The monster detectives: on the trail of the ninki-nanka

Once, the komodo dragon was thought to exist only in folklore. What other mythical beasts might we find if we look hard enough? Helen Brown meets the man on the trail of the ninki-nanka

As you read this, a small group of intrepid, pink-nosed Brits are creeping through the Gambian jungle, dodging crocodiles and cobras, in the hope of spotting the legendary "ninki-nanka". (OK, it sounds like a Goon Show plot, but bear with me.) This fabulously named creature is said by locals to resemble a giant reptile, up to 30 feet long and dwelling in the murk of the mangrove swamps.

The "dragon" is rumoured to look rather like a game of zoological "consequences", possessing the body of a crocodile, the neck of a giraffe and the head of a horse with three horns. Less fantastically, the team's leader, Richard Freeman of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, suspects the ninki-nanka of being a species of colossal monitor lizard. "Whatever the truth," he says, "this is the first dedicated expedition to search for this animal."

So far, the explorers' blog hasn't revealed any sightings. At a slaughterhouse, they were ceremonially presented with some ninki-nanka scales, which turned out to be pieces of rotted film - "certainly not biological", says Freeman. "However, we have acquired a sample to test when we get back to the UK, as it would be bad science not to investigate every claim."

More encouraging are the witnesses. A compelling chap called Papa Jinda had described a scene of devastation at a pumping station where, the blog gushes, "a ninki-nanka had destroyed several pipes". It continues: "The mention of a ninki-nanka had caused a panic among the workers, and they had asked for a mirror as it was thought that the only way to get rid of the animal was to show it its reflection.

"The second time Papa Jinda came into contact with the ninki-nanka was to prove fatal. After seeing it he fell ill, complaining about pains in his legs and waist, and his hair fell out. He died two weeks later. The ninki-nanka being seen as an omen of imminent death, either sudden or within the next four years, is one of the few aspects of the folklore surrounding it that has been consistent in every case reported to us. If we do find the creature on this expedition, we can only hope that this will prove to be incorrect."

It's a thrilling, romantic, lunatic quest: the sword-swashing stuff of H Rider Haggard tales. Who could fail to be charmed by cryptozoology? The eccentric discipline - which adds the Greek prefix kryptos, or "hidden" to zoology to yield "the study of hidden animals" - is about hunting down (or explaining away) the beasts of fairy-tale and folklore. The Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, sirrush, unicorn, Ebu Gogo and cyclops. Creatures known to initiates as "cryptids".

Scholarly interest in the subject began when Anthonid Cornelis Oudemans published his 1892 study of The Great Sea Serpent. From then until today, enthusiasm for the existence of the weird and wonderful has spread like dragonfire.

Before he packed his binoculars and ninki-nanka net, I asked the frock-coated Freeman how he became the UK's only full-time cryptozoologist. "I can answer that question in two words," he says. "Doctor Who. As a boy in the 1970s I saw the episode where the Doctor was incarcerated on earth. All the monsters from that story were so much more frightening because they were in a familiar setting."

After leaving school, Freeman became a zookeeper and wound up as head of reptiles at Twycross Zoo. "I've worked with animals all my life," he says, "apart from a brief stint as a gravedigger. Then, one day I was out looking for the Beast of Bodmin Moor...."

"As you do...."

"Yes, and I stopped by in this old curiosity shop and picked up a magazine on cryptozoology. I ended up working for the magazine and finally hunting cryptids full-time."

"Fortean" zoology is named after the American writer and researcher into anomalous phenomena, Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) who spent his life exploring the evidence for teleportation, poltergeists, falls of frogs, crop circles, wheels of light in the oceans, and animals outside their normal ranges, such as Bodmin's phantom cat. "He said that science was turning into a religion," explains Freeman, "and that scientists were acting like high priests looking down from their ivory towers and pronouncing certain things to be impossible or non-existent.

"Although our world is still largely unmapped, it's still the case that if something doesn't fit in with scientific orthodoxy, it gets swept under the carpet. Fort called this 'data of the damned' and referred to cryptids as 'the damned'." Crikey.

Freeman has searched for giant snakes (called nagas) in Thailand, "death worms" in Mongolia and the yeti-ish "orang pendek" in Sumatra. He works from oral testimony and tries to strip away the mythical element. "When people say fire-breathing, they probably mean a flickering tongue. When they describe electricity crackling around the death worm, they may well see dew shining on a snake's scales."

He doesn't think the Loch Ness Monster is a dinosaur - it's more likely to have been any number of sterile male eels, which can grow to gigantic proportions. British big cats are escaped/released pets and circus animals. The Monkey Man of Calcutta is, in Freeman's opinion, "just a monkey - it's a cultural, psychological phenomenon. You wouldn't get me hunting for him."

He sounds more reasonable the more he talks. Freeman wants answers. And he feels that the scientific establishment is still blocking advances made by cryptozoologists.

"There are sightings of the erect primate orang pendek, not just by local people - whose opinions shouldn't be discounted anyway - but also by Western scientists such as Debbie Martyr, head of the Indonesian Tiger Conservation Group.

"A colleague of mine, Adam Davies, even found hair in Sumatra that he passed to an world expert on mammal hair, Dr Hans Brunner, the guy who proved that it was a dingo that killed that woman's baby in Australia. Dr Brunner said it was an unknown species, related to the orang-utan. But even with Dr Brunner's weight behind the discovery we couldn't get the scientific journals to publish anything because this was too big a creature and too contentious. If we'd found a new type of mouse they said they wouldn't have had a problem."

Yet new large animals are still being discovered. In February this year the spectacular Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise was first seen in New Guinea. Last year a new pig-like peccary was found in Brazil "the size of a sofa!".

Cryptozoologists stress that many odd creatures were once considered hoaxes or delusions, including the platypus, giant squid and Komodo dragon.

Freeman says that cryptozoologists are crippled by a lack of funding. "One of our biggest hunts is for the folding green stuff. We get our money from writing books, magazine articles and appearing on television. To do this we need to undertake a different expedition for a different creature each year." And while they haven't found a dragon yet, they have solved some mysteries.

In 2002 visitors to a West Lancashire bird sanctuary claimed to have seen swans attacked by a gargantuan fish which was quickly tagged "The Monster of Martin Mere". "We went up there with a dingy and sonar. Then we saw and identified it: it was a wels catfish, eight feet long. They're the biggest freshwater fish in the world, and were imported from Russia by Queen Victoria's head of fisheries."

When I talk to scientists at the Natural History Museum, they are affectionately amused by their cryptozoological 'colleagues'. Adrian Glover, who discovered the magnificent Osedax mucofloris (or "bone-eating snot-flower") suspects cryptozoologists are more guilty than more orthodox scientists of closing their minds to the evidence of what does and doesn't exist.

Paleontologist Dr Angela Milner, who in 1986 discovered the British dinosaur baryonyx, tells me that our myths of dragons almost certainly spring from fossil-finds. "The earliest recorded finds of dinosaur bones and teeth go back 2,000 years, to China. Scrolls of parchment describe 'magic dragon bones'. They were ground up for medicine.

"In prehistoric times, there were finds by Ancient Persians of a dinosaur now called 'protoceratops', and which probably spawned the myth of griffins. The Greek myth of the Cyclops almost certainly springs from the remains of dwarf elephants found on Mediterranean islands.

"A dwarf elephant's skull could easily be interpreted as that of a giant human, with the nasal hole an eye." Does she think that the cryptozoologists are wasting their time? She laughs. "The onus is on them to find proof."

If Freeman and co fail to return from Gambia with ninki-nankian film footage, they do have a back-up plan. "Back in 1983," he tells me, "an amateur naturalist discovered the carcass of a strange beast on Gambia's Bungalow Beach. It was around 15 feet long, resembling a cross between a crocodile and a dolphin.

"He made sketches of the creature. The locals carried off the head, but the naturalist buried the body and made a detailed map..." he pauses, dramatically, "... and we have that map!"

It sounds like a case of "X" marking another, gloriously Goon Show-ish plot.

Read the Gambian blog at www.cfz.org.uk. An animated replica of baryonyx is on show in the Natural History Museum's Dino Jaws exhibition, London SW7

Nature's most wanted

Orang-pendek

Taking its name from the Indonesian for "short person", this erect primate is believed to be the "most probable" cryptid. The 1.5-metre biped has been seen and documented in the remote forests of Sumatra for at least 100 years by tribespeople, local villagers, Dutch colonists, and Western scientists and travellers.

Thylacine

Large carnivorous marsupial native to Australia, known as the Tasmanian tiger. Many believe this beautiful, striped creature became extinct after government-funded bounty hunters took more than 2,000 scalps between 1888 to 1912, with the last known tiger dying in captivity in the 1930s. But cryptozoologists believe it may simply have slipped into the shadows.

Ninki-nanka

A horned marsh-dwelling beast from Gambia. Frightened locals claim that the creature is 9m long with the body of a crocodile, the neck of a giraffe, the head of horse with three horns, one right in the middle of its head. Cryptozoologists believe it to be a formidable reptile.

Naga

A gigantic snake, usually found in Hindu and Buddhist mythology rather than in present-day Thailand. It is supposed to bear an erectile crest on its head - rather like that of a cockatoo, but made of scales - which it holds menacingly aloft when angry, just as a cobra opens its hood when it is preparing to strike at a threat.

Mongolian death worm

This is a vermiform or worm-like, desert-dwelling creature said to spit a corrosive yellow venom, and held in much fear by the Mongolian nomads who know it by the name of allghoi-khorkoi (pronounced "olra hoy-hoy"). The creatures is possibly a reddish-brown snake. Reports suggest it emerges after rainfall and lives near sources of water.

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