The ntambue ya mai ("water lion") was a semiaquatic neodinosaurian cryptid reported from the Kasai region of the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo, described as an amphibious horned reptile. It shares similarities with water rhinoceroses such as the emela-ntouka and chipekwe, and with water lions such as the ntambo wa luy and simba ya mail; Bernard Heuvelmans believed it to be chimaeric.
J. L. Montandon de La Brévine, a resident of Lualabourg (now Kananga) in Kasai, communicated the earliest information on the ntambue ya mai to Bernard Heuvelmans in 1958. Montandon gave a brief description of the cryptid according to local people, and sent Heuvelmans a sketch of a track he had come across, which he believed may have been made by the ntambue ya mai. According to Montandon, another resident of Lualabourg named Beckers was also familiar with legends of the animal, which he believed must be a ceratopsian dinosaur like Triceratops. Beckers was intending to hunt the ntambue ya mai, and wanted to know how its discovery might be formalised in the event of his success. Heuvelmans initially suspected that Montandon's account had been influenced by the Great Brontosaurus Hoax.
However, thirteen years later, Beckers himself–actually Gabriel Becker–wrote to Heuvelmans from Kananga, offering more details on the ntambue ya mai and explaining that political upheavals and his own illness had prevented him from hunting it. Becker was now ready to try again, but, after encountering local hostility due to taboos surrounding the animal, he intended to search for it in the guise of a plant collector. As of the publication of Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique (1978), Heuvelmans, who was opposed to the killing of cryptids, was trying to convince Becker to capture, photograph, or film a specimen of the ntambue ya mai, as opposed to shooting one.
A depiction of the ntambue ya mai made by local people depicts it as a sort of stylised lion with a long, thin horn on its head. It was initially described by Montandon, in a brief account, as a monstrous animal the size of two hippos, with forelegs shorter than the hindlegs, armed with enormous claws. According to Becker's more detailed description, the ntambue ya mai is a large reptile, about 5'5'' at the withers and 26' in length, weighing an estimated two tonnes. Some, but not all, individuals have a horn on the fronts of their heads. While adults have smooth, black skin, young individuals were alleged to be dark fawn, tending towards red. Montandon and Becker both described it as an amphibious animal which spent most of its life in the water; according to Becker, it is able to move through water and on land at breakneck speed. Becker described it as hunting down hippos, chasing them from the water onto the land, where it kills them. Its call was described as bird-like, "strident, metallic and powerful at the same time". Local people were terrified of it, and, according to Montandon, it was believed to tear human beings to shreds.
Montandon discovered the tracks of an unknown animal in Kasai, sketches of which he sent to Heuvelmans, which he attributed to the ntambue ya mai. Montandon thought the track, three-toed, triangular-balled, and 40 centimeters long by twenty wide, resembled a dinosaur footprint, but, according to Heuvelmans, the drawing bears little resemblance to a dinosaur track. From the shape of the ball, he felt they most closely resembled the tracks of some mammal, but the three long and slim toes were more like those of a very large bird. Consequently, Heuvelmans argued that the track was a composite, most probably a hoax by locals.
Heuvelmans believed that Becker's description of the ntambue ya mai was based on a confusion of two distinct unknown animals, a horned creature and a water lion. The horned version, which would be a large amphibious animal (supposedly a reptile) with smooth black skin, is similar to cryptids such as the emela-ntouka of the Republic of the Congo, the ngoubous of Cameroon, the chipekwe of Zambia, and the abūqarn of Chad. Becker believed that this animal was a ceratopsian dinosaur (~161–66 MYA)–citing the well-known but three-horned Triceratops–a theory later famously invoked by Roy P. Mackal as one explanation for the emela-ntouka. Heuvelmans himself also noted that this version was very similar to a dinosaur. However, no ceratopsian fossils have ever been discovered in Africa, and this theory is no longer widely supported due to clearly mammalian features in the emela-ntouka's description. An aquatic rhinoceros or surviving Arsinoitherium (~34–24 MYA), a two-horned Afro-Arabian embrithopod, are both considered more likely identities for the emela-ntouka and similar cryptids.
The second animal which Heuvelmans believed was involved in the ntambue ya mai's description was a water lion, a prolific cryptid which he believed to be a surviving sabre-toothed cat (~16 MYA–10 KYA) secondarily adapted to a semiaquatic lifestyle: this would be a smaller, agile, hippo-killing animal with a reddish coat and powerful tusks, which might be compared to horns. Several other water lions have been reported from the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo, some of them mythologised, including the simba ya mail, ntambo wa luy, nzéfu-loï, and possibly the ndgoko na maiji.
Notes and references
- Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2020) Mystery Cats of the World Revisited: Blue Tigers, King Cheetahs, Black Cougars, Spotted Lions, and More, Anomalist Books, ISBN 978-1949501179
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1978) Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique, Plon, ISBN 978-2259003872
- Heuvelmans, Bernard & Rivera, Jean-Luc & Barloy, Jean-Jacques (2007) Les Félins Encore Inconnus d’Afrique, Les Editions de l'Oeil du Sphinx, ISBN 978-2914405430
- Mackal, Roy P. (1987) A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe, Brill, ISBN 978-9004085435
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2016) Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors: The Creatures That Time Forgot?, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616463908