THE OVERWHELMER OF BOATS
Legends of large flying creatures with membranous wings, smooth red or black skin and long,
toothed snouts circulate throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Most scientists believe that if such a
creature exists at all, it is most likely some species of bat, either a hammerhead bat or an unknown
species. However, there is a minority of cryptozoologists who believe that the Kongamato is
actually a pterosaur.
The creatures have come to be most commonly known as Kongamato, from a Kaonde
word meaning "overwhelmer of boats." This word is part of a spell used by the Kaonde tribe to
protect against floods, which they blame on this creature. Similar creatures in Cameroon are known
as Olitiau, and in Ghana they are called Sasabonsam. Kongamato, however, is the
most popular name, for it was under this name that Westerners first heard of the beast.
The first reference to Kongamato in Western literature was in Frank H. Melland's 1923 book
"In Witchbound Africa." Melland was told that the generally red-skinned creature had membranes
instead of feathers on its wings, a wingspan of 4-7 feet and gapped teeth in its mouth. Apparently,
Melland immediately thought of pterosaurs, showing the natives a picture of a pterosaur from a
dinosaur book. The natives identified the picture as Kongamato. It hardly needs to be pointed out
that this is a terrible way to identify a suspect.
Slightly more scientific identifications came in 1925, when British newspaperman G. Ward
Price and the future Duke of Windsor heard of a Kongamato attack on a local man in Southern
Rhodesia (now Zambia). When the victim of the attack was shown a book of animal pictures, he
identified a pterodactyl as his attacker.
One of the most dramatic first-hand accounts, this time of an Olitiau in Cameroon, came from a
zoologist named Ivan T. Sanderson in 1932. While crossing a river together with naturalist Gerald
Russell, Sanderson shot a large fruit bat and soon afterwards was attacked by a huge winged beast
that neither of the men could identify. The creature, which had black skin and was about the size of
an eagle, made two passes at the frightened men, exposing "pointed white teeth set about their own
width apart from each other" and "dracula-like wings". When the pair returned to their camp, they
asked the natives about what they assumed was some kind of bat. The locals identified it as an
Olitiau, and supposedly abandoned the camp that very instant.
Several things are worth noting here. First is the fact that Sanderson and Russell both thought
the creature was a bat, and it attacked them right after they shot a fruit bat. In addition, it must be
remembered that of all the supposed sightings of Olitiau and Kongamato, this was the only one
made by men who knew anything about zoology. These men both had fairly extensive knowledge of
bats and other animals, and I think it is reasonable to assume that they knew something about
pterosaurs as well. Although neither of them could identify the species of the Olitiau, they certainly
did not think it was a pterosaur. It was clear to them that it was a bat. The only question in their
minds was, what kind of bat was it? Later speculation led Sanderson to believe that the attacker was
"an exceptionally large specimen of the hammerhead bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus)."
Hammerheads are the largest African bat species, are dark gray with black wings, and have
elongated, dog-like snouts. They are not known to attack humans, but that doesn't really mean
It is, of course, not impossible that the Olitiau is a hammerhead bat, and the Kongamato is
something else entirely. Like, perhaps, a pterodactyl. Or a dragon.
BACK TO PTERODACTYLS
Several other accounts of pterodactyl-like beasts came from game wardens and scientists over
the next thirty years, but none of them were first-hand sightings. Dr. J.L.B. Smith, who became
famous for his involvement with the discovery of the coelacanth, wrote about legends of flying
dragons near Mount Kilimanjaro in his book "Old Fourlegs." His basic idea seemed to be that if
one extinct species could be discovered living in South African waters, others might well survive in
the similarly unknown jungles and swamps. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, discoverer of the first
living coelacanth, holds similar beliefs, and has collected stories of flying reptiles from Namibia.
According to these rumours, the mysterious flyers gave off a smell "like burnt brass" (perhaps this is
meant to be "burnt grass") when they landed.
A widely publicized sighting occurred in Northern Rhodesia in 1956. J.P.F. Brown, an
engineer, saw two "prehistoric-looking creatures" flying overhead. He estimated their wingspan at 3
to 3 1/2 feet, and said they had dog-like muzzles and long narrow tails. They circled around him
twice, and on the second pass he noted that they had sharp teeth. After his story appeared in several
newspapers, other sightings were reported in the area, but none of them could be verified.
Photographs, needless to say, were never taken.
In 1988, Chicago cryptozoologist Roy Mackal led an expedition to Namibia to investigate the
Kongamato. Although he collected many stories of the creature, he never saw one. However, after
Mackal returned to America, one of his associates who had remained spotted a giant black gliding
beast with white markings. Again we have an unclear sighting with a lone witness, and no
photographs, taking place right after a large and well-equipped expedition quitted the area.
... AND ON THE FIFTH DAY, GOD CREATED PTEROSAURS
Much as it would please me to find pterosaurs living in Africa, or anywhere for that matter, I
find the story of the Kongamato quite hard to believe. I can readily believe the hammerhead bat
theory, or even an unknown species of fruit bat. But to believe that pterosaurs have survived in the
swamps of Zambia and foothills of Namibia, I would have to see at least one photograph or, at the
very least, a reliable group sighting or some fresh bones. The sightings that have been reported thus
far are extremely unreliable.
There are, however, many people who have no difficulty at all believing in living pterosaurs.
These people most often turn out to be Creationists or "Young Earth Scientists." According to
various Websites, pterosaurs were widely known throughout human history as dragons and flying
lizards. Some of these slightly unnerving Websites come complete with fuzzy graphics purporting to
show pterosaurs on Roman coins, along with quotes from the Bible describing the beasts.
Furthermore, these people claim that the existence of pterosaurs is proof that evolution does not
exist. The logic is that if pterosaurs evolved along with the dinosaurs millions of years ago, we
would not expect to see them living today, but if we accept the concept of a Creation that occurred a
mere 6,000 years ago, it is easy to believe that limited numbers of pterosaurs could have survived.
And if THAT doesn't convince you, I don't know what will.
- Coleman & Clark, 1999 - Cryptozoology A to Z; Simon & Schuster
- Serret - "Kongamato - Flying Demons of the Forbidden Swamps":
- http://www.angelfire.com/mi/dinosaurs/flyingserpent.html ("Pterosaurs in the Bible", author unknown)
- http://www.fortunecity.com/roswell/siren/552/af_konga.html (author unknown, page tries to
install browser plug-ins on entry!)