Friday, May 27, 2011

Peeking at Ivan's SITU files: long-distance adventure in Africa.

Hello, folks. Grinding through the loose unsorted boxes of paper has been drudgery without much reward so far. The term "low grade ore" hardly does it justice. I'm assuming that these first two boxes are just "unlucky", and I've certainly seen such unstimulating messes before. So --- I am challenged to offer you much. What I'm going to post today is more of a slice-of-life of Ivan's as he attempts to get some progress on a "hunt" which two persons are on in Africa, and which he hopes will strike gold. This story comes out of a small stack of correspondence between him and the pursuers, plus his zoo-keeping buddies in the US. I find it interesting enough. It is a glance into Ivan's life and personality. Don't count on great thrills however.

This story starts with a letter from a man whom Ivan knew at least casually from the states. This guy was helping the Liberian President [Tubman] set up a national Liberian zoo, and it seems that zoo-keepers and zoo-suppliers are a tight in-touch fraternity. The fellow wanted to tell Ivan that he had been hearing of a large land animal roaming about the bush and it didn't seem to match expectations as to an understood animal. [This correspondence takes place between late 1961 and early 1963, by the way]. The zoologist ["HG"... his name's on the correspondence but let's leave him alone] says that he's "discovered an animal that has so far not been listed in Liberia or for that matter in West Africa". That statement seems a bit overstated to me, as what he has discovered is only "spoor" in the form of footprints and coincident native testimony.

The footprints are four-toed and squarish ~11x11". He says that he has cement casts. Also photos of the ground-marks. The natives say that the thing is big like a rhino, but with a very different head. Heads are described as long without horns, but prominent teeth. Short legs. Vegetarian; ate up a large part of a rice field. Violent, however, and has killed a man.

Ivan, of course, is goo-goo about this. He writes back wanting to see the photos and the casts, and wanting to know that if HG captures one can they get together to sell the specimen to the Philadelphia zoo. [Ivan, by the way wants none of the profits from such a sale, saying that he can make a living merely writing about the saga.] Reflecting on his cryptozoo-knowledge, Ivan then states that the legendary explorer Hagenbeck went to this general area looking for such a beast, and found the pygmy hippo instead. But this is too big for that. Then he makes his leap of romance: this thing sounds to him like an existing Tetralophodon. That "extinct" mastodon-like inhabitant of old Africa fits the bill perfectly in Ivan's eyes [should we say "heart"?]. Long-heads and four pointed small tusks sticking forward. Yep, Watson, the game is afoot!!

HG wrote back. He admits that the hunt is becoming an obsession, and he's frustrated. He nicknames the beast Sendok Kuping Ohlatacrapus". Ivan doesn't like that particular levity and insists that they call it Tetralophodon. This is a bit disappointing to me, as labeling the thing as an archaic elephant on nothing more than they have is WAY jumping the gun. [the character on the left is an upset pygmy hippo, by the way; just to show another of the candidates].

HG complains about not having sufficient equipment [particularly a jeep] to effectively do the search. He states that the natives tell him that the beast is "like" some "sketch" that he has from Ivan [of a Tetralophodon?] and that it squirts water at people, and will attack encampments at night if there are fires burning. But then he wonders if this is not some far-out-of-range Nile Hippo. He then says that he is resigning his post forming the Liberian zoo, so that he can concentrate on the hunt.

Ivan is wowed by the progress-to-date. He writes his buddy at the Philadelphia zoo about the affair, and describes the hearsay of HG as if they are facts. The "squirting of water" particularly fits his desire for this to be a proboscidian. He says that this hunt "carries straight on from Hagenbeck, who was nobody's fool".

By the end of 1961, Ivan is becoming a little frustrated himself. No casts have arrived. No photos have arrived. He can make no progress trying to interest people stateside without something tangible and some presentable references for HG. The response that returns isn't even from HG but from a new guy ["DJ"] who has become a colleague in the hunt. The new fellow was a geologist and diamond miner. He told tales of being informed of animals called "Nyoma". This thing was not a rhino of any kind as the natives described that animal as a "Kowuru". This Nyoma thing was he said what the locals referred to as "water elephant". But it doesn't much resemble an elephant. And he reasserted the thing's violent temper with more stories of killings. He and HG had gotten one very good print. He drew it and sent the drawing on. This doubtless further frustrated Ivan who wanted to see direct evidence.

Nevertheless he remained enthusiastic. He repeats all this to his Philadelphia zookeeper buddy with gusto. Returning to a state of analysis, though, briefly, he asks the keeper if he can get foreprints for both the pygmy hippo and the larger variety. Writing to another zoologist, he states flatly that the Nyoma is not "either elephant, rhino, hippo, or pygmy hippo", though he can't possibly know this from what he's received. Like it or not, Ivan's romanticism is running a bit wild. He affirms that the thing has four tusk/teeth sticking "way out front on a long pointed head". He ends with: "Somehow, I feel this one is hot".

Ivan continues to muse on what this can be. He begins to speculate that they have a giant semi-aquatic forest hog on their hands. He zookeeper buddy is politely non-committal. Slightly later, the friend told Ivan that he thinks it is just an ordinary Hippopotamus way out of its range. Ivan refuses to buy it, citing small claims of hearsay reported to DJ by natives. [by the way, the drawing of the mudprint looks VERY hippo to me]. Finally, "evidence" arrives ... in the form of "one turd". [note a rather pleasant picture of "one turd" accompanying this uncomfortable subject; thank the Lord for dung beetles]. Whether this ever got analyzed is not stated. DJ and HG also refuse to buy the Hippo theory because the people to whom they talk refuse to say that this is what Nyoma is. HG claimed that the dung was identical to rhino dung. Why this convinced them that they were on the track of the unknown eludes me, but it shows what the thrill of the chase can do. As DJ and HG feverishly chase after Nyoma, they come across tales of another even more amazing beast: the water chimp. [more about that later]

The Philadelphia curator, now over a year into this saga, writes to Ivan telling him to give up on his Tetralophodon idea. The print of the beast is that of a common river hippo. [an actual cast from Liberia had finally arrived]. The knobs that the locals describe on the head are the bumps over the eyes. Kindly, he suggests to Ivan that the anomaly is "zoo-geographical"...i.e. an out-of-place specimen. Ivan never writes to DJ on this subject again. DJ however DOES write back to him. In the letter he continues to remark upon the Nyoma. He's not convinced of the Nile hippo idea, but is grudgingly letting it go. He tells Ivan that he's still fired up about crypto-animals, though, and lists eight more "leads" to possible novel finds. Ivan does not comment on any of it in a polite return letter.

One of DJs items in his list is the "water chimp" which he says is widely known by the locals. [the illustration above is of an orang, but it is the best I could do to give you something to look at.] These animals, "Ya-olo", are pretty far out on the unbelievability scale but with all this, who knows?? "Ya-olo is about the size of a chimp, aquatic, but possesses thick black hair like a chimp and has a black crown of hair which the people describe as resembling most the crown of the Diana monkey. The sound is vaguely chimp-like: ooooh--oooh--ooh--ooh--ooh. The feet, they say, are actually unlike a chimp's and more like a leopard's with permanent claws". [yeh, right.] Now lovers of the chupracabra will love this: Ya-olo hunts by night and kills its victims sucking out all their blood by masticating through their nose [sorry for the imagery]. Cattle mutes and chupracabras here we come. I see no evidence that Ivan wanted to go there.

In his last letter to Sanderson, DJ sent him an entry from a 1788 book describing a Black[eared] cat which killed at night and had its prey often stolen by the lion. [Most think that this refers to the Caracol]. Ivan liked DJ [as much as he ended up disliking HG]. Given all DJs enthusiasm for the hunt[s], Ivan elected him to his honorary explorers club, telling him to keep in touch.

I'd like to think that Ivan gave in to the idea that the Nyoma chase was chasing an out-of-place River Hippopotamus, but I'm not sure. He put the whole correspondence in a folder and marked it with the name of his primitive elephant. Well ... the world needs Ivan Sandersons who will persevere in the face of nay-sayers. We also need Philadelphia curators who will say, nicely, c'mon Ivan you've got a hippopotamus there.

Due to a request from a reader, this sketch of the footprint found by the African explorer [and sent to Sanderson] is appended.


  1. It's interesting to see this back-and-forth between ITS and DJ/HG. We can see human nature at work and the easy way that hearsay is transmuted into gold when presented as established fact.

    There's no apparent question about ITS' honesty. Rather he seems like a willing victim of his own enthusiasm and wanted to live in a world where prehistoric niche survivors roam the borderlands of myth and reality. I do to; lost basins and calderas where sauropods and plesiosaurs endlessly chew the cud beneath the shadows of pterosaurs is appealing!

    Is HG a checkable personage? I only ask because my suspicions are raised by his conduct, but limited by the information in this blog. He reminds me of a hoaxer or conman sending out small teasers, withholding purported evidence and leading his narrative. Such guys seem like an occupational hazard for researchers...

    DJ's enthusiasm might even edge ITS; he seems keen to record local stories and share them with like-minded bad thing, but maybe credulous?

    I feel a certain envy for Sanderson. When the postman delivers my mail, it's never personal: bills, mailshots, business. His mailbox must have been a treat every day. Photos, dung samples and letters with postal stamps from seven continents! Great fun.

  2. Incidentally, in Liverpool Museum they have the skull of a hippopotamus that visitors can handle. The scale is remarkable and the jaws daunting. It's no wonder they've earned a bad name as the trouble-makers of African waterways.

  3. Sanderson said that he knew HG from the fact that he'd worked earlier with a Sanderson friend in someplace like Thailand [don't remember exact country this moment but that's not important to this point]. What Sanderson did not have was a close enough association with HG to judge his competence as a field-worker at a really difficult rare animal hunt --- HG made a living "bringing back alive" known desirable zoo animals. So, in a way, Ivan saw him as a competent game tracker but knew the difference between that and a cryptozoological-type hunt. Sanderson became exasperated with HG due to what he felt was ridiculous inefficiency at getting him the harder evidence and his constant complaining about lacking funding. Ivan reminded him that the two were closely related and that ITS could send him small funds but big funds would require impressing people like the Philadelphia curator with solider material. I don't believe that HG was any sort of con-man however as he never asked for the ITS money; just seemed to hope that Ivan could generate funding for a full-scale expedition. DJ was a similar sort of wild-in-the-forest/bush-type of adventurer but with a more upbeat personality, closer to little-kids' enthusiasm. In that, he was more like Ivan himself and more likable.

    Ivan is, I believe, exactly the guy you suggest. Inside him resided a little boy [very close to the surface] who loves the animals of the wild and wants there to be endless wonders out there --- as long as they are "real" [i.e. tangible] "things". He doesn't want dragons and pegasi and mermaids; he wants yeti and primitive whales and mastodons. When he makes his mistakes, they are "honest" in that he is a person whose "wonder center" takes over and swamps his analytical commonsense. All of us who read this blog are at least somewhat like Ivan in that. We differ in that we each have our different balances between those two things. The outside world rates us on a scale they call "gullibility". Depending on how hard we ourselves pull back on the actual facts we see, they have a point. But how sad to have no "enthusiasm" at all??

  4. Sir Harry Johnston (the discoverer of the okapi) reports the occurrence of the rhinoceros in Liberia, known as the kowuru to the Mandingo natives. Although this animal is unknown in Liberia (and the nearest occurrence of the black rhino is in the Ivory coast), they recognised photographs of the rhino as "kowuru".
    I would be interested in a copy of the correspondance of Sanderson (with the sketch ?) on this question, as I presented the case for the existence of a forest rhino in Western Africa at a cryptozoological meeting in Belgium in April 2011.
    Michel RAYNAL

  5. I've added the explorer's sketch of the print that he sent to Ivan above.

  6. I had not seen the photograph of the footprint since my previous visit to this page.
    Well, it is quite similar to a hippo's footprint :
    Michel RAYNAL