Rumors have long flourished that a large, dinosaurlike creature inhabits central Africa.
Interviews with Bantu tribesmen, pygmies and other natives of the region have produced shocking stories about encounters with a long-necked, water-dwelling beast of elephantine proportions that occasionally attacks and kills without provocation.
In parts of Cameroon and the Congo, people are afraid to venture into rivers and jungles, said to be the lair of Mokele-Mbembe, the dreaded monster.
Western researchers say the creature might be a sauropod, a type of dinosaur that could have survived the mass extinction of its reptilian cousins 65 million years ago.
So far, scientists have failed to find proof of the legendary creature's existence. That might change, however, come November, when dinosaur-hunter William "Bill" Gibbons sets off in search of new evidence.
Mr. Gibbons, author of numerous books and articles on cryptozoology -- the study of rare and unknown animals -- said he wants "compelling proof" of Mokele-Membe's existence once and for all.
"I am convinced that what we are dealing with is a small or `pygmy' sauropod," he said. "This is an area which produces the pygmy chimpanzee, the pygmy hippo and the pygmy elephant. There are even reports of pygmy gorillas living along remote areas of the Gabon coast. Why not a pygmy dinosaur that has adapted to life in a seasonally inundated swamp?"
Equipped with night vision equipment, a helicopter, sonar equipment and pygmy trackers, Mr. Gibbons' team will spend six weeks interviewing witnesses and filming locations within the range of Mokele-Mbembe, or "MM" for short. A documentary on the project, financed by Adventure Films of London, will air on the Discovery Channel.
Mr. Gibbons, a native of Scotland who now lives in Canada, has spent most of his life seeking Mokele-Mbembe. His interest was ignited after he read about the efforts of other scientists to find the creature -- especially those of cryptozoologist Roy P. Mackal.
"The historical reports of dinosaurlike animals in central Africa convinced me that this was worth spending time on," Mr. Gibbons explained.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Gibbons' first expedition to Africa was cut short by the outbreak of civil war. In 1992 he led another team to the Congo, where they discovered a new species of monkey, the crestless mangabey.
Mr. Gibbons, a professor of creation science apologetics and regional dean for the Dominion of Canada, said he has interviewed dozens of natives who are convinced that Mokele-Mbembe is real.
"The pygmies are perfectly familiar with all the animals of the swamps," he said. "They do not regard the Mokele-Mbembe as being any different from any other animal. They do, however, regard it as being a dangerous animal if encountered at close quarters in the river."
He said "countless" Bantu hunters and fishermen have seen the creature and "all agree that Mokele-Mbembe is rare and dangerous."
While mainstream scientists generally scoff at efforts by cryptozoologists to find the creature, Mr. Gibbons said they will "change their tune" when compelling evidence is found to support its place in the ecological system.
"Scientists will be scrambling to explain this one," he said. "My only concern is that the French government (Cameroon's former colonial masters) will persuade the government of Cameroon to close the area to foreign scientists (except for the French) and have the entire area exclusively for themselves and their own interests."
Asked why so many mainstream scientists find it difficult to accept the possibility of Mokele-Mbembe's existence, Mr. Gibbons said, "Some cannot believe that a dinosaur has survived until the present time."
He added, "Some scientists have a private interest in MM but believe that any public display of support for the idea of living dinosaurs might seriously curtail or damage their careers."
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd's latest book is 100 of the World's Greatest Mysteries: Strange Secrets of the Past Revealed. He can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.