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Monday, 18 April 2011

UPDATE on The Sea Elephants

While I was researching into the subject of possible Water Elephant reports in Gambia, I did think at one time that some reader had confused Gambia with Gabon where there are indeed reports of creatures that are called "Water-Elephants." However the sources are quite consistent in maintaining there are the same "Water-Elephants" in both places. The solution came about from something quite unexpected: the local version of the "Congo Dragon" in Gambia does indded include reports of the same type as the more usual "Congo Dragons" in and around the Congo area, and that does include "Water-Elephants". The Gambian legendary creature is called the Ninki-Nanka, sometimes translated as "Dragon-Devil" but also both halves could be variations on the same name for "Snake." The Ninki-Nanka was one object of a CFZ expedition into The Gambia in 2006, as is duely noted in the Wikipedia article on it.

Here is a description which is repeated on several internet sites (with permission granted to copy)

In Africa, river dragons or river monsters are not that uncommon. Sightings of these creatures are quite often, and are already rooted in oral tradition. In fact, there are already four different names for creatures of the swamp found scattered all across Africa; there is the Mokele-mbembe found in Congo, Chipekwe found in Zimbabwe, the Isiququmadevu in Northern Angola, and of course, the Ninki Nanka, which is a river dragon found in Gambia. [FAR more than four names actually, and this description reverses the geographic locations for Isiququmadevu and Chimpekwe with each other. Chimpekwe means "Water Monster" generally and is applied to more than one kind of animal, including large fishes-DD] They might be scattered all over Africa but they do have the same basic appearance. Essentially, these river dragons are the loch ness monster’s African counterpart. They also have the same long neck features, huge size and the horse-like head. But the Gambian dragon does have some very special features that make it quite unique among its African brothers. Although there is a general idea of how people imagine these creatures to look like, there is no definite image or sketch that truly depicts them and so, there is still no concrete idea of what they look like. But there is a way to get a rough estimation, through the testimonials of the different witnesses. For the Ninki Nanka, it has some unusual features that separate it from the others and make it something very interesting. First of all, this creature is often described to have the body of a komodo dragon or a crocodile only it is much, much bigger (the size of the creature ranges from 30 feet to 50 feet) and it comes complete with a scaly, leathery body. To go with this body, it is also said to have the neck of a giraffe, and the head of a horse. This horse head is typically described to have three horns, one on each side of the head, and another one right in the middle of the forehead. For the people of Gambia, the Ninki Nanka is taken very seriously. First of all, people usually avoid the rivers and mangrove swamps in the area (especially if a dragon devil had been spotted there) since the Ninki Nanka usually go out at night to eat everything in its path. It is also believed that the whirlpools seen in these rivers are caused by the dragons. Certainly, this is one fearsome looking (and acting) creature that is very hard to spot. The secretive nature is compounded by the fact that people in Gambia are advised not to speak about seeing the Ninki Nanka, for fear of a gruesome death. This only adds to the mystery and frightening nature of these creatures.

Alleged Photograph of the Ninki-Nanka

Initially, I was willing to settle for the Komodo-dragon-like monitor lizard identity for this creature, but in fact the basic description conforms more to the Mokele-Mbembe or even the Loch Ness Monster as stated. However, the name is used generically for any Water Monster locally, including large freshwater stingrays and a possible Sivathere to give the decription of the head with peculiar horns. One type of report is easily separated out: about 30 feet long (given as a minimum but probably an actual maximum) with a fat body that drags on the ground and shaped like the body of a crocodile, a scaly appearance on at least part of the body and neck, a long neck that can shoot up higher than a man is tall with a head that might be compared to that of a horse or cow, only with a big mouth that opens up to show large fangs or tusks. The head has a "Horn" that is inflatable or else it is like an elephant's trunk. That last point is borrowed from descriptions further south where the same creature is called a "Water Elephant" and incidentally also compared to a walrus. It is said to leave a three-toed track, which is the type of track that Karl Shuker is shown as holding in cast form in one of his photos. I have not heard of the three-toed tracks being reported in Gambia, but it would be consistent.

So while the basic idea might be a sort of Mokele-Mbembe creature such as are also seen further South in Tropical Africa, that type is most likely NOT a common inhabitant of the river Gambia and it would not usually be whart the witnesses are describing. The story about "If you see it, you are going to die" is also repeated about the more common "Congo Dragons" further South. However, I am willing to wager the usual water monster seen in the area actually IS the "Water-Elephant" except that there might also be sightings of the Surviving Sivathere in the area in order that witnesses might come to see the ungulate head with the unusual horns. And this would be a case where the Water Elephant would BE a Sea elephant or an elephant seal, possibly the same creature sometimes reported in the Cape Verde Islands and formerly the Azores as a "Sea cow" (And comparable to the "Sea cows" of St. Helena in former days: all of these "Sea cows" were supposed to haul out on shore amphibiously and that is not possible with actual sirenians)

One consequence of this identification is the possibility that the "Ugly Mermaids" reported by Columbus in mid-North Atlantic and commonly explained as manatees might actually have been female elephant seals instead: mid-ocean is a very unusual situation to find manatees in.

One of the North Atlantic reports which sounds suspiciously as if it might have been an elephant seal was the subject of an earlier blog posting. It was seen in the late 1800s and between the Azores and Cape Verde Islands: and there are other sightings of the type on both sides of the Atlantic more recently.

Human, Elephant Seal and Elephant shown at the same scale. A large male elephant seal has about the same weight as a female elephant.

This is the same rock-art depiction of "Congo Dragons" from Tanganyika posted earlier in the Living Sivatherium blog entry. The two rather shapeless creatures shown at the bottom are what I take to be a pair of elephant seals hauled up on shore, as in the photo below it. On the coasts of East Africa, Elephant Seals might also be the cause of perrenial "Sea Monster" reports off Zanzibar and possibly even Kenya further North.

Male Elephant Seals in Combat. Such Combats produce scarring on the neck and trunk which gives an appearance of scaly skin.


  1. The first report from Gabon is from French missionaries who reported an unknown amphibious elephantlike creature which left a peculiar type of track: the track was described as the mark of three claws which together had a circumference of three feet, making it approximately a foot wide and a foot long, with tracks spaced about six feet apart. In other places such a track has been associated with elephant seals and Roy Mackal states that this is possible because of the skeletal structure of the seal's flipper.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  2. I have just looked up Powell's information about "Water-Elephants" in the Congo (Democratic Republic and Zaire) and he mentions that the term in use in the former is Nsok-Nyan which is comparable to Nzefui-Loi in the latter. The Nsok-Nyan are usually hippos but Powell wondered if the term was more generic than that: the Zaire "Water=Elephants" are more likely a type of forest elephants with exaggerated features such as the tusks being shorter, straighter, and pointed more downwards. See Searching for Hidden Animals by Roy Mackal page 70. The point I wished to make here is that Nsok-Nyan sounds a lot like Ninki-Nanka, and if there is a similar name meaning water-elephant in The Gambia, it might be mistaken to be the same as "Ninki-Nanka" by non-Natives

    "Water-Elephants" are otherwise mentioned also in Benin and in Nigeria, which are intermediare geographically between the Nyamala that Powell was researching in the Cameroons and the Ninki-Nanka in the Gambia.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  3. Ivan Sanderson alsao passes along a statement from an animal collector in West Africa that he had heard stories of "Mermaids that live half on land and half in the water" and that he thinks these stories are based on sightings of sea cows or manatees, in an article otherwise about "Congo Dragon" sightings in Benin and quoted under the Mokele-Mbembe blog. This would once again be the type of "Sea cows" that can go out amphibiously onto land and hence they would be more likely elephant seals rather than manatees (which are NOT amphibious)

    Another observation that coincides with this is Trader Horn's description of the 3-Toed Jago-Nini in the area near Gabon, during which he says there used to be nice seals in the rivers and lakes of that area, but the Jago-nini wiped them all out. Heuvelmans quotes this and says that he must mean manatees. However, there is no especial reason why they MUST have been manatees if the "Sea cows" people were describing in the area were really the same as the St. Helena "Sea cows"-which were probably more likely elephant seals instead. So we do have a complete chain for sightings, descriptions and tracks for these animals going up both coasts of Africa and crossing the equator in both instances.

    There is no reason why they could not likewise cross the equator and be seen in Southern India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and to be called Makaras in those regions.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.


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