Mokèlé-mbèmbé, meaning "one who stops the flow of rivers" in the Lingala language, is the name given to a large water dwelling cryptid found in legends and folklore of the Congo River basin. It is sometimes described as a living creature and sometimes as a spirit. It could be considered loosely analogous to the Loch Ness monster in Western culture.

Several expeditions have been mounted in the hope of finding evidence of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé, though without success. Efforts have been covered in a number of books and by a number of television documentaries.

The creature's very existence and identification have long been debated between mainstream scientists, local Pygmies, creationists and cryptozoologists. Most controversially, it has been suggested that the creature might be a relict sauropod which somehow survived extinction. This idea has seen very little attention or support from scientists, who tend to argue that the creature can be best explained as some combination of fraud, folklore and misidentification of other animals.

The Mokèlé-mbèmbé is said to be a "herbivore" that is quite territorial. Its size is most often said to be close to that of an elephant and it has been described as having the shape of a sauropod dinosaur.

Claimed sightings of or encounters with Mokèlé-mbèmbéEdit

Perhaps the earliest reference that might be relevant to later mokele-mbembe stories (though the term is not used in the source) comes from the 1776 book of Abbe Lievain Bonaventure, a French missionary to the Congo river region. Among many other observations about flora, fauna and native inhabitants related in his lengthy book, Bonaventure claimed to have seen enormous footprints in the region. The creature that left the prints was not witnessed, but Bonaventure wrote that it “must have been monstrous: the marks of the claws were noted on the ground, and these formed a print about three feet in circumference.” (Clark, 261)

There is a story that involved the purported killing of a Mokele-mbembe near Lake Tele in about 1859. Natives who lived in the Likoula swamp near Lake Tele were said to have constructed a large spiked fence in a tributary of Tele to keep Mokele-mbembe from interfering in their fishing. A Mokele-mbembe managed to break through, though it was wounded on the spikes, and the natives then killed the creature. As William Gibbons writes, "Pastor Thomas [a missionary who knew the natives] also mentioned that the two pygmies mimicked the cry of the animal as it was being attacked and speared... Later, a victory feast was held, during which parts of the animal were cooked and eaten. However, those who participated in the feast eventually died, either from food poisoning or from natural causes. I also believe that the mythification (magical powers, etc) surrounding Mokele-mbembes (sic) began with this incident." (see external links for Gibbons's article) Furthermore, Roy P. Mackal heard from witnesses that the stakes were in the same location in the tributary as of the early 1980s.

Lt. Paul Gratz claimed to have heard tales of a mokele-mbembe-like creature while in the Lake Bangweulu region (now in Zambia) in 1909. The nsanga, said Gratz, was feared by the natives, and he described its supposed shape as resembling "a degenerate saurian"(Clark, 262). This was perhaps the first explicit identification of the creature with a dinosaur. Gratz further claimed to have been shown a purported nsanga hide on Mbawala island.

1909 saw another mention of a mokele-mbembe-like creature, in Beasts and Men, the autobiography of famed big-game hunter Carl Hagenbeck. He claimed to have heard from multiple independent sources about a creature living in the Congo region which was described as “half elephant, half dragon.” (Clark, 262) Naturalist Joseph Menges had also told Hagenbeck about an animal alleged to live in Africa, described as “some kind of dinosaur, seemingly akin to the brontosaurs.” (Clark, 262)Another of Hagenbeck’s sources, Hans Schomburgk, asserted that while at Lake Bangweulu, he noted a lack of hippopotamuses; his native guides informed him of a large hippo-killing creature that lived in Lake Bangweulu; however, as noted below, Schomburgk thought that natives testimony was sometimes unreliable.

These and other reports of dinosaur-like creatures in Africa caused a minor sensation in the mass media, and newspapers in Europe and North America carried many articles on the subject in 1910-1911; some took the reports at face value, others were more skeptical, and others still treated the subject as a joke.

Another report comes from the writings of German Captain Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz, who was ordered to conduct a survey of German colonies in what is now Cameroon in 1913. He heard stories of an enormous reptile alleged to live in the jungles, and included a description of the beast in his official report. According to Willy Ley, "von Stein worded his report with utmost caution," knowing it might be seen as unbelievable. (Ley, 69) Nonetheless, von Stein thought the tales were credible: trusted native guides had related the tales to him; furthermore, the stories were related to him by independent sources, yet featured many of the same details. Though von Stein's report was never formally published, portions were included in later works, including a 1959 book by Ley; von Stein wrote:

The animal is said to be of a brownish-gray color with a smooth skin, its size is approximately that of an elephant; at least that of a hippopotamus. It is said to have a long and very flexible neck and only one tooth but a very long one; some say it is a horn. A few spoke about a long, muscular tail like that of an alligator. Canoes coming near it are said to be doomed; the animal is said to attack the vessels at once and to kill the crews but without eating the bodies. The creature is said to live in the caves that have been washed out by the river in the clay of its shores at sharp bends. It is said to climb the shores in even at daytime in search of food; its diet is said to be entirely vegetable. This feature disagrees with a possible explanation as a myth. The preferred plant was shown to me, it is a kind of liana with large white blossoms, with a milky sap and applelike fruits. At the Ssombo River I was shown a path said to have been made by this animal in order to get at its food. The path was fresh and there were plants of the described type nearby. But since there were too many tracks of elephants, hippos, and other large mammals it was impossible to make out a particular spoor with any amount of certainty. (quoted in Ley, 70)

1927 saw the publication of ‘’Trader Horn’’, the memoir of Alfred Aloysious Smith, who had worked for a British trading company in what is now Gabon in the late 1800s. In the book, Smith related tales told him by natives and explorers about a creature given two different names: ‘’jago-nini’’ and ‘’amali’’. The creature is said to be very large, according to Smith, and to leave large, round, three-clawed footprints. (Clark, 261)

Zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson claimed that, while in Cameroon in 1932, he witnessed an enormous creature in the Mainyu River. The creature, seemingly badly wounded, was only briefly visible as it lurched into the waters. Darkly colored, the animal's head alone was nearly the size of a hippo, according to Sanderson. His native guides termed the creature "m'koo m'bemboo" (in Sanderson's phonetic spelling) (Clark, 101). Unfortunately Sanderson's claims have no credibility, because they were contradicted by James H. Powell, who traveled to the same exact spot where Sanderson had his sighting, and found that a modern railway passed a few feet away. Sanderson was later questioned by Dr. Roy Mackal, and admitted to various fabrications in his books, including all references to dinosaur-like creatures. According to Dr. Mackal, Sanderson explained the fraud by saying that he "loved to eat lobster", and adding exaggerated claims and fabrications to his books resulted in more sales.

In 1939, the German Colonial Gazette (of Angola) published a letter by Frau Ilse von Nolde, who asserted that she had heard of the animal called "coye ya menia" ("water lion") from many claimed eyewitnesses, both native and settlers. She described the long necked creature as living in the rivers, and being about the size of a hippo, if not somewhat larger. It was known especially for attacking hippos --- even coming on to land to do so -- though it never ate them. (Ley, 71-72)

Several more recent mokele-mbembe sightings have been alleged and are noted in "Expeditions" below.


There have been several Mokele-mbembe-hunting expeditions staged over the years. These expeditions have been undertaken with varying degrees of scientific rigor. As of 2006, no expeditions have uncovered incontrovertible proof that the creature exists.

However, several of the expeditions have claimed close-encounters with Mokele-mbembe, and have offered other forms of indirect evidence.


In 1938, explorer Leo von Boxberger mounted an expedition in part to investigate mokele-mbembe reports. He collected much information from natives, but his collected notes and sketches were abandoned during a skirmish with aggressive natives. (Clark, 263)


Herpetologist James H. Powell and zoologist Roy P. Mackal led or co-led a series of expeditions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although they failed to encounter the beast, they collected important anecdotal evidence, including information on its primary food source, a type of vine. These expeditions are discussed in more detail below.


Another expedition -- this one to Zaire -- was planned by James H. Powell, Jr. in the 1960s, but was delayed by legal complications. By 1976, however, he had sorted out the international travel problems, and had secured finances from the Explorer’s Club. Powell’s ostensible research aim was to study crocodiles, but he also planned to study mokele-mbembe.

On his first journey, Powell located a claimed eyewitness to an animal called n’yamala, which Powell thought was the same as the amali of Smith's 1920's books. Natives also stated – without Powell’s asking -- that n’yamala ate the flowering liana, just as von Stein had learned half a century earlier. (Clark, 264) When Powell showed illustrations of various animals, both alive and extinct, to natives, they generally suggested that the diplodocus was the closest match to n’yamala (Clark, 264)


Powell returned to the same region in 1979, learning confirmatory details about n’yamala from additional natives. He also made an especially valuable contact in American missionary Eugene Thomas, who was able to introduce Powell to several claimed eyewitnesses. (Clark, 264) Though seemingly herbivores, witnesses reported that the creatures were fearsome, and were known to attack canoes that were steered too close.


For his third expedition in February 1980, Powell was joined by University of Chicago biologist Roy P. Mackal. Based on the testimony of claimed eyewitnesses, Powell and Mackal decided to focus their efforts on visiting the northern Congo regions, near the Likousala aux Herbes River and isolated Lake Tele. As of 1980, this region was little explored and largely unmapped, and the expedition was unable to reach the lake.

However, Powell and Mackal interviewed several people who claimed to have seen n’yamala, and Clark writes that the descriptions of the creature were "strikingly similar … animals 15 to 30 feet long (most of that a snakelike head and neck, plus long thin tail). The body was reminiscent of a hippo’s, only more bulbous … again, informants invariable pointed to a picture of a sauropod when shown pictures of various animals to which mokele-mbembe might be compared." (Clark, 264)


Mackal mounted an expedition to the same area in late 1981, though, once again, he was unable to reach Lake Tele. Among his company was Congolese biologist Marcellin Agnagna, who would feature in a later mokele-mbembe controversy.

The 1981 expedition would feature the only “close encounters” of the Powell-Mackal expeditions. It occurred when, while on a river, they heard a loud splash and saw what J. Richard Greenwell described as “[a] large wake (about 5”) … originating from the east bank” (Clark, 265). Greenwell asserted that the wake must have been caused by an “animate object” that was unlike a crocodile or hippo. Additionally, Greenwell noted that the encounter occurred at a sharp river bend where, according to natives, mokele-mbembe frequently lived due to deep waters at those points.

1987 saw the publication of Mackal’s book, A Living Dinosaur?, wherein he summarized the expedition's adventures, and related his own conclusions about the mokele-mbembe. Mackal tried, unsuccessfully, to raise funds for additional trips to Africa.


Also in 1981, American engineer Herman Regusters led a mokele-mbembe expedition. After much difficulty, they reached Lake Tele, staying there for about two weeks. Expedition members claimed to have seen a sauropod-like head emerge from the waters of Lake Tele on several occasions. They claim to have tried filming the being, but said their motion picture film was ruined by the heat and humidity.

Regesters and his wife also asserted that they had also heard what they thought was the creature’s vocalization, describing it as a “low windy roar [that] increased to a deep throated trumpeting growl.” (Clark, 265)


Agnagna led 1983 expedition to Lake Tele; it was, unlike any earlier efforts, comprised entirely of Congolese. While at Lake Tele on May 1, Agnagna claimed to have seen a mokele-mbembe at close distance for about 20 minutes. He tried to film it, but said that in his excitement, he forgot to remove the motion picture camera's lens cap. In a 1984 interview, Agnagna claimed, contradictorily, that the film was ruined not because of the lens cap, but because he had the camera on the wrong setting. (Clark, 266) Due to this contradiction, and later legal troubles, Agnagna's claims were generally rejected as unreliable.


In 1985 and 1992 British explorer Bill Gibbons added further local reports to the dossier.

Operation CongoEdit

Operation Congo began in mid-1986, comprised of (as Clark writes) "four enthusiastic but naïve young Englishmen." (Clark, 266) They hired Agnagna to take them to Lake Tele, but did not report any mokele-mbembe sightings.

The British men did, however, describe Agnagna as doing "little more than lie, cheat and steal (our film and supplies) and turn the porters against us." (Clark, 266) After criminal charges were filed against him, a Congolese court ordered Agnagna to return the items he'd taken from the expedition.


British writer Redmond O'Hanlon traveled to the region in the mid-1990s and not only failed to discover any evidence of Mokele-mbembe but found out that many local people believe the creature to be a spirit rather than a physical being, and that claims for its authentic existence have been fabricated. His experience is chronicled in his book No Mercy (1997).

Undated ExpeditionsEdit

  • A recent megatransect into the wilderness of the Congo basin by the biologist and Africa explorer Michael Fay did not reveal any trace of the Mokele-mbembe.
  • A May 2006 episode called "Super Snake" of the National Geographic-series "Dangerous Encounters" included an expedition headed by Dr. Brady Barr to Lake Tele. No unknown animals were found.

What is Mokele-mbembe?Edit

There are several problems one encounters in investigating Mokele-mbembe: included among these are evaluating the reliability of supposed sightings, and the problems inherent in outsiders studying pygmy traditions from a different cultural and linguistic perspective.

While it is true that pygmies identified the okapi long before outside scientists, modern pygmies differ drastically in what they describe as Mokele-mbembe: some identify it as a sauropod-like creature and others apparently identify pictures of rhinoceroses as Mokele-mbembe. Compounding the difficulty in sorting through different traditions is that the Boha villagers seem to believe that Mokele-mbembe is a spirit rather than an actual animal. A further complication is that long-running hostilities and tensions between pygmies and neighboring Bantu people have given both groups ample reason to tell stories about frightening creatures in the jungles as a way of scaring off outsiders. Finally, some locals have claimed that stories about Mokele-mbembe have been fabricated for financial gain; see "A Myth?" below.

Even some who have questioned the popular dinosaur explanation think that some unknown animal must account for Mokele-mbembe reports. Willy Ley thought the evidence was inconclusive, but he did think the anecdotal testimony was reliable enough to reasonably suggest "that there is a large and dangerous animal hiding in the shallow waters and rivers of Central Africa." (Ley, 72; emphasis his) Though he thought it highly unlikely that the creature was a dinosaur, Ley admitted it was faintly plausible: the creature was described as reptilian, and, as of 1959, the climate of Central Africa was believed to have remained stable for tens of millions of years. (Ley, 74)

A dinosaur?Edit

Though the "living dinosaur" theory for Mokele-mbembe might be the best-known explanation, it has seen very little support from mainstream scientists.

Arguments forEdit

Even one of the foremost Mokele-mbembe hunters, Roy P. Mackal, did not suggest that the creature was certainly a dinosaur. Mackal devotes a chapter in his book to examining what kind of animal the mokele-mbembe might be. He feels that mammals and amphibians can be safely ruled out, leaving reptiles as the only plausible candidate.

Of all the living reptiles, Mackal argues that the iguana and especially the monitor lizards bear the closest resemblance to the mokele-mbembe. (Mackal, 227) He also admits, however, that at 15 to 30 feet, mokele-mbembe is much larger than any known monitor, and that all known monitors are carnivorous, unlike the allegedly herbivorous mokele-mbembe.

Though the evidence for mokele-mbembe was not conclusive, Mackal judged available evidence as consistent, writing, "I believe the description of the Mokele-mbembe is accounted for in all respects by an identification with a small sauropod dinosaur." (Mackal, 295)

Even the horn on the head of Mokele-mbembe can possibly be explained. Some scientists have suggested that some sauropods, like diplodocus, could have had a small elephant-like trunk growing out of the top of their heads, from the nasal passages. This trunk could have been used to pull plants to the creatures mouth while it feeds.

Mackal and others have suggested that Mokele-mbembe's existence is plausible because of the large amount of allegedly uncharted territory in which a breeding population could survive. Other large creatures, such as elephants, exist in the region, living in large open clearings (each called a bai), as well as in thicker wooded areas. Given these arguments about the terrain and environment, proponents contend that the existence of the Mokele-mbembe may appear to be a possibility.

The Babylonian Ishtar Gate includes drawings of dinosaur-like creatures, called Sirrush. Since the dragon is featured together with real animals like lions and aurochs, some cryptozoologists have speculated that the monster might be based on an actual animal, perhaps dinosaurs that survived in Africa into historical time or to this day.

Arguments againstEdit

Sceptics argue that the "living dinosaur" theory is problematic for many reasons.

  • Some of the descriptions of Mokele-mbembe are consistent with a sauropod, though many other descriptions are not. The idea that local Pygmies always identify Mokele-mbembe as a sauropod-like creature is untrue, as many Pygmies have identified rhinoceroses as Mokele-mbembe Template:Fact, while many others say that Mokele-mbembe is an ephemeral spirit rather than a physical animal. However, some Cryptozoologists consider the spirit description to be superstiton, and it has been suggested that the name Mokele mbembe may also be used in reference to Emela-Ntouka (believed to be a ceratopsian), thus accounting for the rhino-like descriptions.
  • This theory supposes that sauropod dinosaurs would inhabit swampy regions or even spend the bulk of their lives in water. These traits are both now regarded as mistakenly attributed to sauropods by early paleontologists.
  • Any creature the size of a sauropod would arguably have severe trouble walking through the swampy regions where it is supposed to live, as its bulky size would leave it tangled in vines and trees, and as its weight would cause it to sink into the mud. The feet of elephants display metacarpal spread, in which the digits radiate outward from the wrist or ankle bone, allowing the animal to distribute its weight more broadly and therefore avoid sinking in wet earth. The feet of all known sauropods, however, had vertically arranged digits, which distribute weight through the leg column, not unlike the body of a horse, therefore making it difficult to walk in sinking terrain. The issue of Mokele-mbembe feet is an important one, since the supposed footprints of the animal are typically described as being multi-clawed, while in reality sauropods had only a single claw at most -- some sauropods lacked any metacarpal claw at all. To skeptics, this suggests that the "tracks" of Mokele-mbembe are better explained as being by some creature other than a sauropod.
  • A further problem is the issue of "passage evidence". Unlike forest elephants (which use their tusks to clear relatively narrow paths through forest growth), sauropods would be forced to either topple groups of trees -- which would leave obvious indications of their presence -- or simply go around them. As the latter would be difficult in dense rainforest, there would have to be large pathways cleared by the animal. Aside from a few ambiguous trails noted by von Stein and Mackal, there is little in the way of Mokele-mbembe "trails".
  • Sauropod dinosaurs were herd animals, yet Mokele-mbembe has rarely if ever been reported traveling in herds -- only alone or in pairs.
  • No known sauropods had horns, yet reports of Mokele-mbembe frequently emphasize the single large horn on its head.
  • The thickness of a rainforest has no bearing on that rainforest's ability to withstand climate changes. Rainforests are very delicate ecosystems that alter dramatically in response to even slight changes, as is apparent in the case of contemporary rainforests. A rainforest, in fact, is arguably the least likely environment to withstand extreme ecological changes -- a desert or ocean would arguably be much better locations for animals to exist continuously for 65 million years.
  • Similarly, all of the land animals known to inhabit rainforests are geologically young animals, having evolved much later than the end of the Cretaceous.
  • The possibility of such a small number of animals -- even Mokele-mbembe enthusiasts do not claim the existence of a large population -- surviving for such a long time is extraordinarily unlikely, as the animals would quickly become infertile.
  • As many scholars have pointed out, the idea that the Congo rainforest is unmapped is actually part of the myth of Mokele-mbembe. Pygmy and Bantu humans have been living in the rainforest for thousands of years; Europeans explored the rainforest extensively in search of valuable exportable resources during the late 1800s and early 1900s ; and modern scientists have been closely studying the rainforest for decades. While it is not as comprehensively mapped as some areas, the Congo Basin is no less well-mapped than any other dense forest. Given these facts, skeptics assert that the notion that the Congo Basin is a land of mystery or uncharted territory is something of a half-truth.

Misidentifications of well-known animals?Edit

There is also a theory that the Mokele-mbembe is a rhinoceros: see this link (third paragraph after the second image).

Another not-so-cryptic explanation is that this phenomenon is nothing but a sighting of a group of male crocodiles following a female crocodile during the mating season.

Of these two explanations, the idea that Mokele-mbembe is actually a rhinoceros is perhaps more probable, especially as pygmies in the area have been recorded identifying pictures of rhinoceroses as Mokele-mbembe. Reports of Mokele-mbembe sightings have sometimes emphasized the single large horn on the animal, which is the most notable feature of rhinoceroses. That pygmies have conclusively identified images of rhinoceroses as Mokele-mbembe is, obviously, the most compelling reason to think the animal a misidentifed rhino.

A third possible misidentification scenario holds that that what people report to be Mokele-mbembe is actually a forest elephant, which, like all elephants, enjoys wading through water and even swimming. A swimming elephant will hold its trunk out of the water in a pose very similar to that of a long-necked dinosaur, which could lead observers to mistake the elephant for a sauropod.

A fourth possibility (proposed in the National Geographic-program mentioned above)is misidentifications of unusually large snakes, perhaps seizing a large prey in the water, making it appear as a snake-like beast with a bulky body. A final possibility would be misidentification of hippos, but although these animals size and behaviour could be mistaken for those of Mokele-mbembe, hippos are absent from the area (and this is evidence for the creature because Congo pygmies claim that mokele- mbembe kills hippos on sight).

A myth?Edit

Those scientists who do not believe Mokele-mbembe to be a misidentified animal generally believe that Mokele-mbembe is a spiritual myth, and, indeed, local people have said as much to outside reporters.

Hans Schomburgk, an early 20th century animal hunter who tried to find the monsters for Carl Hagenbeck and his zoological park in Hamburg, Germany, said: "The natives who wishes to please their white visitor and at the same time hope for a valuable gift are only all too eager to guarantee that they well know an animal with blue skin, six legs, one eye and four tusks. The size of the beast is all up to the questioner. The native tells what he thinks the white man wants to hear." (Sjögren, 1980)

British travel writer Redmond O'Hanlon's book about his search for Mokele-mbembe, No Mercy (1997), also supports this view, albeit indirectly. Upon reaching the lake that is the supposed home of the beast, one of O'Hanlon's native guides tells him that Mokele-mbembe is not a real animal, but rather a sort of spirit or idea, that non-natives misunderstand locals when they assume that Mokele-mbembe actually exists, and that supposed eyewitnesses have fabricated stories of physically existing animals for financial gain. O'Hanlon also points out that Lake Tele and the surrounding swamps are remarkably shallow -- Tele's waters are as low as four feet deep more than a hundred feet from the shore--making it extremely unlikely that a creature as large as a sauropod would or even could inhabit them. As noted above by Sanderson and Mackall, however, Mokele-mbembe was said to live in the rivers near Tele, not in Tele itself.

See alsoEdit



  • Clark, Jerome, ‘’Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena’’; Detroit, Visible Ink Press; 1993, ISBN 0-8103-9436-7
  • Ley, Willie, Exotic Zoology; New York: Capricorn Books, 1966 (trade paperback edition)
  • Mackal, Roy P. A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1987: ISBN 90-04-08543-2
  • Ndanga, Alfred Jean-Paul (2000) 'Réflexion sur une légende de Bayanga: le Mokele-mbembe', in Zo, 3, 39-45.
  • Nugent, Rory (1993) Drums along the Congo: on the trail of Mokele-Mbembe, the last living dinosaur. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-58707-7 or ISBN 0-395-67071-3
  • Regusters, H.A. (1982) Mokele - Mbembe: an investigation into rumors concerning a strange animal in the Republic of the Congo, 1981 (Munger Africana library notes, vol. 64). Pasadena: California institute of technology.
  • Congo Dinosaur
  • A similar Congoese cryptid animal called the emela ntouka.
  • Sjögren, Bengt, Berömda vidunder, Settern, 1980, ISBN 91-7586-023-6 Template:Sv icon

External linksEdit

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