Sometime in 1925, a six-year-old girl disappeared from a village in Uasin Gishu. She was pulled violently through the fence of thorns that surrounded the village. The bloodied thorns suggested that chances of finding her alive were certainly nil. If they found her body, they would find her scalped and her skull cracked open. Chemosit, the brain-eating terror that roamed the night, had struck again.
In response, the colonial government sent in Captain William Hitchens, an officer with the Intelligence and Administrative Services of East Africa. Hitchens was an adventurer with numerous encounters hunting beasts in East Africa. In 1900, he had reported sighting a small biped animal called agogwe somewhere in the Wembare plains in Tanganyika.
Once he arrived in Uasin Gishu, Hitchens set about establishing where the animal lived. The villagers believed it lived eight kilometers away and the erstwhile explorer set out to with his hunting dog. The hunt turned out unfruitful on the first few nights. But then the beast found him. One dark night, Hitchens was startled from sleep by a blood-curling scream and a commotion outside that was bringing his tent down. By the time he escaped from the mess, all he could see was a trail of blood. The rope he had used to tether his dog to the hunting pole was still there. The dog was gone.
The trail also had paw-prints, a few times larger than a man’s hand or a lion’s paw and showing imprints of claws. But what stuck in Hitchens mind was the scream. “The most awful howl I have ever heard split the night. The sheer demoniac horror of it froze me still. Never have I heard, nor do I wish to hear again, such a howl.” The Nandi Bear had found its hunter.
Most of the accounts we have of such encounters are of European explorers and administrators, but tales of the animal did exist among the Nandi and other tribes. Among the Lumbwa, the predator decimated 67 goats by ripping out their brains in 1919. In 1913, CW Hobley wrote about a similarly frightening animal that had been killed in Ngao in Tana River.
The Nandi Bear is known among the Nandi by many names: Vere, Kerit, Chemoset, Sabrookoo, Duba, Kikambangwe, Ngoloko depending on the place of sighting. It was known as Ngoloko in Tanzania and the coastal regions, as Kikomba in West Africa, as Gadett among the Lumbwa of Kenya, and as Shivuverre among the Luhya of Kakamega. It is likely they were different animals as the Ngoloko, for example, was often described as being bigger with larger ears and a prominent nose. It was also bipedal unlike the Nandi Bear which could comfortably use both two and four feet. Ngoloko mainly ate honey and drunk blood and buffalo milk. It was rumored to have 3 toes, a large prehensile toe and three small toes.
In Nandi folklore, Chemosit resembled a giant bear or hyena with powerfully-built shoulders, a sloping back and a long pointed head and snot. The ears were noticeably short for such a large monster. It had a thick brown fur/hair. It had large teeth and walked upright, ranging from 4-6 ft. Its feet must have been large, given the size of footprints it left behind. Some sightings claimed the presence of a short tail while most claimed the animal had no tail. The ferocious monster had an appetite for brains, and always hunted at night.
One of the earliest recorded accounts of the Nandi Bear was in 1905 when explorer Geoffrey Williams encountered a beast in Uasin Gishu. The ferocious monster was heavily-built and had a long pointed head. It looked like a bear, he would later say, but bears had not been seen this far south in Africa for thousands of years. Williams did not talk about the frightening experience for 7 years, and only then, after other sightings were reported. One of the most credible was by the District Commissioner of Eldoret, NEF Corbett. While fishing in the Sirigoi River in March 1913, he encountered the beast but survived to tell the story. “It was evidently drinking and was just below me. I heard something going away and it shambled across the stream into the bush,” he later said.
In 1913, builders of the Magadi Railway also reported being stalked by a monster. The beast’s footprints were often found in the area around the construction site. The project engineer, GW Hickes, also faced it. His encounter led to one of the most detailed descriptions anyone had at the time. The animal that chased him was “…about as high as a lion, color it was tawny, very shaggy long hair, high with a short neck and stumpy nose.”
Such reports triggered the interest of anthropologists, researchers, scientists and adrenaline junkies.
Men hunted the beast but no one ever caught it, or showed its carcass. There was an unbelievable story that it had been killed by a charging rhino. Another story by Blayne Percival said that the beast had been trapped in a hut in 1914 and the hut burned down by villagers. Three years later, man called Heri wa Mabruko described accompanying Mboni tribesmen as they hunted down the animal in 1917. With no carcass to show, all these sound like legends and offer little credence to the theory that Chemosit was a bear. There was little agreement of whether it was the same animal or even members of the same species. The nights were badly lit in the days before electricity, and tales of monsters often formed a crucial part of folklore.
The only candidate among bears was the Atlas Bear that roamed the Atlas Mountains of North Africa during prehistoric times. It is mentioned in the records of Rome’s conquest of the region. The last of the species to have been killed was shot by Morrocan hunters in the late 19th Century. The bear had never been spotted this far south of Sahara, so the Atlas Bear was cancelled out as a likely candidate.
So, if it wasn’t a bear that was stalking the Nandi, what was it? It could have been a honey badger, a giant hyena, an aardvark or some unknown species. No one, even the people who claim to have seen it, can agree what exactly it is, or was.
But could it have been anything else? Hyenas generally avoid human beings and if they attack, they tend to do so in packs. The tallest a hyena has been known to grow was 4 ft 5″. The aardvark is an ant-eater while baboons are not nearly as large as the Nandi Bear has been described. Colonel Meinertzhagen claimed the Nandi had identified a chimpanzee as Chemosit. Ngoloko could have been an ostrich.
Louis Leakey offered that the monster was a surviving chalicothere. Chalicotheres are thought to be extinct, the group includes rhinos and horses. Archeological reconstructions of the animal reveal a beast with the head and ears of a bear but the body close to a giant hyena. Their bones were found in areas around East Africa, offering some weight to this theory. For it to have been one, it had to have remained undiscovered in the Rift Valley until the 19th Century.
It became a part of popular culture as the inspiration of the comic Tarzan’s Son and the Comic Bear. In the 1963 comic, Tarzan’s son Korak fights the ferocious beast. In a 1969 issue titled Flight from Doom, the animal terrorizes a race of mini-people.
Despite so many sightings, the Nandi Bear has eluded hunters and scientists. The beast was last sighted in 1960 in Kipkabus when it invaded a hut and chased a man called Angus McDonald for five minutes. After that the trail went cold, and there have been no recorded sightings for half a century. Did the species die out? Or was the animal pushed further into the forests by human settlement? Today, the animal is classified as a cryptid, or unconfirmed animal, and still evokes the interest of crypto-hunters.
Like many others before and after him, William Hitchens set out hunting for the beast that had made away with his loyal dog. He never found it, and he never found the dog.
One Story is good,
till Another is told.