Monday, August 21, 2006

How Can I Be There for someone everyday?

The mokèlé-mbèmbé is the name given a large creature reported to live in the lakes and swamps of the Congo River basin.

The creature's very existence and identification have long been debated between mainstream scientists, local Pygmies, creationists and cryptozoologists. Most controversially, it has been suggested that the creature might be a relict sauropod which somehow survived extinction--this idea has been roundly rejected by most scientists.


The tales of the mokèlé-mbèmbé are an apparently ancient component of the oral history of the Pygmy tribes. These peoples have an intimate relationship with the rainforest, which supplies all their needs. Mokèlé-mbèmbé are apparently herbivores, although they have been reported to kill humans and hippopotamuses. It is interesting to note that there is a low population of hippos in the Likouala swamp, where Mokèlé-mbèmbés are reported to live.

Fishermen who inhabit the area are said to often run from waters and land near the water's edge in fear of the creature, describing its ability to kill humans. Mokèlé-mbèmbé means "one who stops the flow of rivers." Mokèlé-mbèmbé is generally described as a beast about as large as an elephant--though some accounts make it much larger--with a long flexible neck and with a tail similar to an alligator's.

There is a story that involved a killing of a mokèlé-mbèmbé near Lake Tele. A group of people that lived near Lake Tele, in the Likouala swamp constructed a large wall to keep mokèlé-mbèmbé from interfering in their fishing. A mokèlé-mbèmbé managed to break through, and the natives killed the creature. As William Gibbons (see external links) writes, "Pastor Thomas [who knew the natives] also mentioned that the two pygmies mimicked the cry of the animal as it was being attacked and speared ... Later, a victory feast was held, during which parts of the animal were cooked and eaten. However, those who participated in the feast eventually died, either from food poisoning or from natural causes. It should be noted that pygmies rarely live beyond 35, and pygmy women give birth from age 12. I also believe that the mythification (magical powers, etc) surrounding Mokele-mbembes (sic) began with this incident."

The difficulty of researching Mokèlé-mbèmbé stems from questions about the empirical reliability of supposed sightings and of pygmy traditions. While it is true that pygmies identified the okapi long before outside scientists did, modern pygmies differ drastically in what they describe as Mokèlé-mbèmbé, with some identifying a sauropod-like creature and others identifying pictures of rhinoceroses as Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Compounding the difficulty in sorting through different traditions is that the local Boha villagers seem to believe that Mokèlé-mbèmbé is a spirit rather than an actual animal. A further complication is that long-running hostilities and tensions between pygmies and neighboring Bantu people have given both groups ample reason to tell stories about frightening creatures in the jungles as a way of scaring off outsiders. Finally, other local people have admitted to journalists and explorers (see "A Myth?" below) that stories about Mokèlé-mbèmbé have been fabricated for financial reward.


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So far, all investigations have failed to find evidence of a creature corresponding to the native legend, although casts of inexplicable footprints have reportedly been taken (which some say were made by the mokèlé-mbèmbé), and a controversial videotape was recently presented[citation needed]. In typical fashion, all of the supposed eyewitnesses to Mokèlé-mbèmbé have either not had any means of preserving evidence of the creature or have inadvertantly destroyed that evidence. Much of the current interest in Mokèlé-mbèmbé stems from reports by the Congolese scientist Marcellin Agnagna, who claims to have seen the animal in 1983, but mistakenly left the lens cap on his camera for 20 minutes while filming it, a suspicious outcome given that his only purpose in traveling to the region was to film the animal.

The Congo Basin has wide expanses of marshland and swamps, including several large lakes, that have not been extensively explored by scientists. A recent megatransect into the wilderness of the Congo basin by the biologist and Africa explorer Michael Fay did not reveal any trace of the mokèlé-mbèmbé. One investigator, Roy Mackal, a professor of zoology at Chicago University, took teams to the Congo in 1980 and 1981 to search for the creature. Although they failed to encounter the beast, they collected important anecdotal evidence, including information on its primary food source, a type of vine. In 1985 and 1992 British explorer Bill Gibbons added further local reports to the dossier. British writer Redmond O'Hanlon traveled to the region in the mid-1990s and not only failed to discover any evidence of Mokèlé-mbèmbé but found out that many local people believe the creature to be a spirit rather than a physical being, and that claims for its authentic existence have been fabricated. His experience is chronicled in his book No Mercy (1997).

A May 2006-episode called "Super Snake" of the National Geographic-series "Dangerous Encounters" include an expedition headed by Dr. Brady Barr to Lake Tele. No unknown animals were found.

Cryptozoologists believe the likelihood of its existence to be significantly higher than the Loch Ness monster because of the supposedly large amount of uncharted territory to which can be ascribed the inability to find a specimen. Other large creatures, such as elephants, exist in large open clearings in the rainforests, each called a bai, as well as in thicker wooded areas, so the existence of the mokèlé-mbèmbé may appear to be a possibility when taking into account its native environment. As many scholars have pointed out, however, the idea that the Congo rainforest is unmapped is actually part of the myth of Mokèlé-mbèmbé. In fact, Pygmy and Bantu humans have been living in the rainforest for thousands of years; Europeans explored the rainforest extensively in search of valuable exportable resources during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and modern scientists have been closely studying the rainforest for decades. While it is not as comprehensively mapped as savannahs or plains around the world, it is no less well-mapped than any other dense forest--the notion that it is a land of mystery or uncharted territory is, in point of fact, simply a half-truth.


A dinosaur?

The creature has often been likened to the Loch Ness Monster. Some cryptozoologists suppose that the creature might be a type of dinosaur that could have survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, which is believed to be possible due to the thickness of the Congo Rainforest. Some of the descriptions of Mokèlé-mbèmbé are consistent with a sauropod, though many are not--the idea that local Pygmies always identify Mokèlé-mbèmbé as a sauropod-like creature is untrue, as many Pygmies have identified rhinoceroses as Mokèlé-mbèmbé, while many others say that Mokèlé-mbèmbé is a spirit rather than an existing animal. Some creationists believe the creature is a surviving dinosaur, a supposition that has been vigorously disputed by scientists.

The "living dinosaur" theory is problematic for several reasons. Apart from ignoring basic scientific facts about the history of the Earth, it also supposes that sauropod dinosaurs would inhabit swampy regions or even spend the bulk of their lives in water, both of which are now known to be false characteristics mistakenly attributed to sauropods by early paleontologists. Any creature as large as a sauropod would have severe trouble walking through the swampy regions where it is supposed to live, as its bulky size would leave it tangled in vines and trees, and as its weight would cause it to sink straight into the mud. The feet of elephants display metacarpal spread, in which the digits radiate outward from the wrist or ankle bone, allowing the animal to distribute its weight more broadly and therefore avoid sinking in wet earth. The feet of all known sauropods, however, had vertically arranged digits, which distribute weight through the leg column, not unlike the body of a horse, therefore making it difficult to walk in sinking terrain. The issue of Mokèlé-mbèmbé feet is an important one, since the supposed footprints of the animal are described as being multi-clawed, while in reality sauropods had only a single claw at most--some sauropods lacked any metacarpal claw at all--therefore suggesting that the "tracks" of Mokèlé-mbèmbé must be some other creature than a sauropod.

A further problem is the issue of passage evidence. Unlike forest elephants, which use their tusks to fell individual trees and clear relatively narrow paths through forest growth, sauropods would be forced to either topple groups of trees--which would leave obvious indications of their presence--or simply go around them. As the latter would be impossible in the middle of the rainforest, there would have to be large pathways cleared by the animal, but such pathways or any other indications of the presence of megafauna apart from forest elephants are entirely absent. Even if Mokèlé-mbèmbé were a sauropod as small as a forest elephant, it would have no way of trimming paths (as an elephant does with its tusks) and would instead have to trample trees; no evidence of trampled trees has ever been found. Further, the smallest confirmed sauropods--Magyarosaurus and its close relatives--inhabited islands in what is now central and northern Europe; no sauropods approximately the size of forest elephants have ever been found in equatorial Africa.

Other details of the "living dinosaur" theory are problematic as well. For starters, sauropod dinosaurs were herd animals, yet Mokèlé-mbèmbé has never been reported traveling in herds--only alone or in pairs. Second, no known sauropods had horns, yet reports of Mokèlé-mbèmbé frequently emphasize the single large horn on its head. Third, the Congo rainforest is of recent vintage--it did not exist in its present form during the late Cretaceous, when Africa was located somewhat closer to the South Pole than it currently is, and thus could not have been the continuous home of any dinosaurs. Fourth, the thickness of a rainforest has no bearing on that rainforest's ability to withstand climate changes, as rainforests are very delicate ecosystems that alter dramatically in response to even slight changes, as is apparent in the case of contemporary rainforests. A rainforest, in fact, is the least likely environment to withstand extreme ecological changes--a desert or water would be much better spots for animals to be if they wanted to exist continuously for 65 million years--which is why all of the land animals known to inhabit rainforests are geologically young animals, having evolved much later than the end of the Cretaceous. Fifth, the evolution of viruses is so rapid--so quickly do new species evolve that they can be seen emerging in labs--that it is hard to imagine how a small group of animals could withstand them without venturing out of their home populations to breed with immune animals, in the way that sharks and crocodilians did. Finally, the possibility of such a small number of animals--even Mokèlé-mbèmbé enthusiasts do not claim the existence of a large population--existing for such a long time is a genetic impossibility, as the animals would quickly become infertile.

Misidentifications of well-known animals?

There is also a theory that the mokèlé-mbèmbé is a rhinoceros: see this link (third paragraph after the second image). Another not-so-cryptic explanation is that this phenomenon is nothing but a sighting of a group of male crocodiles following a female crocodile during the mating season. Of these two explanations, the idea that Mokèlé-mbèmbé is actually a rhinoceros is more probable, especially as pygmies in the area have been recorded identifying pictures of rhinoceroses as Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Reports of Mokèlé-mbèmbé sightings have historically emphasized the single large horn on the animal, which is of course the most notable feature of rhinoceroses. That pygmies have conclusively identified images of rhinoceroses as Mokèlé-mbèmbé is, obviously, the most compelling reason to think the animal a misidentifed rhino.

A third possible misidentification scenario holds that that what people report to be Mokèlé-mbèmbé is actually a forest elephant, which, like all elephants, enjoys wading through water and even swimming. A swimming elephant will hold its trunk out of the water in a pose very similar to that of a long-necked dinosaur, which could lead observers to mistake the elephant for a sauropod.

A fourth possibility (proposed in the National Geographic-program mentioned above)is misidentifications of unusually large snakes, perhaps seizing a large prey in the water, making it appear as a snake-like beast with a bulky body.

A myth?

Those scientists who do not believe Mokèlé-mbèmbé to be a misidentified animal generally believe that Mokèlé-mbèmbé is a spiritual myth, and, indeed, local people have said as much to outside reporters.

Hans Schomburgk, an early 20th century animal hunter, that tried to find the monsters for Carl Hagenbeck and his zoological park in Hamburg, said: "The natives who wishes to please their white visitor and at the same time hope for a valuable gift are only all too eager to guarantee that they well know an animal with blue skin, six legs, one eye and four tusks. The size of the beast is all up to the questioner. The native tells what he thinks the white man wants to hear." (Sjögren, 1980)

British travel writer Redmond O'Hanlon's book about his search for Mokèlé-mbèmbé, entitled No Mercy (1997), also supports this view, albeit indirectly. Upon reaching the lake that is the supposed home of the beast, one of O'Hanlon's native guides tells him that Mokèlé-mbèmbé is not a real animal, but rather a sort of spirit or idea, that non-natives misunderstand locals when they assume that Mokèlé-mbèmbé actually exists, and that supposed eyewitnesses have fabricated stories of physically existing animals for financial gain. O'Hanlon also points out that Lake Tele and the surrounding swamps are remarkably shallow--Lake Tele's waters are as low as four feet at a distance more than a hundred feet from the shore--making it extremely unlikely that a creature as large as a sauropod would or even could inhabit them.

References in popular culture

In 1985 a movie was made based on the rumours about mokèlè-mbèmbé, called Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. It featured American scientists who discovered a surviving family of sauropods in Central Africa.

A fictional book was written about this creature called Cryptid Hunters by Roland Smith.

In White Wolf's old World of Darkness, the Mokole are one of the Changing Breeds. They shapeshift into reptilian forms such as crocodiles and gila monsters, but can also take attributes from dinosaurs and even dragons.

The fictional Pokemon Tropius was modelled in part on the Mokèlè-Mbèmbé.


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