My first visit to the Gambia in West Africa was in 1980, largely because it was the only sub-Saharan country I could actually afford to get to. Ten years later, as a science lecturer at a College of Further Education, I hatched the idea of returning to Gambia with some of my students on a series of field trips. For the first of these, I set off with 11 students and two other members of staff, our primary objective being to study the mangrove creeks with their highly adapted flora and specialist fauna, as well as to spend time at a small reserve whose nice range of monkey species makes "niche separation" readily observable.
Virtually all Gambia's tourist hotels are on the Atlantic coast; walking north along the beach from our hotel, we came to another called Bungalow Beach, and I remembered something I'd read some years previously. A letter had appeared in BBC Wildlife magazine in 1986 asking for help identifying a dead animal that had been washed up (and subsequently buried) on the beach. The description was that of a plesiosaur-type creature – something that rightly should have been extinct for more than 65 million years. I suppose this was the incident that started my interest in African cryptozoology.
The trip's success led to repeat visits, and saw my interest in cryptozoology growing. In subsequent years, we returned to the Bungalow Beach area, and on one occasion even managed a quick late-night excavation roughly where the body of the mysterious cryptid is allegedly buried. We didn't find anything, but at least confirmed that the sand was deep enough for the burial to have taken place. Circumstantially, we also discovered that this beach is one on which a lot of dead marine life – dolphins, and, increasingly, turtles, for instance – is washed up.
As our knowledge of Gambian wildlife – both cryptozoological and conventional – increased, we became aware of a creature known as the "Ninki-Nanka".
Ninki-Nanka is known across the westernmost part of West Africa, throughout Gambia, Senegal and Guinea. The diversity of peoples and languages in these areas mean that it is also known as "Niniganne" (in Guinea), "Ninger" or "Ningiri" in the Fouta Djalon (the mountainous area of Guinea where the Gambia river starts), and "Rianseau" in Guinea Bissau.
The oldest reference that I could find to the Ninki-Nanka was a 1944 article by MDW Jeffries in the Journal of the Royal African Society. Jeffries actually considers the possibility of flying prehistoric survivors or giant bats, but in passing briefly mentions a native tradition on the Gambia River. He reports that older fishermen on the river still told stories of an "enormous monster that comes out at night from the ooze and slime of the mangroves and devours whatever it meets". He then discounts the existence of the animal on the basis that it must leave massive footprints, and these were not found.
After the Yorkshire television series Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World was broadcast in 1980, Sir Arthur received a letter from Dr Thomas Hardie Dalrymple, a retired medical officer from the West African Medical Service. While stationed on the Gambia River in 1935, Dalrymple heard the natives making a lot of noise one evening. Enquiring in the morning, he was told that "Ninkenanka" had appeared the previous night. The animal was described to him as having "the face of a horse, a neck like a giraffe, a body like a crocodile, a long tail, and being about 30ft [9m] long". It apparently emerged from the swamps only occasionally, on moonlit nights. Several months later, Dalrymple heard of another sighting and set off immediately to look for it; unfortunately, he was driven back by mosquitoes.
On a later occasion, when visiting a riverside town, Dalrymple heard a disturbance in the market. When he went to see what was causing it, he found one of his domestic staff had acquired a copy of a magazine entitled Animals of the World. In it was printed a picture of a concrete model dinosaur in one of New York's parks. The crowd was shouting that the white man had photographed the Ninki-Nanka. Sadly, Dalrymple does not describe what the dinosaur type was.
Further investigations on my part revealed the odd, passing, reference to the Ninki-Nanka, typically in the context of native superstitions or beliefs and usually with less than a paragraph devoted to the subject. "Plenty Bad Devil" is the pidgin English soubriquet used for the mysterious creature in more than one book.
Possibly the most interesting report that has come to light is a paper in French by Beatrice Appia which translates as "Remarks on the water genie in Guinea". This was published in the Journal de la Société des Africanistes at some point in the 1940s. In fact, the content of the paper was largely researched by other workers and passed to the author before she went to Africa in 1937. The study concentrates on the country to the south of the Gambia, including the Casamance region of Senegal and much of what is now the two Guineas. Different tribes seem to have different ideas of the appearance of the Ninki-Nanka, but most settle on a large, snake-like animal with supernatural powers rather than a sauropod-type dinosaur. Typically, it has a horn or a diamond on its head. Several of the tribes believe that the Ninki-Nanka is born from one egg in the middle of a clutch of python eggs.
Generally, belief in the animal is stronger near large rivers and weaker in villages farther away from them. Most people assume that the mature animal lives in the water and only comes on land on nights when there is torrential rain. Some have the immature animal living in or under a baobab tree, and only moving into the water when it attains a certain size. In some societies, to see one is either very bad luck or signifies death within days. In others, owning one – or part of one – may lead to great wealth for the owner, although it may also shorten his life. In many areas, it is not appropriate to speak of it, and certainly not to visitors – which doesn't help the visiting researcher at all.
The existence of the Ninki-Nanka is still very much a matter of personal belief in present-day Gambia. Although tourism has altered much of the coastal region and brought in much-needed foreign currency, the culture is still, in the African sense, a multi-tribal one, with a variety of beliefs varying from animism to Christianity and Islam. I have talked to people who are firmly aware that the Ninki-Nanka is a myth, and to others who know it isn't. One can show me a hole, not two miles from a tourist hotel, where a Ninki-Nanka lived in the days of his father. A member of the Jola tribe whom I have known for several years, and who is a good follower of Islam, was well aware of the Ninki-Nanka but remarkably reluctant to talk to us about it. He also made it quite clear that we should not be talking about it.
Assan, a Wolof taxi driver of several years acquaintance, was certain that the Ninki-Nanka was a real animal, but believed that it was now very scarce and that only a few still existed, living upriver. A few years previously, a bridge had collapsed in the Upper River division of the country. This was, he said, the work of the Ninki-Nanka; one had lived in a hole near the bridge, and had been disturbed. He personally hadn't seen one, but he knew several people who had – all had gone mad as a result.
On the same visit, I met Adama Touray, a silversmith at the Kotu Beach tourist market. He was producing Ninki-Nanka earrings, which he had run as a line for several years. The following year he introduced a Ninki-Nanka pendant. Both lines of jewellery depicted a four legged, scaly creature, with more than a touch of the Welsh dragon about it.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Makasuta Cultural Forest Park started to be developed. This is in an area known as Mandina Creek, which is a branch of the main Gambia River. The area was previously untouched by the locals, who considered it to be a sacred forest, full of juju, where the Ninki-Nanka lived. I had visited Mandina Creek in 1993 when researching an 1894 battle that had taken place there during the Soninke-Marabout wars. The area was remarkable because dense mangrove ran for 300–400 metres (980ft–1,300ft) between the open river and the savannah woodland. This would make an ideal habitat for an animal that did not wish to be seen, and a very easy place for humans to get lost, despite it being relatively narrow. In fairness, it could also be a place where the odd large crocodile lived; although this near to the coast the water tends to be very brackish, and not what crocodiles would like (those near the coast normally stay in freshwater pools rather than the river).
The local crocodiles in Gambia are mainly Nile crocodiles, and the local subspecies (Crocodylus niloticus chamses) tends not to grow more than eight to nine feet (2.4m – 2.7m) long. The record size for a Nile crocodile seems to be about 21ft (6.4m) – this specimen was shot in what is now Tanzania in 1905. In a book called Enter Gambia – birth of an improbable nation by Berkeley Rice, published in 1967, there is a reference to a 27ft (8.2m) crocodile being caught and shot at Diabugu, in the Upper River Division, and the district officer having to use a lorry to pull the body out of the river. The incident seems to have taken place in 1964 or 1965. While a 27ft crocodile is just about possible, it seems unlikely in this part of Africa. So it would seem – assuming the story has any basis in fact – that either a large crocodile was killed and its length exaggerated, or some unknown animal similar to a crocodile was killed.
Another, more recent, report from the Upper River Division concerned a pollution incident which killed a large number of fish and caused many stomach upsets in the local population. This occurred in July 1993 at the start of the rainy season and was reported in the Gambian Daily Observer on 19 July. The newspaper suggested several possible causes for the pollution, one of which was that "the decayed remains of a dragon may have been washed into the river by the heavy rains". It appears to be more acceptable to the population to refer generally to dragons than specifically to the Ninki-Nanka.
The range of descriptions of the Ninki-Nanka across the westernmost part of Africa are clearly quite diverse, varying from a large serpent with, possibly, a precious stone on its head to an animal reminiscent of a large crocodile or a sauropod dinosaur. Such broadness of description may, of course, suggest that the name Ninki-Nanka, a bit like Mokele-Mbembe in Central Africa, is actually a generic term for a large and terrifying animal, and has taken on different meanings in different places. Alternatively, the animal may be a totally mythical one. But given the November 2004 discovery of Homo floresiensis – a 3ft (1m)-tall, upright walking ape that co-existed with modern man – in Indonesia, which has given us a new insight into the myths of "little people", it's perhaps time we looked again at other mythical beasts and beings, with a view to identifying which might be based on real animals that still exist or have existed in the past.