Late one afternoon in 1932, zoologist Ivan Sanderson was leading an expedition across the Assumbo Mountains in Cameroon when he saw a "monstrous bird" skimming low across a river.
It soon saw the expedition and attacked.
Expedition members dropped to the ground to avoid being hauled off in the gaping jaws of the creature. "The bird came straight toward us," Dr. Sanderson said. "As for myself, its open jaws brimming with sharp teeth narrowly missed my head."
The creature had batlike wings, a face like a monkey and a mouth full of sharp teeth. Its wingspan measured more than 12 feet -- twice the size of the New Guinea fruit bat, one of the largest birds in the world.
Known locally as the olitiau, the winged horror that buzzed Dr. Sanderson's expedition is similar to dozens of other strange birds said to inhabit remote corners of Africa. In some regions they are called "lizard birds" and resemble flying crocodiles; in other areas they are known as "death birds" or "devil birds" and bear no resemblance to any known species.
The Kaonde people of western Zambia say Jiundu swamp conceals a terrifying "lizard bird" called the kongamato. They liken it to a long-tailed lizard or crocodile with batlike wings and a beak filled with long, sharp teeth.
The description matches that of a rhamphorhynchid -- one of prehistory's famous flying reptiles, the pterosaurs. When shown illustrated animal books, terrified villagers have consistently selected pictures of pterosaurs as a depiction of the kongamato.
Identical beasts have also been reported from Angola, Mount Kenya, Zaire, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Even eminent South African zoologist J.L. Smith, co-discoverer in 1938 of the prehistoric fish known as the coelacanth, believed it possible that unknown, fabulous creatures exist in the wild.
"The concept of 20th century pterosaurs is undeniably very radical," noted Karl P.N. Shuker, a British zoologist who has written extensively on mysterious African creatures, "but if any have indeed survived, it is precisely the type of impenetrable, unexplored terrain afforded by localities such as the Jiundu swamp where we could expect them to have remained undetected by science."
Other legends tell of birdlike animals that can invade a person's body at night and lay eggs. When the eggs hatch, the newborn creatures consume the victims from within, then burst from the body and fly away.
In his book, Ashanti and Beyond, British traveler Sir Allan Cardinall related how villagers were afraid of "devil flyers," huge birds that attacked their villages at night and killed sleeping women and children. Sir Allan also reported that several chiefs he interviewed said they were able to transform into batlike creatures and attack neighboring tribesmen.