally found huge carnivorous plants. The natives managed to keep the man-eating tree Tepe out of Hearst's attention but he still brought back photographs of large pitcher plants swallowing small rodents and photographs of some sort of unknown trees that were surrounded by skeletons of larger animals. He, of course, could not bring living specimen of the trees because he would have needed at least a truck to do that.
The scientists, however, did not accept his photographs as proof and accused him of forgery. That made Hearst return to the jungle. However, this time he did not come back. He died under mysterious circumstances somewhere in the area of succulent Harpagophytes in the southeast part of the island. And that was where we started our search.
Surrounded by insidious tendrils
We had thought that we would be met by the same impassable green jungle as in Africa but the dry spiny bush that we got into here was perhaps even worse and less passable. The vegetation was dominated by raffia very well accustomed to the dry climate and by huge baobab trees that were scattered among thorny scrub. The landscape looked as if it was not on the Earth.
The area we were in was covered by thorny giants growing out of bright red sand. There were Euphorbias with thirty-centimetre thorns as well as strange-looking octopus trees which resilient branches were covered by thorns in such a way that the leaves were almost invisible.
Passing through such countryside is extremely strenuous even with a machete. The thorns immediately tear up your clothes and scratch up your body. After a few tens of metres of a march through this terrible vegetation you have to return, bleeding. That is one of the reasons why there are still hidden so many undiscovered plants.
And it is true that there live also carnivorous plants, mainly the so-called pitchers, which are equipped with strange pots they use to entrap their prey. The prey is lured in by sweet nectar extracted on the lid and other parts of the pitcher and once it touches the inner slippery surface it falls inside without a chance to climb out. The prey then drowns in the slimy liquid and is gradually decomposed by the digestive fluid of the plant.
Pitchers of the known Madagascar carnivorous plants are, however, no longer than 30 centimetres, which means that insect, maximally smallest animals, is their only prey. And even more, the trapping mechanisms of these plants are only passive.
According to Liche's description, though, the man-eating tree was catching its prey actively. It had apparently grabbed the prey with some sort of tendrils and then captured it with its leaves. In that case, it would have resembled carnivorous plants from the family of flytraps or sundews. Even those, however, trap only insects.
At the south end of the island that so mysteriously swallowed Hearst we can find plants though that are dangerous to bigger animals and even to humans. Not that they could eat them but they can entrap them and hold them in their branches. Those are very peculiar plants that don't live anywhere else in the world. They thrive in the thorny bush that covers most of this area. They lie in wait among other prickly succulents resembling cacti the size of a house and surrounded by bushes with long thorns and leaves sharp as razors. They indeed lie in wait because they need to thrust their hooks into the skin of a living creature. But again, not to suck its blood as a vampire, but to spread its seeds this way.
One of those plants is a very precious Harpagophytum grandidieri. The locals call it andridritra or a tree with claws. It has very long and resilient branches that hang in a massive tuft reaching to the ground and at the end bear capsules with seeds. The capsules are egg-shaped equipped with very sharp back hooks. Unlike our burs that attach to clothes but don't hurt skin, capsules of harpagophyt can easily get stuck in skin. When the seeds ripen, the capsules readily fall off and attach to animals that then carry them away. In doing so the animal, however, suffers immensely because the hooks are tearing up its skin whenever it moves.
Until the seeds are ripe, the seed capsules hang on tight to the branches. If the wind swings the branches, they can coil around a passing animal or a human being, closing them in a perfect clasp. If the victim tries to break free it ends up being a fly caught in a cobweb. With every move it makes it becomes even more entangled with more hooks attaching on. It is entrapped in a painful grip and usually dies without outside help.
We were looking for a tree, though, that not only entraps its victims but also eats them up. Whenever we meet natives we did not miss a chance to ask them about the trees but they just kept on shrugging their shoulders. The "devil trees" dangerous to humans certainly grow here but they are mostly fady, which is Malagasy for taboo, meaning a certain restriction or a ban which disobedience is punished by supernatural forces. A place where such a tree grows is sacred and is off-limits to a white man.
Luckily our Malagasy guide Pascal was a university graduate and did not fear ghosts. He was very successful in dealing with the natives and often managed to elicit precious information concerning the tree from them.
Trouble with native keepers
Our jeep was bobbing over tree roots and deep holes of a narrow path leading through the middle of the forest. The dark had fallen already and we were beginning to grow nervous. To be entering natives' sacred area in the night was not too wise.
Even over the noise of the engine we could hear the sudden yell. It sounded like a high-pitched female scream but we knew too well it was bad news. It was the combat cry of the Antandroy tribe. We became alert and soon caught the glimpse of white shadows running between trees. And in a moment figures in white robes with spears in their hands ran down to the road. Pascal was encouraging our Malagasy driver to go faster but with little luck because of the rough road.
All of a sudden yelling people were running along our car and two even managed to jump on the rear bumper. Through the rear window we could see their grinning faces. Fortunately the road straightened up and the driver could speed up, which forced our pursuers to jump off. After a while all of them disappeared in the darkness.
The sacred territory that we had entered without the natives' permission was protecting one of the "devil trees." It was a tree that lived in many legends and was worshiped by natives from the wide area. Allegedly the tree's trunk is the incarnation of the soul of a local king who until today demands human sacrifices from time to time. The tree is the centre of inexplicable phenomena and mysterious deaths. Was it the legendary "man-eating tree" that we had been searching for, for several weeks?
After another fifteen-minute ride through the dark jungle the trees got thinner and then we saw it. It stood in the middle of a plain and it indeed looked scary. Its dark ragged silhouette with unnaturally twisted branches stood erect against a moonlit sky. We could see immediately, though, that it was not any to the science unknown man-eating tree but a plain baobab.
It is a rare tree that grows only on Madagascar but except its unusual appearance and ability to live extremely long, it is not mysterious in any way. It is not anywhere near to being dangerous to humans, further more to eating them.
The death of a man whose body had been allegedly found here recently torn into pieces we explained as an attack of the tree's worshipers and the sacred territory guards who had threatened us too.
It was getting close to midnight and strange screams and voices started coming from the forest around us. And the cause of the noise was not probably only the harmless lemurs as both Pascal and our Malagasy driver got nervous. It was about time we got out of there.
Finally on the trace
"Among the devil trees that we worship are also those that can really kill a man and sometimes even on a long distance," told us a white-haired old man from a little village.
"How is that possible?" we wondered.
"Go to the Kinkony lake and there you will learn their secret," he said with a mysterious smile.
The journey there was awful: deep holes, huge rocks and unbelievably steep slopes. In the Ananalava village that had a few reed-roof huts we were welcomed by a throng of villagers who enveloped us and pairs of black hands started touching us with a curiosity. There probably had not been many whites before us.
When Pascal asked them about the devil trees their faces turned into stone, though. And so we unpacked our presents: cheap costume jewellery, T-shirts and pens. In a moment everything was back to normal and the natives started their tales.
The trees are called kumanga and are really very dangerous. They don't eat humans or animals but they are so poisonous that they can kill even on a long distance. Especially when they are blooming. A cloud of poisonous air from the blossoms can extent fairly far in a calm. Birds that sit among their leaves fall dead to the ground and animals that want to hide in the trees' shade die instantly.
Our photographer Jiri Skupien showed a sceptical smile on his face. A man standing right next to him noticed the grin and nodded: "Many doubting Thomases already paid for their haughty carelessness. Demonstrating their bravery they smelled the blossoms and in a moment they lost their consciousness."
It occurred to me that perhaps the occasional discoveries of skeletons of people who had lain down in the shade of the poisonous tree made some of the locals think that the tree had trapped its victim, ate it and then spat out the skeleton.
When we asked them to take us to the nearest kumanga they were shaking their heads, warning us not to go there. It might not end well. We tried to explain to them that we had come here from a far away country just because of those trees and that we knew a way to protect ourselves from them. That was actually true. Our expedition diver Danny Mackerle wanted to use his mask and breathing apparatus to get with camera all the way to the dangerous tree. We pulled out more presents and after a while a young man climbed into our car. He decided he would take us to the tree after all.
Under branches of green killer
A sandy road winds through thick green bushes and a couple of times we have to turn on the four-wheel drive to get through. The car keeps on digging through the sand until we finally have to get out and walk. We apace take a few gulps of warm water, throw our backpacks on and go. Already on the way, the villager gives us our last lesson. When we are near the tree we cannot eat or drink. Unfortunately he does not know whether it is blooming right now or not. He has not been there in a while. We are burning with impatience and again discuss our strategy in approaching the tree once we get there.
And then finally we are there. Kumanga's green top is peeking behind a group of palm trees. If we were on our own we probably could not find it. I take my binoculars out and scan the tree's branches. I can't see any blossoms, which means there is no immediate danger. We are carefully coming closer while sniffing the air. The air is clean; no trace of any smell. The mask can stay in the backpack. There are two bird carcasses decomposing under the tree and spine vertebrae are sticking out of a turtle shell lying nearby. I would like to find skeletons of bigger animals but no luck. Maybe their instinct warned them in time.
The local is bending a tree branch to show us large hard pods. Only recently those were the deadly blossoms. I pick one to take with me and put it into a plastic bag.
Everything is calm; no drama is taking place. I was expecting we would be putting our lives atstake. I was a bit disappointed. We are several months away from seeing new blossoms and experiencing poisonous air. Not even the locals know when the tree will bloom again. It blooms irregularly and it largely depends on rain.
Kumanga is, however, severely poisonous even now. We have to be very careful and not touch it too much; not even the leaves.
The villager is telling us that about a year ago a herd of cows wandered near the tree and started grazing on its juicy leaves. All of the animals fell dead in a few seconds.
Loss of the cattle made the natives decide to get rid of the murderous trees and they burned some of them down. We could see their work of destruction on the nearby clearing where remains of burned and blackened trunks were still protruding to the cloudless sky.
Mackal Roy P., Searching For Hidden Animals, p.248 (London 1980)
Kulik Sergej, Kogda duchi otstupajut (Moscow 1981)
Arkady Fiedler, Madagaskar, okrutny czarodzej (Poznan 1969)
FATE Magazine, December 1950, p.13, Steve Benedict: Man-eating Trees, p. 13
Strange Magazine, 1993, No. 12, Shuker Karl P.N.: Mystery Plants of Pray, p. 9,49,51.
Endavour, vol.35, No.126, p.114, Yolande Heslop-Harrison: Carnivorous plants a century after Darwin.