The Cryptid Zoo: Nandi Bear

Contemporary science tells us that Africa has no bears at present, though the fossil record tells us that a few lived there in the not-too-distant past. If scientists are wrong and modern Africa does have a bear, it is the Nandi bear, so named because it is sighted by the Nandi tribe more often than by any other people. If the Nandi tribe were the only ones to report this creature, it might be easily dismissed as a creature of folklore, but this is far from the truth. European settlers and explorers have also reported seeing the Nandi bear, often from so close that their descriptions could not be due to a mistaken observation of an ordinary animal; they could only be the truth or outright lies or hallucinations. What they describe, in detail, sounds exactly like a bear, even right down to its postures and mannerisms.

Like most tropical bears, the Nandi bear is small, probably not exceeding five feet in height when standing on its hind legs. It is adept at tree-climbing and often uses this talent to escape from people. Almost all witnesses describe it as brown in color, in fact it resembles the European brown bear (which is exactly the same species as the American brown bear or grizzly, and is found in Asia as well as Europe).

If the Nandi bear exists, what could it be? Some researchers have suggested that it is a surviving remnant population of the Atlas bear. The Atlas bear lived in northern Africa in former times, but the last specimens were supposedly hunted to extinction in Morocco in the 1820s. In addition, the Atlas bear was only supposed to live in the north, but the Nandi bear is reported from the forests of East Africa. Also, the Atlas bear is supposed to be horrible at tree-climbing and to have brownish-black fur on the upperside, bright orange fur on the underside. These problems make it less likely to be an Atlas bear, but you never can tell.

Another possibility is that it is simply the European brown bear. Some members of this species have been recorded as weighing less than 200 pounds. Since tribal tales of the Nandi bear stretch back into the distant past, it is unlikely that Nandi bear lore could be due to a population of European bears planted in Africa by modern Europeans. The Nandi bear could have entered Africa naturally via the Middle East thousands of years ago. Until recent decades, small-sized examples of the European brown bear lived in Israel, Iran and many areas of the Middle East. As long as it wasn't high desert and didn't have too many people, bears could live there.

Thousands of years ago, when the Middle East had more wild areas and fewer people, the European brown bears in southern Israel may have found a way to cross the intervening desert to Egypt, perhaps in a time when that year's rains had been abundant. From the fertile areas of Egypt close to the Nile, they could have traveled southward and found hospitable forests in Eastern Africa to establish a small population. Then, the surging human population could destroy the northerly populations that linked the Middle Eastern brown bears with the African Nandi bears. Cut off from genetic input and living in a new climate, these bears would develop some adaptations even in just a few hundred years, such as becoming small. If there had never been a large number of Nandi bears, we wouldn't necessarily have any record of them other than folklore, until modern scientists managed to prove their existence.

A similar explanation could be put forth to say that the Nandi bear is actually one of the small, tropical bear species from southern Asia, except that the route of travel would be considerably longer. The moon bear would have to come all the way from Afghanistan, and the sloth bear would need to come from India. It would be within the realm of possibility for these bears to have had much larger ranges in the distant past without us knowing about it, but it isn't as likely as the previous explanation. It is easier to believe that the brown bear might have made it to Africa than to believe that these little tropical bears went so far outside their normal habitats.

Others suggest that the Nandi bear is an undiscovered species of giant baboon. This does not fit well with most of the sightings made by westerners. People with European ancestry are very likely to label the Nandi bear as a bear, especially when they see it close up. However, the Nandi tribesmen have always said the Nandi bear is some sort of monkey. This is understandable if the creature is a bear, because of how people perceive animals. People who had no traditional experience with bears would have to compare it to another animal, and it is known that native people in areas with bears but without monkeys often say that the bear is the animal that looks the most like a man. Other suggestions, such as a new species of aardvark, seem to belie the descriptions of the Nandi bear. You would have to undermine witness integrity before these animals could fit, and once you undermined witness integrity, you don't have to pay any attention to these reports anyway.

Another possibility that has been suggested by cryptozoologists is more exciting than just a brown bear in Africa. In the relatively recent prehistoric past, there were many species in the hyena family, not just the four that are known to exist today. One late-surviving hyena in Africa was the short-faced hyena, a large variety that was built like a bear, instead of like a dog as most hyenas are. If this creature were alive today, it would be in the right area, and it would look a lot like a bear. The discovery of a new species of hyena would mean much to scientists, especially one that looked so different from all other living species of hyena.

The label "Nandi bear" has been abused somewhat, used as a label for a number of mammalian African cryptids that do not resemble bears at all. In my opinion, some of the really weird suggestions for what the Nandi bear might be have come from these other reports that ended up being lumped in with the more usual variety of Nandi bear sightings. These other reports might or might not represent real animals, but they should be kept separate since the descriptions don't match up.

You can find out more about the Nandi Bear from the following sources:

Clark, Jerome and Coleman, Loren. Cryptozoology A-Z. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Pages 175-177

Eaton, Matthew J. The Nandi Bear
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Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. Page 30, 70, 198, 228, 232, 322, 323

Prothero, Donald R. & Schoch, Robert M. Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: The Evolution of Hoofed Mammals. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Page 250

Shuker, Karl. The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals. New York: Paraview Press, 2003. Page 288

Wikipedia, The. Nandi Bear

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The text on this page is copyright 2006 by Jamie Hall. Please use proper citation if you are using this website for research.

Hall. Please use proper citation if you are using this website for research.