Here be monsters: The search for Africa's mythical beasts

Updated 10:49 AM ET, Fri December 19, 2014
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In September, it was a giant squid found in the Antarctic that some believed would reveal the secrets of the deep and the legendary kraken.

Come October, a new infrared image of the Loch Ness Monster had cryptozoologists -- those who specialize in searching for large, unproven species -- in a tizzy.

Every so often, a new sighting or development in the search for these long-standing legends grabs our attention and fuels our imaginations.

It's a theme common the world over.

In North America, the elusive Bigfoot and other creatures are the stuff of mountaineering legend. Across the mountainous terrain of Tibet and Nepal, meanwhile, it's all about the legendary Yeti or Abominable Snowman.

Yet perhaps no continent has more history of folkloric myths, monsters and demons than Africa.

This is where the human story began, after all, and it remains home to tales of giant reptiles, lost plesiosaurs and snakes with the head of an elephant.

Few of these creatures are as well known as the Loch Ness Monster or the ape-men-type creatures of the mountains in Asia and the U.S.

To set the record straight, we decided to highlight ten examples of African legends that can compare to anything the Scottish lochs or Himalayas have to offer.

by Eoghan Macguire, for CNN
Illustrations by Inez Torre, CNN
Inez Torre/CNN
Many have scoured the chilly waters of Loch Ness in northern Scotland for evidence of a lost plesiosaur or painfully shy marine reptile from the late Triassic period.

Lesser known, however, is the search for Mokele-mbembe, a strikingly similar creature according to descriptions and artists impressions, said to reside in the north of the Republic of Congo.

Numerous sightings have been recorded over the years although there is little in the way of hard evidence to confirm the existence of such a beast.

A French missionary did write of a giant footstep he found while in the area in the late 16th century. But all expeditions since to find Mokele-mbembe have ended without concrete proof.

Some traditions of the local populations,meanwhile, describe Mokele-mbembe as a spirit rather than a corporeal animal.
Inez Torre/CNN
The Ninki Nanka is said to be a giant swamp-dwelling creature found in West African countries such as Senegal and Gambia.

Descriptions vary from town to town and tribe to to tribe but most agree that it is a type of reptile. Some say it is similar in appearance to a crocodile while others contend it is more like a dragon with reflective scales and the ability to spit fire.

Legend has it that few who see the Ninki Nanka live to to tell the tale. Most people who see it will die within a few weeks -- if the monster hasn't already dragged them off to the swamp when it is spotted.

A team of British cryptozoologists travelled to Gambia in 2006 to look for the Ninki Nanka and take testimony of those who claimed to have seen it.

While the group recorded no sightings on their trip, they reportedly met one man who described seeing a giant creature 50 meters long and one meter wide.

The man said he only survived thanks to a herbal potion he was given, although the cryptozoologists recognised there was no way of verifying the veracity of this story.
Inez Torre/CNN
A giant serpent-like creature with the head of a horse or, in some other descriptions a zebra, Inkanyamba is said to live in the deep pools beneath Howick Falls in the north of South Africa.

The Zulu tribe of the surrounding region once believed the Inkanyamba's anger was the cause of seasonal violent storms.
Those who awoke it from its slumber, invited its wrath in the form of tornadoes, heavy rains and floods.

According to a reference in the "Encyclopedia of Religion and nature," the legend of the Inkanyamba appears on primitive cave paintings found in KwaZula-Natal dating back thousands of years.

Some tourist websites even report residents of KwaZula-Natal fearing Inkanyamba attacks during violent storms as recently as 1998.
Inez Torre/CNN
A Jengu is "a beautiful mermaid like creature" with "wooly hair and a gap-toothed smile" that inhabits rivers and seas, according to "The Mythical Creatures Bible" book by Brenda Rosen.

Said to have the power to cure illness and bring good fortune to those who worship them, a Jengu (or Miengu, when mentioned in plural) is most commonly associated with the Sawa ethnic groups of coastal Cameroon.

In some Sawa tribes like the Duala peoples, the Miengu were once afforded a cult-like status due the belief that they could act as intermediaries between humans and the spirits.

Tales similar to the Miengu legend can also be found in other West African countries and even as far afield as the Caribbean and South America.
Inez Torre/CNN
Rompo is a mythological beast with the head of a hare, arms like a badger, legs like a bear, a skeletal torso and human ears.

According to a description in the book "Beasts and Monsters" by Anthony Horowitz, it is hungry for human flesh and sings a sonorous tune to itself as it feasts.

The legend of the Rompo is known in a number of African countries including Zimbabwe, Uganda South Africa and DR Congo.
Tales of a similarly dastardly creature can also be found across India as well.
A giant freshwater creature recorded in the mythology of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes of South Africa, the Grootslang is said to be one of the first animals the gods ever created.

A cross between an elephant and a snake, differing accounts say it has great strength and intelligence as well as a desire to horde diamonds and precious stones.

The words groot and slang themselves are Afrikaans and can be roughly translated into "great serpent."

According to the 2002 book "Mysterious Creatures" by George M. Eberhart, a number of sightings of a "water monster" that was larger than a hippo as well as that of a "monstrous serpent" were recorded across various locations in South Africa by western explorers between the late 1800s and the middle of the 20th century.
Inez Torre/CNN
A one-eyed batwing monster that smells of sulfur, Popo Bawa is a shapeshifter that can disguise itself as either animals or humans during the night hours.

It has a vicious reputation for both physically and sexually assaulting its male and female victims.

Legend has it that Popo Bawa forces its casualties to tell their friends and neighbors of their experience lest it will return to attack again.

The BBC reported in 2007 that residents of Zanzibar became so worried about attacks from Popo Bawa that many chose to sleep outside their homes, believing the cycloptic beast only attacked people who were in their own beds.
Inez Torre/CNN
Few cultures do fearsome deities like the ancient Egyptians.

The snarling, snapping, carnivorous Ammit is one such gruesome creature from the time of the pharaohs.

A female demon that was part lion, part hippopotamus and part crocodile, Ammit would devour the souls of the recently dead if they were adjudged to have lived a life of vice.

An entry in the 2010 Frommer's travel guide book describes Ammit as the "personification of divine retribution" and the bringer of "a second death" to those who fail when their heart is placed upon "the scales of justice."
Inez Torre/CNN
The Impundulu is a vampire-like creature that can be found in the folklore of many South African tribes.

It takes the form of a black and white bird, often as big as a human being, and is said to to have "forked lightning in its droppings and thunder (in) the beating of its wings," according to one legend reported in the book "Sorcery and sovereignty" by Sean Redding.

Its vampiric nature -- the 2010 book "Vampire Legends and Myths" describe the Impundulu as having an insatiable appetite for blood -- has also captured the imagination of many modern storytellers.

References to the Impundulu can be found in numerous recent vampire novels and stories.
Inez Torre/CNN
The Abada is a creature that bears more than a striking resemblance to the mythical unicorn popularized in various forms of Western folklore.

Rather than the iconic single horn of the unicorn, the Abada has two horns upon its crown.

Like the unicorn, however, the sharp prongs of the Abada are believed to contain cures for diseases and antidotes to poisons.

The Abada legend primarily hails from what is modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo but reports of similar creatures passed down from generation to generation have also been recorded in the likes of North and South Sudan as well.
Inez Torre/CNN