Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why Oll wants to go to the Gambia

I’ve been fascinated by tales of giant semi-aquatic lizards in Sub-Saharan and central Africa since I was a boy and to be able to look for one, and maybe even find evidence it exists is an opportunity not to be missed. As an ecologist I also hope to investigate the local flora and fauna in an attempt to find out whether the area can possibly support a large unknown animal.

In order to monitor the fish population I will be performing mark-recapture tests using a net. The fish caught in the first catch will be marked and a week later the nets will be used again in the same place. The proportion of fish recaptured from the first catch in the second catch should, once fed into a formula, give a reasonable estimate of population size. This should give some idea whether the area could support a large predator that feeds on fish. It doesn’t necessary follow that that predator is the Ninki-Nanka but it is important to monitor such things to improve our chances of finding the creature if it exists. It is also important to find out as much as possible about an area where a crypid is said to lurk as, should the creature be discovered, it would give a head start to attempts to understand the species and knowledge gained can be applied to claims of similar creatures.

I am also interested to find out the identity of ‘Gambo’ the beast of bungalow beach. Ever since the story of its discovery and burial was first reported, theories have sprung up to explain what it may be ranging from the sensible and prosaic through to the strange and wondrous. Should we find and unearth the carcass of Gambo, said by the time it was washed up on the beach to resemble a pliosaur, then finally there will be a concrete answer as to it’s identity. My own opinion is that it was possibly a beaked whale, but that opinion could change when we get a look at the carcass. We know less about the oceans than we do about the moon so it is possible an unknown animal might have washed up on a Gambian beach in the 1980s and it will be interesting to find out if Gambo was a rarely seen species or maybe something completely new to science. Strange new species do turn up from time to time in our oceans, the most famous example in recent times being the coelacanth which first turned up in a South African fish market in 1938 but had previously been thought to be extinct for several million years.

Why Suzi wants to go to the Gambia

For me, the Gambia expedition is the chance to go on a unique, grass roots adventure. It is an opportunity for me to see a part of the world I have not yet seen, and to absorb myself in a completely different culture and mythology without treading the oh-so-familiar backpacker’s route.

I am excited about having the chance to experience some hands-on cryptozoological research, and looking forward to helping keep the expedition a truly interactive experience, one where people all around the world can log on and experience our findings as and when we discover them.

Why Lisa wants to go on the expedition

Unlike Chris this will be my first time to the Gambia, and as such I am travelling with an open mind and with even more wide open eyes. On the whole I found to my surprise, West Africa is a very poorly studied country with regard to its flora and fauna and as such falls well behind its eastern and southern counterparts. The Gambia, which is the smallest country in West Africa, is very rich in biodiversity, however very little is known about it. The sense of genuinely venturing into the unknown with this type of expedition is becoming an increasingly rare experience and as such fills me with a huge adrenalin rush of excitement, and I am looking forward to it immensely

There are many points of interest for me on this expedition, but one of the main ones is, how the Ninki-nanka is perceived by the locals in their culture and belief systems, and hopefully we will be able to clarify/establish weather this alleged 30ft creature is genuine of flesh and blood, or are its origins more spiritually based? Is there any connection with other creatures that have been sighted in other parts of Africa?As you can see the questions and debate surrrounding this topic are endless.

Either way you just can’t beat the feeling of the possibility of documenting recently previously unheard accounts of mysterious creatures roaming around the mangrove swamps of the Gambia!!

I am not the sort of person to sit in comfort and postulate over these notions and theories, “I’m a get up and get out there, see for yourself kinda girl”, and with the wealth of knowledge and expertise within the team I am sure its going to be ‘one memorable expedition of adventure!’

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Why Chris wants to go on the expedition

Although I have been to the Gambia 13 times previously I haven't really had time to properly study anything there myself. The College trips were in a way frustrating because of the time and effort spent in organisation, which detracted from serious study.On this trip I am not responsible for students and staff, so hopefully it is easier to look at what I want!

Whilst the trip is primarily to investigate reports of two different exotic reptilian monsters alleged to have been seen in the country I am personally hoping to see something a lot smaller, but almost as rare. In the 1920s a new species of lizard, called Armitages' Skink was first described. It comes from a small area of the country, close towhere we are staying. It is not found anywhere else in the world. As far as I know living specimens of it have never been photographed, and that will be a nice challenge.Additionally the trip will enable me to see what impact the presence of european fishing boats has made on the local fishing industry.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Armitage's skink

We are not just searching for the two giant reptiles. We are also hoping to get photographs of a much smaller reptile - one of the world's most elusive lizards. Chris Moiser tells us more:

Armitage’s Skink
Chalcides armitagei

Named after its discoverer Captain C. H. Armitage by E. G. Boulenger then head of reptiles at London Zoo who first described it in 1922. To look at it is a fairly unremarkable small lzard about 5” long with a tail of about 3.5”. Unlike most of the other lizards in the area where it comes from it has 3 toes on each limb.Captain Cecil Hamilton Armitage (1869-1933) was the Governor of the Gambia from 1920 – 1927 and was described as a generous donor to the Zoological Gardens of London.

The 3 (living) specimens of this lizard having arrived in a collection of reptiles that Armiatge had sent from the Gambia. These specimens ultimately ended up in the British Museum (preserved), where 2 are labelled “Gambia” and one “Cape St Mary”In 1989 the lizards were effectively rediscovered by The Gambian Dwarf Crocodile Project people. They believed it to be restricted to a narrow sandy coastal fringe which was rapidly being lost due to the increase in tourist hotel construction. The site where the found the animals in 1989 had been cleared for construction in 1990. An FAO survey suggests that they may also exist in the Tanji area.

Chris Moiser June 2006

The creature is so obscure thatthe only picture we can find of it is here:

Saturday, June 10, 2006

By the way, you might have wondered....

You will have seen that the Gambia Expedition is officially named "The J.T.Downes Memorial expedition", and you may have wondered why.

J.T.Downes was my father, and he died earlier this year. He was a big supporter of the CFZ, and during his final illness he liked nothing more than to have Richard and Me sitting on his bed, telling stories of our adventures, and plotting ourplans for the future. He spent many years living in West Africa, and was particularly interested in the forthcoming expedition. He had been planning to donate some money towards it, but died before he was able to do so, and so my brother and I decided that some of the money donated at his funeral service should go towards the expedition, which we decided to sponsor in his name...

For those of you interested, here is an excerpt from his obituary:

"John Downes was born in Plymouth in1925. He joined the Merchant Navy in 1943 and served as a Communication's Officer during the Battle of the Atlantic. He returned to shore in 1947, and after marrying his childhood sweetheart Mary, worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in North Devon. In 1952 he joined the Colonial Service in Nigeria and together with Mary, worked in some of the most isolated parts of North Nigeria on the southern borders of the Sahara Desert. Often they were the first Europeans to have visited these remote regions for over half a century.

In 1960 John was transferred to Hong Kong where he rose to the rank of Assistant Colonial Secretary, and as a commisioned officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, founded the Hong Kong Sea Cadet Corps. His outstanding work within the Civil Service was duly recognised when he was made a companion to the Queen and awarded the Imperial Service Order. Unfortunately John was forced to take early retirement on medical grounds in 1971, and he and Mary spent the rest of their lives together in Woolfardisworthy, North Devon, where they quickly earned the respect and love of the local community. John became a financial manager for many local businesses, and was a tireless pillar of the community and church. He renewed his love of the sea by becoming the Commanding Officer of TS Revenge, the Bideford Sea Cadet Corps and became an inspiration for generations of young people.

During his retirement, John became an acknowledged author and was an expert in such diverse areas as African History, and Devonshire dialect. He was the author of several books including `A Dictionary of Devonshire Dialect` (1988), `Granfer's Bible Stories` (2005) and `Fragrant Harbours, Distant Rivers` (2006). He was widowed in 2002, and after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease, died peacefully in North Devon District Hospital on Tuesday February 14th aged 81. He is survived by his two sons, Jonathan Downes, (46) - Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology - and The Rev'd Richard Downes BEM CF (42), a Chaplain to the Forces in the Army. "


As I am sure that you will know, the weeks leading up to an expedition are particularly hectic ones. There will be a lot of little bulletins like this one over the next few weeks, butin the meantime I thought you might like to know that the new,expanded, CFZ online shop is now open for business here, and it contains a whole section of merchandise relating to the Gambia trip...

Please support us by buying some of it. All profits go straight back
into the CFZ....

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Richard's thoughts on the expedition

At sometime in their lives an explorer will hear the call of the Dark Continent. Most of my work has been done in the Far East. The orient is beautiful and mysterious, but nowhere epitomizes primal savagery and shadowy weirdness the way Africa does.

It’s been 21 years since I set foot in Africa, so this trip means a lot to me. Anyone who has read Bernard Heuvelmans’ “On The Track Of Unknown Animals” cannot have helped but think of this as a continent seething with monsters. Heuvelmans wrote of giant flying reptiles, monster snakes lurking in swamps, great grey cats slinking through the night, and modern-day dragons.

Deep from the jungles and marshlands of central and western Africa come stories of huge and dangerous reptiles. They have many names. In the Congo it’s Mokele Mbembe, in Zimbabwe it is known as Chipekwe, in northern Angola it is called Isiququmadevu. In the Gambia the African dragon is called Ninki-Nanka.

It’s strange to think of the popular holiday destination as the home of a monster. But away from the tourist areas there are still great stretches of mangrove, jungle, and swampland in this tiny country. In neighboring Senegal there is even more trackless miles for the creature to lurk.

The stories of Ninki-Nanka stretch back to time in memorial. My first exposure to them came in an account written by Dr Thomas Hardie Dalrymple who was based in the Gambia in the 1930s. Once, the beast caused a panic when it rose from the river one night but the swarms of mosquitoes prevented Dalrymple from seeing the beast himself. On another occasion he saw a crowd of locals excitedly talking about how the white man had photographed Ninki-Nanka. On investigation the photo was of a model dinosaur in an American magazine.

Just after WW1, a night watchman at a lake that was being used to provide water for the capital Bathurst was allegedly killed by a Ninki-Nanka.

These stories were intriguing but I presumed that the belief in Ninki-Nanka had died out. I asked my friend Chris Moiser, a regular visitor to The Gambia, to enquire about it.
Both Chris and I were amazed to discover that not only was the beast still very much believed in, but it had allegedly killed people as recently as the 1990s! Chris found that even well-educated people like teachers were very, very, frightened of Ninki-Nanka. Even at governmental level, the dragon is taken seriously. In the 1980s a pollution even occurred along the River Gambia. A black slime flowed downstream and killed lots of fish. One theory the government proposed was that a dragon had died up-river, and the slime was poison from its carcass.

I think the Ninki-Nanka is a straggler from further south in Africa. It may well be a species of colossal monitor lizard. Whatever the truth, this will be the first dedicated expedition to search for this animal.

As for Bungalow Beach and its mystery carcass, the story has been kicking around for 23 years and no-one has been back to dig up the beach. If we dig a hole and find nothing, we have still put the story to bed once and for all. If we dig a hole and find the body of an animal we can then go about identifying it and solving the puzzle. Either way we get a result.

Going for Gambo

We are just about to embark on our most ambitious expedition yet! In just under a month, a six man expedition from the Centre for Fortean Zoology will be travelling to the West African Country of the Gambia, in search of two unknown dragon-like creatures.

This blog is part of a wide range of expedition coverage, which will mean that you can follow the adventures of Richard and the gang from the comfort of your very own homes!