Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Every Kid Likes Dinosaurs, Part one.

The topic of whether dinosaurs still exist has been written about extensively on the Internet and books/articles and probably doesn't need an entry by me here. Actually, I thought I'd already written something about this, but the site search says no. But, against all reason, and because I blundered into Herman Regusters' interactions with Bob Warth in the SITU files, "ready or not" here's my turn at this issue.

I'm not going to do an exhaustive review. You can get a full historical background to the idea with a flip of Google. What I'm doing here is an introductory "part one", roughly presenting a little information about Sanderson, Mackal, Agnagna and the Central African idea, and then a "part two" on what Regusters seem to be about and what he accomplished. Maybe there'll be a "part three".

Who knows when the "Dinosaurs still exist in Africa" idea began? Some folks say that earliest mentions date to the 1700s. Since there was no concept of "dinosaur" back then, you can see the conundrum of pushing back the dates too early. The idea more clearly related to the possibility of actual dinosaurs in Africa grew gradually in the first half of the 20th century. The newspaper above speaks of an expedition of the Smithsonian Institution in 1920, which reported mysterious tracks and unidentified animal roars while exploring a central African river. Nothing like the Smithsonian to bring a mystery topic a little respectability.

Ivan Sanderson, naturally, became interested in all this in his youth as an African adventurer in 1932. There in a well-known story, he heard native tales, saw what he considered to be NON-Hippo tracks [nor elephant, nor rhino], and says that his canoe was nearly overturned by some huge beast suddenly surfacing and submerging in the river. Sanderson naturally was forever convinced that something big and unknown was about.

He became increasingly convinced due to writing by the legendary animal "supplier", Carl Hagenbeck, who had collected local tales of a dinosaur-like monster. Sanderson often said: "Hagenbeck was no fool". He was also impressed with local tales like that published by a German explorer [Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz --- a name long enough for three people], who gave a very concrete detailed description of such a beast. Freiherr...whatever... gave the local name as Mokele Mbembe, which has largely stuck.

Sanderson himself published his thoughts on the living dinosaurs of the Congo [actually for him it was a bit to the north in the Cameroons] in SITUs journal PURSUIT early in the game, and also that same essay in his paperbound book, MORE THINGS in 1969. All this originating from his Saturday Evening Post article of 1948. It is a shame, in many ways, that Ivan passed prior to the sudden upsurge of interest [and more importantly ACTION] which burst into this topic in the 1970s and 1980s. Several, admittedly "on a shoelace" expeditions set sail into the Congolese swamps during those years, and, if he'd been alive and younger, he might have been "on board".

Almost all of this "new" activity focussed on the Likuoala Swamps of the Republic of Congo, a "difficult" state politically, with communist leanings and rampant paranoia towards "visitors" in many years. The Republic of Congo is not, for anyone who doesn't know, our old "Belgium Congo" [now named Zaire], but is to its West-northwest.

For some reason a herpetologist named James Powell got interested in these stories in the early seventies and made an expedition, and another in Gabon, both looking not only for undescribed reptile species but specifically for Mokele Mbembe. To my knowledge, nothing came of these except the further collection of local native tales.

In 1980, Powell returned to the Congo, and tagging along with him was University of Chicago biochemistry professor Roy Mackal. Roy [I met him a handful of times and we were on "Roy" and "Mike" basis, so forgive my familiarity], was not exactly a biologist/zoologist but he was plenty smart and well-self-trained. He at the time was known as a Nessie expert. [as he is shown in the accompanying photo at the Loch]. I'm not sure of all the dimensions of this alliance between him and Powell, but Roy had ambitions of getting some serious funding support for a full-fledged expedition in the future, and, for him, this may have been the preliminary "feasibility data" that he would use for that future attempt.

The Powell-Mackal expedition took place under limited visa time constraints and never came close to getting to where they hoped to explore, but created a focussed target of Lac Tele as the likely mokele mbembe stomping grounds. The data harvest from this expedition was the usual native tales, augmented by a clever method by Roy of showing animal drawing cards to locals all up and down the Likuoala River, and noting what he felt to be a pattern of increasing and decreasing "accuracy" as to the possibility of an extant dinosaur-like creature at villages in a certain location. Roy believed that this could possibly point to a location [towards Lac Tele] to the north, essentially, from that area of the river. As said, visa time ran out and no real progress towards Lac Tele was made.

Along came 1981, and Roy, despite exerting a great effort to achieve serious funding and failing to do so, got some visa approval from the Congo government [on the condition that he would take a Congolese biologist, Marcellin Agnagna, along], and set off again for a try at Lac Tele. With him were Agnagna, Richard Greenwell [secretary, and de facto administrator of the International Society for Cryptozoology (actually a fine group at the time, and VERY serious about concrete meat-and-juices crypto-discoveries)], and I third gentleman I didn't know.

Once again it was tough-sledding [or tough rowing if you prefer]. Mackal faced several big problems. A). he had lousy geographical information. The swamps are huge and navigation by more-or-less dead reckoning is almost suicidal. In fact Roy told me that he had prepared for this trek by securing anti-venoms for every known poisonous snake in the region, AND HAD TO USE EVERY ONE OF THEM!! Not my sort of vacation.

B). This is theoretical [read: BS] by me, but I think that he didn't get very good information from the locals. If you look at the map above: you can take a small plane into Impfondo and go by some sort of way to the village of Epina/Epena. [that's a yellow rack in the northern part of the map]. Then you have to decide what you're going to do, purely "roughing it". There seem to be more direct ways to try for Lac Tele than the one Mackal/Greenwood/ Agnagna tried. Again I may be misreading this, but it seems that they went on open water for a while [apparently WSW] and then tried to find an entrance to a waterway going north to the Lac. This didn't work well, as that alleged entrance is essentially indistinguishable from the rest of the swamp. You can get a rough idea of the open swamp by the picture above. [Greenwell, by the way, is at the left, all decked out in his explorer's best. Roy Mackal was an amazingly fit individual, despite the gray hair and beard, but I can't imagine how Richard made it].

The bottomline of the expedition seems to be that although our heroes strove mightily, due to wayward "sailing" and ridiculous Congolese visa time restrictions, not a lot was added to our knowledge about the dinosaur/Lac Tele possibility. This was disappointing but worse than that disappointment was the fact that an American "outsider" was about to muscle in on the gig. This was Herman Regusters, and he's the "star" of part two of our saga. Regusters' expedition also relatively poorly-funded but with a few superior technical "tricks", took place later in 1981 and created "rivalry".

But to briefly finish this part: two years after he went to the vicinity of Lac Tele with Mackal, the local Congolese biologist Agnagna [with obviously no government time restrictions] went all the way to the lake and stayed some time. Agnagna claimed to have personally seen the mokele mbembe out of the water and claimed that it was a reptile, and though not a crocodile had some crocodilian features.

So, with the above picture of Marcellin Agnagna and a drawing of mokele mbembe on his board to inspire us [despite the fact that the drawing doesn't match the idea of crocodilian features], we'll go our merry way until the next part shows up with the very controversial Mr. Regusters.

Till then. "Watch the Skies ---er --- the Water."


  1. Excellent post; I've kept my eye on this story for a few decades now and it's a tough one to make sense of (much like Loch Ness). There's zero physical evidence and questionable eye-witness testimony yet the story has been around for ages and argues strongly for further investigation.

  2. The book "No Mercy" by Redmond O'Hanlon gives an excellent description of the hardships and realities of travelling in this part of the world. Highly recommended!

  3. I've got Mackal's book on Loch Ness and it's great reading.

    The problems I have with 'living dinosaurs' are A) evolution would have changed them, and B) these are large animals and would need a breeding population; how the heck have they remained hidden?

  4. to anonymous two: a]. yes, everything changes somewhat over time, but you are largely stuck with the genetics that you've got. We, if the scenario of a relatively stable central African environment is correct [which is more or less demanded by the survival hypothesis], would certainly see something that was pretty recognizable to us as dinosaur-ish.

    b]. the issue of how could it be that we haven't tracked down a reproducing population yet is applicable [in spades] to Loch Ness [which is why I've earlier tossed my vote towards a folkloric creature there earlier in the blog], but not so obvious in this congolese area [see part three of this set].