The ndgoko na maiji (Teke: "water elephant") was a freshwater cryptid reported from lakes and swamps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has frequently been conflated with pygmy elephants, which are reported from some of the same regions; the water elephant, however, is distinguished by its tapir-like appearance.
Rumours of a tapir-like animal existing in the Lower Congo were extant for more than a decade before the water elephant was famously reported in 1911. In the first edition of The Encyclopædia of Sport (1898), under the "Tapir" entry, big game hunter Fitzwilliam Thomas Pollok (1832 – 1909) claimed that...
According to Pollok, such an animal had also been mentioned by elephant hunter Henry Bailey (1848 – 1933). In the revised second edition of The Encyclopædia of Sport (1911), this passage was not present, having been excised by zoologist Richard Lydekker (1849 – 1915). In 1911, ornithologist Frank Finn (1868 – 1932) also asserted that tapirs were once reported from Africa.
However, the founding report of the water elephant's existence was that of a French explorer named Le Petit or Lepetit, who, affiliated with the Paris Natural History Museum, was exploring what is now the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo around the turn of the 20th Century. Le Petit first communicated his experience to Professor Édouard Louis Trouessart (1842 – 1927), who published the information in La Natura in January 1911. Translations of Trouessart's article were later circulated in England and the United States, initially by Richard Lydekker; at this time, Lydekker refused to offer an opinion on the subject. Shortly afterwards, animal collector John Daniel Hamlyn (1858 – 1922) wrote to La Natura and other periodicals confirming Le Petit's account, claiming to have met the man at Brazzaville in 1905. In 1912, Le Petit, who was then in Nairobi, sent a more detailed account of the water elephant to big game hunter Richard John Cuninghame (1871 – 1925), who subsequently published this information in the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society. Le Petit claimed to have seen a water elephant for the first time in 1907. However, in 1918, Hamlyn claimed that Le Petit had told him about seeing the water elephant in Lake Leopold II when the two men met in Brazzaville in 1904—1905. By this time, Lydekker looked favourably on the water elephant's possible existence.
According to Le Petit's descriptions, the water elephant stands 6' to 8' tall at the shoulder, with elephant-like traits such as a curved back and an elephantine gait. The ears were slightly smaller than an elephant's, but were the same shape. However, the animals also had several unique characteristics. Their necks were described as relatively long, about twice the length of an elephant's. Its head is distinctly long and ovoid, with a short trunk of around 2', reminding Le Petit strongly of a tapir. Most significantly, Le Petit was unable to see any trace of tusks in any of the water elephants he allegedly saw. The animal's skins were also hairless and, like a hippopotamus, smooth and shiny.
Le Petit observed the animal's tracks on level ground, describing them as distinct from normal elephant tracks. They more closely resembled the tracks of a hippopotamus, with four separate toes; but, unlike the hippo, the water elephant's weight was evidently carried on its toes, as the impression of the sole was light.
During his first sighting, Le Petit's local helpers gave him an account of the water elephant's behaviour. According to them, it is nocturnal, emerging from the water during the night to feed on "strong rank grass," and spending its day in deep water like a hippo. Local people were afraid of the water elephant for its habit of rising out of the water and capsizing canoes with its short trunk, and for destroying nets and fish traps. However, it was supposed to be rare, and of restricted range.
According to the account he gave to Cuninghame, Le Petit twice encountered water elephants, beginning in 1907. His first sighting, as reported to Cuninghame, occurred while he was travelling down the Congo, close to the confluence with the River Kasai. According to Cuninghame...
The second sighting, which was more substantial, allegedly occurred in the swamps between Lake Leopold II (now named Lake Mai-Ndombe) and Lake Tumba, close to the source of the M'fini River in the latter lake; according to Trouessart's account, at a place on the northern shore named Tomba Mayi. According to Trouessart...
Cuninghame's version of the second sighting was somewhat less detailed, and slightly different...
In July 2002, cryptozoologist Bill Gibbons reported that the president and CEO of a Belgian helicopter company operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo claimed that a military helicopter flying over Lake Tumba had seen a herd of strange-looking elephants, which they thought could have been water elephants. Gibbons planned on visiting the lake with the helicopter company to investigate, and a French documentary producer was keen to film the expedition, but the investigation never materialised.
Given the water elephant's extremely tapir-like appearance, with its short trunk and lack of tusks, some contemporary authors considered the possibility that the cryptid was, in fact, a giant African species of tapir. Tapirs are currently found in Asia and South America, and once existed in Europe and North America, but fossils have never been discovered in any African nation. However, Frank Finn cited the case of the water chevrotain (Hyemoschus aquaticus) as precedent for a tapir existing in West Africa, given that this largest and most aquatic of the chevrotains is the only species found in West Africa, with all others existing in Asia.
Shortly after publishing Le Petit's description of the water elephant, Professor Trouessart wrote a second article asserting the existence of a large, marsh-dwelling animal in the Great Lakes of Central Africa, in particular in Lake Chad, which he believed could have been a surviving Deinotherium (~16–1 MYA), a Cenozoic proboscidean which survived in Africa until the Early Pleistocene, and which was then thought of as a semiaquatic animal. Trouessart suggested that the water elephant was also a deinothere, and Le Petit was subsequently sent to Lake Chad in search of the animal. However, although deinotheres may have inhabited swampy forests, and are often thought to have had shorter trunks than modern elephants, they are distinguished by the downwards-curved tusks in their lower jaws. As the water elephant conspicuously had no tusks whatsoever, there is little support for a deinothere identity.
When interviewed on the subject in 1911, zoologist Chalmers Mitchell (1864 – 1945), Secretary of the Zoological Society of London, suggested some connection with the ancient elephants discovered in Egypt, a theory supported by Karl Shuker. Shuker argues that the water elephant bears close similarity to the earlier Eocene and Oligocene proboscideans of the families Moeritheriidae, Numidotheriidae, Phiomiidae, and Barytheriidae, such as Moeritherium (~40–28 MYA) and Phiomia (~40–23 MYA). These early elephants were tapir-shaped, probably-semiaquatic animals which inhabited swamps: they are often reconstructed with short trunks, although some may have had longer trunks, or no trunks at all. Although most famously found in North Africa and Arabia, some genera of these proboscideans also existed in West Africa: these include the famous Moeritherium, which has been discovered in Senegal, and Phiomia, which survived in Angola until the Oligocene. Shuker argues that, if such an animal had survived and gone on evolving, the result might be something very much like the water elephant.
Bernard Heuvelmans believed that Le Petit's two sightings actually concerned two distinct animals, with only the second sighting referring to a proboscidean, and that the water elephant was therefore a chimaeric cryptid. Heuvelmans argued that, because Le Petit had already received a detailed description of the habits of the water elephant, when he later saw a herd of strange elephant-like animals in the water, he naturally made a connection between the two. If this is the case, the cryptid's description is chimaeric and unreliable. Heuvelmans and zoologist Henri Schouteden (1881 – 1972) argue that the animals seen in the swamp near Lake Leopold II were simply poorly-observed pygmy elephants, which were later discovered in this same region. Similarly, pygmy elephant researcher Matt Salusbury theorises that the water elephant is a very recent form descended from a population of African elephants (Loxodonta sp.). However, Karl Shuker observes that the timeframe given by Salusbury is too short for an elephant population to change so dramatically, and that the water elephant must have diverged from Loxodonta long ago.
Heuvelmans did not believe that the original water elephant, observed in the River Congo, could be a proboscidean on account of its long neck and its manner of swimming: with its head and neck out of the water. Elephants are unable to swim in this way, and the second animals seen by Le Petit were correctly described as swimming with only their trunks and the tops of their heads exposed. With some reservations, Heuvelmans suggested that this first water elephant, the one identified by locals as the ndgoko na maiji, may have been a water lion, an aquatic sabre-toothed cat, which are called "water elephants" in some languages (ngoroli in Zandé and nzéfu-loï in Luba).
Notes and references
- Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1955) On the Track of Unknown Animals, Routledge, ISBN 978-1138977525
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2016) Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors: The Creatures That Time Forgot?, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616463908
- Pollok, Fitzwilliam Thomas "Tapir," The Encyclopædia of Sport, Vol. 2 (1898) — Online
- Finn, Frank "Water-Elephants and Water-Tigers," The Saturday Review, No. 2907, Vol. 112 (15 July 1911) — Online
- Trouessart, Édouard Louis "L'Éléphant d'Eau," La Natura, Vol. 76 (January 1911)
- Cuninghame, Richard John "The Water-Elephant," Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, No. 12 (1912) – Online
- Hamlyn, John D. "The Water Elephant," Hamlyn's Menagerie Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 12 (April 1916) — Online
- Hamlyn, John D. "Dwarf Elephants," Hamlyn's Menagerie Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 9 (January 1918) — Online
- Lydekker, Richard (1916) Wild Life of the World: A Descriptive Survey of the Geographical Distribution of Animals, Vol. 3
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2010) Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times, CFZ Press, ISBN 978-1-905723-62-1
- Trouessart, Emile "Existe-t-il dans les Marais du Lac Tchad un Grand Mammifere Encore Inconnu des Naturalistes?," La Natura, No. 76 (21 January 1911)
- Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
- Shuker, Karl P. N. ShukerNature: The Curious Case of Rothschild's Lost Tusk and the Non-Existent Elephant Pig - An Enduring Cryptozoological Conundrum From Africa karlshuker.blogspot.com (3 July 2014) [Accessed 17 December 2020] — Wayback Machine
- Werdelin, Lars & Sanders, William Joseph (2010) Cenozoic Mammals of Africa
- Anon. "The 'Water-Elephant' of Equatorial Africa," The Indian Forester, Vol. 37 (1911) — Online
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1978) Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique, Plon, ISBN 978-2259003872