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.

Voices
Numbers of complaints about unwanted calls have trebled in just six months
voices
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Life & Style
Looking familiar: The global biometrics industry is expected to grow to $20bn by 2020
tech
VIDEO
News
Higher expectations: European economies are growing but the recovery remains weak
newsThe eurozone crisis has tipped many into despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues economist Philippe Legrain
Arts & Entertainment
Tangled up in blue: Singer-songwriter Judith Owen
musicAnd how husband Harry Shearer - of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame - helped her music flourish
Sport
Karim Benzema celebrates scoring the opening goal
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
Arts & Entertainment
Paul Weller: 'I am a big supporter of independent record stores but the greedy touts making a fast buck off genuine fans is disgusting'
music
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes has claimed supporters understand the need to look at
sportScot thanks club staff and fans, but gives no specific mention of players
News
Foster and Hedison have reportedly been dating since last summer
peopleOscar-winner said to be 'totally in love' with Alexandra Hedison
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Life & Style
Balancing act: City workers at the launch of Cityfathers
lifeThe organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group boasting more than 3,000 members
Arts & Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

Corporate Finance

£80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

Banking / Finance Associate - City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

Day In a Page

Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Ian Herbert: Manchester United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

The size of the rebuild needed at Old Trafford is a task way beyond Ryan Giggs, says Ian Herbert
Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

The 41-year-old calmed his nerves to perform a classic 'Superman act' when he replaced Petr Cech in Madrid. One clean sheet later, he is now determined to become a club hero
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?