Encyclopaedia of Cryptozoology
Katanga giant snake photo
Lierde snake larger
Cryptid depicted Giant pythons in Africa
Date August 1959
Location Katanga Region, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Photographer Kindt
Location of negative(s) Département de Cryptozoologie, Naturéum, Switzerland
Prominent investigators Bernard Heuvelmans

The Katanga giant snake photograph was taken from a helicopter in 1959, in the Katanga Region of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is alleged to depict a giant python measuring 30–50 ft (9–15 m) in length.[1] The photographer was a Belgian Air Force engineer named Kindt, but the photograph has become more closely associated with the helicopter's pilot, Colonel Remy Van Lierde.[2] The only comprehensive overview of the photograph appears in Bernard Heuvelmans' Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique (1978).


Date and location[]

According to the account received by Bernard Heuvelmans, the photograph was taken on August 1959, on an undeterminated date, but at mid-day. The photo was taken from a helicopter returning to Kamina with pilot Colonel Remy Van Lierde DFC, Colonel Gheysen, parachutist Major Defebve DSO, and engineer Adjudant Kindt on-board. The helicopter had been flying over a lightly-wooded shrub savannah approximately 100 km (60 miles) north north-west of Kamina. The average height of the vegetation was 2 m (6 ft), but gallery forests and thickets of trees were also present. A later reconnaissance observed extensive herds of reedbuck (Redunca sp.), and smaller numbers of hippopotamuses, warthogs, and elephants. Termite mounds, some destroyed by aardvarks, were common in the area.[1]


From around 125 m (400 ft) above the savannah, Gheysen noticed something resembling a very large moving tree trunk beside a destroyed termite mound. By the time Gheysen was able to adjust his microphone and inform Van Lierde, the helicopter, which was flying at 120 kmph (74 mph) had moved on by around a mile, but Van Lierde turned and flew back to the spot, where the "tree trunk" was found to be a large snake. Van Lierde flew lower and made several passes over the snake,[3] allowing Kindt, the only man on-board with a camera, to take a single photograph. Concern regarding the helicopter's fuel level allegedly prevented the helicopter from remaining long enough for a second photograph.[1]

The local Katangans and Kasaians, who called pythons moma, reserved the special name pumina (French: poumina) for such giant specimens. A settler, Michel Vermersch, had reportedly once fled from a pumina around 175 km northwest of Kamina, on the Kamina-Luluabourg Railway.[1]

Witnesses' estimates[]

The immediate size estimate of the four airmen was approximately 14 m (45 ft), with a triangular head 80 cm (2 ft) at its widest point. Kindt described it as reddish, slightly lighter in colour than the surrounding termite mounds;[1] while Van Lierde always maintained that it was greenish-brown.[1][3] All agreed that its underside was white. Based on the blurriness of the head in the photograph, Heuvelmans guessed that the snake must have "partly erected itself," a reaction which he attributed to the air disturbance created by the helicopter's rotors.[1] In a much later interview, Van Lierde claimed that the snake had raised its head by a few feet, and that, had the helicopter been closer, he believed it could have struck.[3]

Van Lierde estimated that he had descended to a height of 35-45 m (114-147ft), but 45-50 m (147-164 ft) was later suggested as a more realistic height, due to Van Lierde's lack of experience with the helicopter he was piloting.[1]

Photograph provenance and copies[]

Kindt recorded in a technical sheet that the photograph was taken using a Zeiss Ikon Nettax 6 x 6 camera, fitted out with a Novar Anastigmat 1:4.5 (75 mm) lens and using Gevaert 27° film. The photograph itself was developed by Kindt and a Captain Halterman using the Metinol-U process.[1]

Two copies of the photograph, framed differently, were quickly acquired by colonial doctor Georges Bonnivair, whose father Paul Bonnivair sent them to Bernard Heuvelmans on his behalf in 1959. The original photographic negative was loaned to Heuvelmans in April 1960, but he was allowed to keep it after Kindt was killed in a helicopter crash in May. As of 1978, the original film was still in Heuvelmans' personal archives,[1] which are now maintained in Switzerland's Naturéum.

Ivan T. Sanderson acquired what he claimed was the original photograph in 1962, which with "various enlargements" was sent to Charles H. Hapgood, and thence to Air Force evaluator Captain Lorenzo Burroughs.[4]


Georges Bonnivair, accompanied by Kindt, had Van Lierde fly him over the scene of the sighting, where, under the same conditions, he shot half a reel of 8mm colour film of the landscape, which was put at Heuvelmans' disposal. Heuvelmans showed the photograph to several Belgian naturalists who had been in the Congo, all of whom identified the vegetation as trees and the shadows as termite mounds. None of the naturalists thought the snake could be a small species.[1]

African rock python

Depending on which estimates and records are accepted, the African rock python (Python sebae) may approach or match the size of the Katanga snake (CC BY-SA 3.0).

For a more detailed study of the photograph, Heuvelmans consulted zoologist and wildlife photographer Ray Tercafs, who estimated that the snake was an extremely large specimen. According to Tercafs, the blurring at the bottom of the photograph could have been caused by lateral movement of the helicopter, whereas the smaller blurred portion near the top was probably caused by poor lens correction. Taking into account the given height of the helicopter, which was estimated at 45–50 m (147–164 ft), and the angle of the camera, Tercafs concluded that the snake must have been 12–14 m (39–45 ft) in length, with a diameter of 43–47 cm (16–18 in). Had the helicopter been significantly lower than estimated, such as 35 m (114 ft), the snake might have been 10 m (32 ft) in length, but Heuvelmans and Tercafs rejected this possibility.[1]

Accepting the figure of 12–14 m (39–45 ft), Heuvelmans argued that the snake was most likely an oversized African rock python (Python sebae), not an unknown species.[1] The absolute largest record for this species accepted by some sources is a specimen shot in a hedge at Bingerville, Côte d'Ivoire, in 1932, which measured 9 m 80 cm (32 ft 2 in).[5][6][7][8][9] However, when accepted, this size has been described as exceptional: the usual average length, which can vary greatly, may be around 3 m (10 ft), with larger specimens being relatively common.[5] Based on his own theory that most wild rock pythons die before attaining their supposed average maximum size of around 7 m (25 ft), Heuvelmans argued that a 14 m (45 ft) individual would fall within the expected size range of exceptionally gigantic specimens.[1]

In his own private correspondence, Ivan T. Sanderson greatly exaggerated the original figures given by the helicopter crew. He told Hapgood that the photograph had been taken from a height of 500 ft (150 m), and that the snake must therefore have been 200 ft (60 m) long.[4] These measurements have been repeated in some published sources.[10] The photograph has become popular online, and, since 2023, several attempts have been made by social media users to discover the sighting location on satellite maps. All resulting coordinates, however, have been inconsistent with the area indicated by Bonnivair.[11]

Notes and references[]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Heuvelmans, Bernard (1978) Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique, Plon, ISBN 978-2259003872
  2. Freeman, Richard (2022) In Search of Real Monsters: Adventures in Cryptozoology, Volume II, Mango Media, ISBN 9781642507515
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Dragons, Dinosaurs and Giant Snakes," Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, Series 1, Episode 11 (11 November 1980)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Letter from Charles H. Hapgood to Lorenzo S. Burroughs (20 November 1962)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lanza, Benedetto & Nistri, Annamaria "Somali Boidae (genus Eryx Daudin 1803) and Pythonidae (genus Python Daudin 1803) (Reptilia Serpentes)," Tropical Zoology, Vol. 18, No. 1 (2005)
  6. Cansdale, George Soper (1955) Reptiles of West Africa
  7. Martin, Claude (2013) The Rainforests of West Africa: Ecology, Threats, Conservation
  8. Carwardine, Mark (2008) Animal Records
  9. Wood, Gerald L. (1976) The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats
  10. Reader's Digest (1993) Secrets of the Natural World
  11. The Full Story of the Giant Congo Snake Photo - YouTube