Could sabre-toothed cats be roaming mountains and rivers on two continents in the 21st Century? It sounds very unlikely, but there’s a surprisingly large body of circumstantial evidence relating to long-fanged big cats, in Africa and South America, always occupying two specific habitats: the rivers and the mountains. Most of the evidence consists of what could be traditional knowledge, but there are also some sightings, which I intend to list in this post.
Let’s start with the mountains of Africa, specifically those in the Sahel and Sudanian belts, between the Sahara and Central Africa. One of the earliest references to this type of cryptid comes from the Imatong Mountains of South Sudan:
Some labourers working high in the Acholi hills [the western ranges of the Imatongs] clearing firelines came to me with a tale of having seen a large animal, bigger than a lion and very broad. Its head was large, with a pointed muzzle, and a black mouth with long canine teeth. The general colour was brownish, with vertical yellowish-white stripes on its flanks. It left an elongated footprint, the size and shape of that of a small boy, but with claws. The beast was quite unknown to them, and they were very scared about it. — Jackson, J. K., “Animal Life in the Imatong Mountains” Sudan Wild Life and Sport (December 1959)
The red-and-white-striped coat and plantigrade feet both occur in descriptions of similar cryptids from further west, especially in the Bongo Massif in the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), and the mountains of Chad. The tigre de montagne of these regions is described as a cat larger than the lion, with red fur striped with cream, a short hairy tail, and very large protruding teeth. It is nocturnal, and carries its prey off to caves in the mountains. Inhabitants of the Bongo Massif claimed that a gassingrâm had been seen doing this in 1937, and big game hunter Christian Le Noël’s tracker later described a first-hand experience of this behaviour in C.A.R.:
To convince me, they took me to a rock shelter cave where, according to them, there was a “mountain tiger” about thirty years ago (we were in 1970). My first tracker Djémé affirmed that he had seen it with his father during a hunting expedition in these hills of Méllé. He and his father had managed to kill a roan antelope (300 kg), and, when they were skinning it, a “mountain tiger” emerged from the bush to seize the trophy, carrying it off without apparent effort in front of both terrified and dumbfounded hunters, who … returned empty-handed to the village. — Source
They needn’t have been afraid, as the tigre de montagne apparently does not harm men. Nor does it hunt buffalos, preferring large antelopes. In fact, the Hadjeray people of Chad’s Guera Mountains say that, while it might look frightening, its big teeth force it to open its mouth so slowly that anyone can escape from it!
Tigres de montagne are sometimes confused with a second category of cryptozoological African sabretooth, the water lions (the name ‘jungle walruses’ has been popular lately), which have been known for longer (since 1900), and seem to have a wider distribution. Very wide: there may be up to 24 different names used in 16 different African nations, especially the C.A.R., for these cryptids, as well as 5 unnamed versions.
Many of these water lions are undoubtedly mythologised or otherwise dubious, particularly those far from the C.A.R., but there have been sightings, and the stories are surprisingly consistent over such a large area, although the alleged colour of the coat varies. Their defining characteristics are their fangs and their habit of killing hippos. Unlike the tigre de montagne, water lions do attack man, and are consequently feared. Game inspector Lucien Blancou tells of one such killing in C.A.R.:
In 1911 (this date has been cross-checked) when he was porter with a detatchment of riflemen going from Fort Crampel to Ndélé, Moussa saw one of these soldiers siezed by a mourou-ngou at the junction of the Bamingui and the Koukourou. The animal was shaped like a panther, a little larger than a lion but with stripes, and about 12 feet long. The background of its coat was likewise the colour of a panther’s, but its footprint was oddly described as containing a circle in the middle(?). The soldier was in a canoe when the animal came out of the Koukourou ‘like a hippo’, just where the rivers met, seized the man in the canoe and dragged him into the water capsizing the boat, surfaced once more with the soldier in its mouth and then disappeared. The man paddling the canoe swam safely away, but the soldier’s rifle and kit remained on the bottom of the river. — Heuvelmans, Bernard (1955) On the Track of Unknown Animals, Routledge
While the above account doesn’t mention it, the mourou-ngou is supposed to have disproportinately large teeth. Cryptozoologist Eric Joye collected more recent accounts of the mourou-ngou in the C.A.R. in 1994-1995, including two sightings. One man, a prospector named Denis, claimed to have seen one swimming in 1962 or 1963, and a guide named Marcel even claimed to have almost been knocked into the river when a mourou-ngou ambushed him in 1985.
Was there a similar animal in Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetlands? A Chiwemba man claimed to have seen a long-fanged animal in these marshes, where there had long been rumours of a hippo-killing monster, during the 1920s, but his description was rather unusual.
He described the Chipekwe as rather larger than a hippopotamus, covered with shaggy hair and endowed with flippers instead of legs and feet. He also added that it had two large teeth that projected downwards like those of the sabretooth tiger. He said that this animal could kill the hippopotamus and that he had several times seen, not one, but two or three of these monsters playing about in shallow swamps at the edge of Lake Bangweulu. I may say that neither of us believed him then and the passage of years has not provided any confirmatory evidence that might tend to make me more credulous now. — Macrae, Farquhar Baliol “More African Mysteries,” The National Review, No. 111 (December 1938)
He was not the first to claim to have seen a water lion in this region. According to Rhodesia pioneer Joseph E. Hughes, a British Native Commissioner claimed to have encountered a short-tailed black ‘swamp leopard’ which wounded some of his men (Hughes, 1911).
Almost all information on water lions was gathered during the 20th Century, but one water lion, the n’gooli, has been reported from Cameroon in recent years. One Baka man interviewed by Michel Ballot claimed he had seen an n’gooli ambush a drinking gorilla, drag it into the river, and swim away with its body. Only a couple of informants insisted that the n’gooli had long fangs (Coudray, 2009). According to some sources, the Baka water lion can even kill young elephants (Brisson, 2010). In Angola, it seems that the coje ya menia was also still believed in as of 1999 (Fontinha, 1999).
Allegations of surviving sabretooths in South America exactly parallel those in Africa, with sightings generally falling into two categories: aquatic and montane. Even their names are similar. Stories of sabretooths have come out of the tropical cloud forests in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and especially Venezuela, where the tigre dantero (‘tapir-eating tiger’) has been seen in Canaima National Park in the Guiana Highlands.
The sighting took place during the dry season, from November to March, of 1991, when Tirson Sosa, a Pemon Indian in his 50s, was hunting in the jungle about three days upriver on the left bank of the Carrao River. The animal, the size of an adult jaguar, emerged from a thicket to drink water from a pool. It was neither a puma, since it did not have a long tail, nor a jaguar, since it did not have the characteristic spots of camouflage. He also pointed out an important detail that strongly caught his attention: although the feline was positioned on fairly flat ground, its front legs were higher or more robust than the back ones. Its color was yellowish brown or light brown, and what appeared to be two large fangs protruded from its mouth. — Source
In South America, the aquatic variety are called water tigers. Compared to the water lions, South America’s water tigers seem less mythologised: almost every account I have describes them as real animals. Their apparent heartland is restricted to rivers of the Guainas–the Atlantic territories of South America between the mouths of the Amazon and the Orinoco–but similar creatures are reported from as far north as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and perhaps as far south as Paraguay.
In 1962, the inhabitants of Maripasoula in French Guiana blamed a monster called the popoké when the body of a boy named Eustache Fulgence was found scavenged, more likely by known animals, in the Maroni River. Colonel Rene Ricatte later spoke to a Roucouyenne Indian named Amaïpeti, who claimed to have seen what he called a maïpolina in the Maroni in the same year. Amaïpeti described it as follows.
[It] was three meters long by one wide. It was also about a meter ‘thick’. Its four legs, all clawed, resembled the anteater’s hind legs. The head … bore two eyes identical to those of the maïpouri (name given in Guyana to the tapir). The ears were drooping. A stripe 10 to 15 centimeters wide, and of a different color from that of the coat, appeared on the head and the back. The mouth was armed with visible teeth (according to the description he gave me, they would be like teeth of a walrus). The tail resembled that of a cow. The chest was whitish, like the line on the back, while the rest of the body was rather tan. The hair, as a whole, was short. — Ricatte, Rene (1978) De l’île du Diable aux Tumuc-Humac, La Pensée Universelle
As of 2020, inhabitants of Papaichton say they still sometimes see the popoké/maïpolina in the forest and in the river (Anon, 2020). A very similar water tiger, the massacuraman, is or was also reported from the Demerara River in Guyana. Like the popoké, it supposedly disembowels children, and old Guyana hand Matthew Young speaks of a number of alleged deaths, but only one actual sighting, which must have happened sometime before 1970.
On another occasion, in the upper reaches of the river at Clemwood, some school children were crossing on their way to school when a girl gave a piercing scream, pointing to a large hairy hand with long nails clutching the gunwhale of the boat. One boy had reacted quickly, bringing down the paddle he was holding in a sharp, cruel arc to hit the hand with a sickening crunch. The thing let loose of the gunwale and broke the surface of the water to disclose a feline face with two protruding fangs. Its head and chest were covered with hair. It did not surface again. — Young, Matthew (1998) Guyana: The Lost El Dorado, Peepal Tree Press
- Anon. (2020) Livret d’Accompagnement sur le Parcours La Source
- Brisson, Robert (2010) Petit Dictionnaire Baka-Français: Sud-Cameroun
- Coudray, Philippe (2009) Guide des Animaux Cachés, Editions du Mont
- Heuvelmans, Bernard & Rivera, Jean-Luc & Barloy, Jean-Jacques (2007) Les Félins Encore Inconnus d’Afrique, Les Editions de l’Oeil du Sphinx
- Hughes, Joseph “The Haunts of the Situtunga,” The Field (23 September 1911)
- Fontinha, Mário (1999) Ngombo (Adivinhação): Tradições no Nordeste de Angola, Câmara Municipal de Oeiras
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (2020) Mystery Cats of the World Revisited, Anomalist Books