'Fortean Times' (FT136:48)

Gabon's Koolookambas

DON COUSINS has worked with captive apes and has over 40 papers and articles published (mostly on primates and elephants) and a book 'The Magnificent Gorilla'.

The former French colony of Gabon is about the size of Britain. It's a wild place, about 85 per cent tropical rainforest with a low human population, but it is home to an abundance of primate species including gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills and others. My interest is in the 'undiscovered' ones.

In this region of West Africa, apes are regarded, with some contradiction, as cult figures, competitors, enemies and monsters, while their body parts are often used for medicine and magic.

The human-like appearance and behavior makes them a focus for folktales and legends yet reports of manlike cryptids are still scarce. So it was with some interest that I noticed Stephen Holmes' letter in the August 1998 issue of FT (FT113:52).

He told of an encounter with 'wildman' in 1993 on a remote part of the Gabon coast, describing the creature as being less than five feet (1.5m) tall with reddish fur. It had a manlike upright gait as it ran through long grass with its long arms above its head. Mr. Holmes reported that a villager called it 'Sipandjee' and said it had an aggressive nature.

I corresponded with Stephen Holmes, wishing to learn more details, but he could only add that the incident occurred while he was driving in the Gamba area, south of Port Gentil. He had to brake to avoid hitting the creature as it ran across the road. He saw it only for a few seconds.
I made further enquiry and was told that a French person observed a similar creature holding an infant, standing by the side of a road, somewhere in central Gabon.

The belief in chimpanzee-gorilla hybrids is persistent and widespread in Gabon and neighboring countries, with names for them varying with the dialect. In the Bakota language, they are called after the two apes: Koula-nguia (Koula =chimpanzee, Nguia = gorilla). The Bulu people of South Cameroon know them as 'ebot', which, apparently, simply means 'man.' In the Congo-Brazzaville they are 'Dediéka', while in Gabon itself they are called 'Kulu-kamba' or 'Koolookamba.'

Judging from most accounts, Koolookambas appear like large chimpanzees with some gorilloid characteristics (fleshy nose, prognathous face, prominent supraorbital ridges, etc). They are said to be very rare and nearly always solitary. Indeed, some dialects distinguish between 'N'koulou', meaning a chimpanzee living in a band, and 'Koulou-nguira' or 'Koulou-kamba', a solitary chimpanzee.

The French explorer Du Chaillu was the first European to describe the Koolookamba (in his controversial book Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, 1861). He shot a male specimen in southwest Gabon, and described it as a new sub-species, smaller than an adult male gorilla but stockier than a female gorilla. He declared it more closely resembled man than any other ape and that its name mimicked its singular cry of "Kooloo, kooloo."

The fact is that Du Chaillu's description differs from later reports: for example, he refers to a small nose and large ears where more recent reports mention small ears and a fleshy, gorilloid nose. But the skull of Du Chaillu's specimen (together with its skeleton) can still be seen in the British Museum of Natural History; compared to other chimpanzee skulls, it has some unusual features. These features resemble those of a mountain gorilla (rather than a lowland gorilla) so it is inconceivable that Du Chaillu's 'Koolookamba' is a type of mountain chimpanzee.

In his day, primate taxonomy was in its infancy and Du Chaillu himself was always on the lookout for new species. He was so impressed by one chimpanzee's nest building in trees, that he gave it the name 'Troglodytes calvus'; today, we know that all races of chimpanzees build tree nests. The 'Koolookamba', however, is different; due to its solitary behaviour or preference for small groups, it is regarded in Gabon as a separate species or subspecies. It could even be a distinct race.

What has all this got to do with the 'wildman' of Gabon? After all, none of the above accounts mention bipedalism. It is clear, given that chimpanzees and gorillas can vary in their appearance and behaviour as much as humans do, that some individuals favour the upright posture as a means of progression. It has certainly been observed in captive animals: for example Toni, a female gorilla, born in the Columbus Zoo, Ohio, in 1971 habitually walked upright even when pregnant. Permanent bipedalism is also the trait of the adult male chimpanzee known as Oliver - often called 'The Missing Link', see FT120:48-49 - although he might have been taught this at an early age.

Watching apes walk upright can be disconcerting, especially in the wild. When the traveler-author Christine Dodwell saw her first gorilla -- in her truck headlights on an isolated forest track on the Congo-Brazzaville coast -- she called it "an awe-inspiring sight" (in 'Travels with Fortune', 1978). "It was standing on the track ahead of us, then it shook its head and lumbered off among the trees. It didn't scamper on all fours like an ape; it ran almost upright. It was large, with long thick-muscled arms, and its chest was incredibly broad." The ape was guilty of two acts of anomalous behaviour: bipedalism and nocturnalism (gorillas normally bed down before dusk). Many chimpanzees also raise their arms above their heads when walking upright, which is the behaviour Stephen Holmes witnessed on that remote road on the Gabon coast.
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© 'Fortean Times' (FT136:48)

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