Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (September 2009, No. 21)

Johnston's "Third Mysterious Animal" from the Congo

Chad Arment

Sir Harry Johnston is well-known for having finally confirmed the existence of the okapi in the Congo rainforests after years of rumors and searching. In 1901, this species was designated Okapia johnstoni in recognition of his efforts. Johnston also collected stories of a large pig-like animal, that was later confirmed in 1904 as a unique species: the giant forest hog. In addition, Johnston heard stories of a third large animal, the shaw-le, possibly a tragelaphine "antelope" (actually an antelope-like bovine), that was distinguished from known species by the people of the region.

The first mention of this mystery animal comes from a letter in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1904.

The Secretary read the following letter addressed to Sir Harry Johnston, K.C.M.G., K.C.B., by the late Mr. W. G. Doggett, dated Anglo-German Boundary Commission, Uganda, November 3rd, 1903:—

"Since writing last I have collected more information us to the 'Okapi' from a 'Mububa' native of the Mboga country, who is travelling with our Sudanese escort. I am doing my best to get this man as a guide to his country, where he says the 'Okapi' is to be found in large herds. He also says that there is another large Antelope like the 'Okapi' which they call 'Shaw-le,’ and which lives in the more open country. He goes on to say that the 'Okapi ' found in 'Mboga' has horns about 18 inches long with two curves (only in males).

"So if I get a permit I shall certainly go and see what can be got there. I hope by the next mail I shall be able to send you a photograph of Lake ' Ruakatenge' and a few notes, for the African Society's Journal. It's within two hours of our present camp."

The Secretary remarked that since his journeys into this part of the Congo Forest (to the west of the Semliki River) Sir Harry Johnston was of opinion that the reports of the natives, made to himself, to Stanley, to Doggett, and to such other travellers as had recorded them, pointed to the existence, possibly, not only of the Okapi which has now been made known, but of two other mammalian types in this north-eastern fringe of the Congo Forest. If the reports about these other creatures are as well based as were those of the Okapi, they would indicate the existence in Northeast Congoland of another large ruminant, possibly a Tragelaphine, and a large pig-like animal. He was informed by

Sir Harry Johnston said that Doggett's 'Shaw-le' Antelope was also described to him by Balega people from the west of Lake Albert, and struck him from the description (if there is any fact at the bottom of these stories) as being very similar in appearance to a Nilghai. Sir Harry also thought that the large Forest 'Pig' of which Sir Henry Stanley had heard, and which was also mentioned to himself, might possibly be the Dwarf Hippopotamus which occurs in the forests of West Africa.

The next mention comes within a series of letters published in 1904 in the journal Nature, following confirmation that the giant forest hog was a new species. First, came the pig's announcement:

The Forest-pig of Central Africa.

It may interest many of your readers to know that the "forest-pig" heard of, at the same time as the okapi, by Sir Henry Stanley, and later on by Sir Harry Johnston, has at last been obtained and presented to the National Museum by Mr. R. Meinertzhagen.

This gentleman first had news of it from the natives of Mount Kenya, and took great pains to secure a specimen, but only succeeded in obtaining pieces of skin, from which no idea of its affinities could be gathered. At last, however, in the Nandi Forest, near the Victoria Nyanza, at an altitude of 7000 feet, he received two skulls, one quite perfect, and some further portions of skin.

These trophies show that the animal represents a most interesting new genus connecting the aberrant wart-hog (Phacochaerus) with the more ordinary Suidae, such as Sus and Potamochaerus. It agrees with the first named in the number of its incisors, and shows a tendency towards it in the development of the canines and the structure of the molars. On the other hand, in the general proportions of the skull it is more like Sus.

Altogether, if it cannot be called absolutely ancestral to Phacochaerus, it must at least be looked upon as representing an early stage in the specialisation of that most remarkable type.

The animal itself is about as large as a wart-hog, and is well covered with long coarse black hair.

It is proposed to be called Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, and I hope to give a full description of it at an early meeting of the Zoological Society.

Oldfield Thomas.
British Museum (Natural History), October 7.

Then, Johnston wrote in to fill in some blanks on the history of the search for this new pig, and noted that a mysterious antelope-like creature was also rumored to exist in the region.

The Forest-pig of Central Africa.

I have seen Mr. Oldfield Thomas's interesting letter in your issue of October 13 relative to the remarkable forest-pig (which he has named Hylochoerus meinertzhageni). With regard to the discovery of this remarkable beast, there are perhaps older names which should be associated with it as well as those of the late Sir Henry M. Stanley and myself. No mention of this forest-pig appears in Sir Henry Stanley's published works, but in conversation with myself and others he frequently told us that, in addition to hearing of a "donkey-like animal with large ears" (which afterwards turned out to be the okapi), he once saw a huge black pig, and he had reason to believe that a strange new species or genus of pig inhabited that portion of the Congo forest near the Semliki River. I heard and transmitted similar stories told me by the natives of that forest; but even more detailed accounts were collected and sent later on by the late W. G. Doggett, who, to the great loss of zoological collecting in Africa, was drowned in the River Kagera in the early part of the present year. But I think the first definite accounts of this pig (or at any rate of Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) were transmitted by Mr. C. W. Hobley, C.M.G., a sub-commissioner of the East Africa Protectorate, who has recently been acting as Commissioner after the departure of Sir Charles Eliot. Mr. Hobley sent a drawing of the skull and a description of the creature from imperfect specimens he had seen on the slopes of Mount Kenia. Unfortunately his letters were delayed in transmission, so far as their reaching the Zoological Society was concerned. Mr. Hobley is now in England, and it is to be hoped that he will furnish the Zoological Society in detail with the extremely interesting particulars he has given me in conversation regarding this remarkable animal. I would remind your readers that Mr. Hobley (who as regards length of service is almost the senior British official connected with British East Africa) made the important discovery last year of marine organisms in the Victoria Nyanza.

So far, the native stories of the okapi and the big forest-pig have turned out to be true. It only remains to complete the trilogy by the discovery of a third mysterious animal, also alluded to in conversation, if not in writing, by Stanley, and mentioned by Doggett and myself. This, so far as native accounts can be crystallised into a definition, would seem to be some large tragelaphine antelope resembling the nilghai in appearance, with short, twisted horns. A horn or a pair of horns attributed to this animal was, I believe, brought home by a member of Stanley's expedition, and is possibly in the British Museum. It was seen by Dr. P. L. Sclater, and attributed by him to an abnormally developed cow eland: but so far as I could learn from my own researches and those of Doggett, the natives of the Semliki Forest were careful to differentiate this creature from either the forest eland or the bongo. Their accounts of it certainly coincide to a great extent with their stories of the okapi, though they insisted on the difference between the two animals. Perhaps there is as much truth in their stories of this large antelope with small twisted horns as there has been shown to be in connection with the okapi and the forest-pig.

H. H. Johnston.

Finally, British zoologist Philip Lutley Sclater, the original describer of the okapi, weighed in on the subject:

The Forest-pig of Central Africa.

There are two good mounted specimens of the forest-pig in the Museum of the Congo Free State at Tervueren, near Brussels, where I had the pleasure of examining them in July last. M. A. Dubois, conservator of the Royal Museum of Natural History at Brussels, told me that he intended to describe the animal in conjunction with Dr. Matschie, of Berlin, but I am not aware that their description has yet been published, so that I hope the forest-pig may remain known by the excellent name Hylochoerus, proposed for it by Mr. Thomas.

As regards the "third mysterious animal" of the Congo Forest alluded to by Sir Harry Johnston in his letter on this subject (Nature, p. 601), I have little doubt that it was the fine antelope of the genus Tragelaphus, lately described by Mr. Thomas as Baeocephalus euryceros isaacsoni (Ann Nat. Hist. (7). v. p. 310, and Proc. Zool. Soc., 1902, ii p. 319). The first pair of horns of this species was obtained by Mr. F. J. Jackson in 1897 (see Proc. Zool. Soc., 1897 p. 455), but it is only recently that the perfect specimen which now adorns the mammal gallery of the British Museum was procured.

The "abnormally developed horns of the cow eland” referred to by Sir Harry Johnston have nothing to do with this antelope. They will be found fully described and figured in the "Book of Antelopes" (vol. iv. p. 209).

P. L. Sclater.

The tragelaphine that Sclater mentions is the rare mountain bongo, Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci. (This subspecies was named by Oldfield Thomas after the hunter, F. W. Isaac, who shot it in British East Africa in 1902.) Is this the answer to the mystery? The shaw-le was reported from Mbogo, and west of Lake Albert, which are both in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Congo-Kinshasa. The mountain bongo (or eastern bongo) is only known from Kenya today; even assuming a larger historical range, I'm not sure that this fits from a biogeographical perspective. The western, or lowland, bongo is a possibility, as it is known from the DRC. What would help would be some in-the-field ethnozoological investigation, to determine if anyone in Mbogo recognizes the name shaw-le, and if so, to get a better description (or physical evidence, as hunters may have collected trophies). Unfortunately, Johnston, Stanley, and Doggett don't seem to have left enough of a description for us to be certain about this mystery animal.

Interestingly, this is not be the last mention of a mystery "antelope" from this region of Africa. Mackal (1987) reprints an article, in his discussion of the Chipekwe, from the Field of 23 September 1911, called "The Haunts of the Situtunga." In it, J. E. Hughes mentions (regarding the area near Lake Bangweula, in Zambia): "Native folklore peoples the great Swamp with stranger denizens still; a beautiful striped antelope that no white man has ever seen, the Chipekwe, a gigantic reptile with a single snow-white horn that can kill a hippo; a huge black leopard with a short tail that preys on the Lechwe and Situtunga, and so on. I believe in this unknown antelope, and mean to get one this year. I have his name and address, and have seen a skin."

Again, bongo is a possibility, though it apparently isn't known from Zambia today.

References:

  • Secretary. 1904. Letter. Proceedings, Zoological Society of London 1(Feb. 16): 228-229.
  • Johnston, H. H. 1904. The Forest-pig of Central Africa. Nature 70(1825): 601.
  • Mackal, Roy P. 1987. A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-mbembe. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
  • Sclater, P. I. 1904. The Forest-pig of Central Africa. Nature 70(1826): 626.
  • Thomas, Oldfield. 1904. The Forest-pig of Central Africa. Nature 70(1824): 577.
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