There are frequently officially extinct animals that have been sighted well beyond the point when they were supposedly gone off the face of the earth. Some of these are smaller animals, such as the passenger pigeon or the ivory-crested woodpecker. Others are more formidable, such as the Thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, or the Japanese wolf, both of which I have covered here at Mysterious Universe before. Yet then there are other supposedly extinct animals that are larger and more impressive still, to the point that it is truly mysterious and bizarre to think that they could ever continue to stalk about in the shadows on the periphery past our ability to detect their presence. Here we will look at some of the larger and more formidable of the mystery beasts straight from prehistory, which based on eyewitness accounts could still exist out there, thousands of years after they were supposed to be gone.
There is no other supposedly surviving creature larger or more formidable than the majestic Woolly Mammoth. Mainly extant during the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from about 2,588,000 to 10,000 years ago, the Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) was similar but slightly larger in size to a modern day African elephant, but differed in that it was covered in shaggy hair, had smaller ears to minimize the effects of cold, and its enormous tusks, which it used for fighting, foraging, and moving objects, very much like its modern elephant brethren. Although the mammoth declined considerably during the end of the Pleistocene, there were relic populations that are believed to have been still around up until perhaps around 4,000 years ago, after which it is considered to have finally gone extinct. In recent times there have been many discoveries of well-preserved skeletons, tusks, dung, stomach contents, and even full carcasses buried underneath the ice in both Siberia and Alaska, but even more intriguing are the numerous accounts of actually seeing alleged living specimens.
An early possible encounter with either woolly mammoths or a similar North American mastodon was reported by the English explorer, David Ingram, who ventured out into the wilds of North America in the 1560s. During his travels he took detailed notes on the regional flora and fauna, as well as the topography and customs of the native peoples he encountered. These notes are mostly very accurate and even mundane by today’s standards, but one account stands out. The explorer wrote of how he had seen “hairy elephants” roaming about, which is remarkable considering that there were no such indigenous animals at the time, and also Ingram’s notes were usually quite accurate. What were those creatures he saw? We may never know for sure. Another very early account comes from the 1580s, when a Russian family called the Stroganoffs supposedly sent mercenaries, led by a Yermak Timofeyevitch, to hunt down some bandits in Siberia. When they passed the Ural Mountains, Yermak claimed that they had come across what he said was a “large, hairy elephant” lumbering through the wilds. Natives of the area then confirmed that these creatures, although rare, were very real indeed, and were sometimes hunted for their ivory and meat.
In the early 1800s there were several reports of supposed surviving mammoths. In 1807 there was a report from the explorer David Thompson, who told of hearing from the natives of enormous elephant-like creatures stomping about the wilds of British Columbia, Canada. The natives said that the immense, hairy creatures were rarely seen, and that they slept while leaning against trees. Thompson would then find strange elephant-like tracks in 1811, which he believed had been made by a young mammoth, and in the end Thompson would say of it all:
The circumstantial evidence of the existence of this animal is sufficient, but notwithstanding the many months the Hunters have traversed this extent of country in all directions, and this Animal having never been seen, there is no direct evidence of it’s existence, yet when I think of all I have seen and heard, if put on my oath, I could neither assert, nor deny, it’s existence; for many hundreds of miles of the Rocky Mountains are yet unknown, and through the defiles by which we pass, distant one hundred and twenty miles from each other, we hasten our march as much as possible.
There was also an account in the Edinburgh Magazine supposedly made in 1803 in Western Canada, near a place called York Fort. The witness, a Thomas Pollock, claimed to have been a sergeant with the Hudson Bay Company at the time, and that he and his guide had come across quite the curious beast while venturing out to make contact with native tribes. Pollock would say of what happened thus:
We left York fort on the 19th of May 1803. About fortnight after, having been sent across a river, the name of which I do not now recollect, by Mr Louis’s orders, the guide and myself suddenly came upon animal of an enormous size. It appeared about 20 feet in height, and had a very heavy and unwieldy appearance. I can give but a very lame account of it, on account the consternation into which I was thrown. The largeness of its belly was enormous, nearly touching the ground. Its colour was a dirty black.
Years later, in 1818, there was another account from the Rocky Mountains in the United States. The witness said that there were what seem to be woolly mammoths wandering about the region, and would say of these mysterious creatures:
The fact of its existence rests upon the testimony of two different parties who had been sent some errand into the interior vallies of those mountains. The first party came suddenly upon the animal in a deep and formerly unvisited recess, and were so alarmed at its prodigious size, (exceeding that of the largest elephant,) and at its unknown aspect, that they immediately retreated in great consternation to the encampment from which they had been dispatched. Another party was sent to the same spot to ascertain the fact; and though the animal was not observed, its footsteps could be distinctly traced, and each compartment of its hoof is stated to have admitted both the feet of the travellers. It ought to observed, that these parties were perfectly familiar with the appearance of the buffaloe (sic) which indeed they were in the daily habit of killing; and that the animal which they saw cannot therefore be regarded as an individual of that tribe. It was seen, too, as I have already stated, in a very remote and central valley, and the intervals between its paces are described having been of astonishing magnitude. Now we know well that animals of immense size have inhabited the northern parts of our earth in former times, and the huge remains which are every day dug up, are more likely to have belonged to individuals of such an animal as that now alluded to, than to any extinct species of a former world.
In that same year there was a similar experience made by a Russian hunter, who would finally relay the encounter decades later to a M. L. Gallon, of the French consulate in Vladivostok, Russia in 1920. The hunter said that he had found enormous elephantine footprints as he was exploring out on the taiga, and that he had then followed the tracks for several days. He began to think that he would never find the source of the mysterious giant tracks, but then he would come across two apparent woolly mammoths. He would say of the ensuing encounter:
One afternoon it was clear enough from the tracks that the animals weren't far off. The wind was in my face, which was good for approaching them without them knowing I was there. All of a sudden I saw one of the animals quite clearly, and now I must admit I really was afraid. It had stopped among some young saplings. It was a huge elephant with big white tusks, very curved; it was a dark chestnut colour as far as I could see. It had fairly long hair on the hindquarters but it seemed much shorter on the front. I must say I had no idea that there were such big elephants. It had huge legs and moved very slowly. I've only seen elephants in pictures, but I must say that even from this distance (we were 3000 m apart) I could never have believed any beast could be so big. The second beast was around, I saw it only a few times among the trees: it seemed to be the same size.
This particular account would be written of by the cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, who included it in his groundbreaking cryptozoology book On the track of Unknown Animals. Later on in the 1800s more such reports would come in. One was printed in an 1873 article in The Zoologist, which held the testimony of a former Russian prisoner named Cheriton Batchmatchnik, who said he had managed to escape his prison camp in Siberia and make his way out into the frozen badlands towards the Aldan Mountains with the goal of ultimately getting across to China. It was in an isolated mountain valley where he claimed that he had made camp by a lake and noticed that at night there were hulking, lumbering beasts crashing about around the periphery. The frightened man allegedly shot his pistol off and the creatures rumbled off into the night.
The following morning, he claimed to have examined the area to find large, elephant-like tracks all over over place. Seeking to find a safer camp, Cheriton says he found a nearby cave but that when he approached he saw a gigantic hairy elephant covered with reddish matted hair and sporting enormous, curving tusks around 10 feet long. He claimed that he would go on to see over 20 of the creatures grazing about the valley in the proceeding days. Oddly enough, he also claimed to have seen a massive, dragon-like beast that apparently lurked in a nearby lake and actually preyed on the mammoths, so make of that what you will.
Another report was relayed by a Col. F. Fowler, who in the late 1800s resided in Alaska. When talking to a reporter, he related a tale about something he had seen out in the wilderness near the Snake River while traveling to an Inuit trading outpost. Once at the outpost, he claimed that he had purchased a load of what he thought was fossilized mammoth ivory from a chief To-lee-ti-ma, and upon inspecting the tusks Fowler claims that he found fresh traces of blood and flesh upon them. When he asked the chief about it, To-lee-ti-ma explained that the ivory had come from animals that had been killed just 3 months before, just about 50 miles away from where they were. According to the chief, the hunting party had run into a whole herd of mammoths and had managed to take down two of them. Fowler would explain the strange incident thus:
He and his band were searching along a dry water-course for ivory and had found a considerable quantity. One of the party, who was in advance, rushed in upon the main body one morning with the startling intelligence that at a spring of water about a mile above where they then were he had discovered the ‘sign’ of several of the ‘bigteeth’. They had come to the spring: to drink from a lofty plateau further inland and had evidently fed in the vicinity of the water for some time. The chief immediately called about him his warriors, and the party, under the leadership of the scout, approached the stream. They had nearly reached it when their ears were suddenly saluted by a chorus of loud, shrill, trumpet-like calls, and an enormous creature came crashing toward them through the thicket, the ground fairly trembling beneath its ponderous footfalls. With wild cries of terror and dismay the Indians fled, all but the chief and the scout who had first discovered the trail of the monsters. They were armed with large caliber muskets and stood their ground, opening fire on the mammoth. A bullet must have penetrated the creature’s brain, for it staggered forward and fell dead and subsequently on their way back to their camp-ground they overhauled and killed a cow ‘big-teeth,’ which was evidently the mate of the first one killed. I asked the hunter to describe the monster, and taking a sharp stick he drew me a picture of the pale animal in the soft clay. According to his description it was at least twenty feet in height and thirty feet in length. In general shape it was not unlike an elephant, but its ears were smaller, its eyes bigger and its trunk longer and more slender. Its tusks were yellowish-white in color and six in number. Four of these tusks were placed like those of a boar, one on either side in each jaw; they were about four feet long and came to a sharp point. The other two tusks he brought away. ‘I measured them and they were over fifteen feet in length and weighed upward of 250 pounds each. They gradually tapered to a sharp point and curved inward. The monster’s body was covered with long, coarse hair of a reddish dun color.
In October of 1899, there was a strange article called “Killing the Mammoth” published in McClure’s Magazine. Written by a Henry Tukeman, the article discussed the supposed killing of the “last mammoth,” which had apparently happened in 1890 out in the frigid wilderness of Alaska. Tukeman claimed that he had been staying at Fort Yukon for the winter, and at some point he was showing some pictures of African animals to the native Inuit when one of them saw a picture of an elephant and they all became excited and agitated. One villager called “Joe” said he had seen such a creature recently not far away, which was odd since there should not have been any elephants around for thousands of miles. Joe claimed that he had seen the creature, which he called the Tee-Kai-Koa, while out hunting for beaver with his son some years before, when they came across the massive creature apparently bathing in a lake. The son then promptly shot at it, but the creature was only angered by this and they retreated. This was all very intriguing to Tukeman, who interpreted this as a sighting of a possible living woolly mammoth and made plans to actually go out after the forbidding winter had passed to investigate the area of the sighting.
When summer came and the snows melted, Tukeman supposedly went out into the rough wilds with an Inuit guide, and they finally found what they were looking for after spending over a month camping out in wait. At one point he set up a fire, under the impression that the mammoth would emerge to try and stamp it out, and unbelievably this seemed to work. The mammoth allegedly came out of the trees to proceed to try and stomp out the fire, and at that point the two hunters opened fire until the mighty beast fell. They then went about skinning the colossal animal and collecting its bones, but the coming onset of winter meant that they were forced to hunker down with their trophy until the spring. According to Tukeman, he finally did manage to sell the bones and remains of his kill to the Smithsonian, where they allegedly kept them under wraps. Although the story was subsequently widely reported on in many publications of the time, it is thought to have been most likely a hoax, and the Smithsonian itself has denied the claims, but it is still bandied about as a possibly true event. For his part, Fowler continued to claim that the whole tale was true, even going as far as to say that the government knew these creatures were still alive.
It seems fair to point out that supposed evidence of surviving Woolly Mammoths has been hoaxed on several occasions. One well-known example is the supposed photographic evidence that was posted to YouTube in 2013. According to the description, this was a film taken in 1943, when Nazi Party member and official military photographer, Holger Hildebrand, was captured and marched out across the wasteland of Siberia. According to the poster, this was her grandfather, and she said that he had captured on film what appears to be a woolly mammoth out near the Sakha Republic, in Siberia. The clip is 11-seconds long, and shows what appears to be a grainy, black-and-white piece of footage of a woolly mammoth making its way through the ice and snow. However, after being discussed, debated, and picked apart, the footage was found to merely be a clip of simulated mammoths from the 2001 BBC documentary Walking with Beasts, that had been altered to look different and more mysterious.
Another rather talked about piece of supposed photographic evidence of surviving mammoths surfaced in 2012, when a supposed Russian government-employed engineer named Ludovic Petho allegedly managed to film a woolly mammoth wading through a river in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug region of Siberia while surveying for a planned road. The footage became an immediate Internet sensation, and caused many jaws to drop, as well as many theories to swirl. There were those who thought it was photoshopped and others who believed it to be an out of place elephant, but perhaps the most rational and now agreed upon explanation is that we are merely seeing a clip of a brown bear carrying a fish in its mouth, which appears as a trunk. It also would come out that Petho was not even an engineer at all, but rather a writer and videographer, who was filming the scenery and wildlife of the area, and despite the excitement his footage had stirred up he seemed to be oblivious to the sensation he had inadvertently caused, saying:
I don't recall seeing a mammoth; there were bears, deer, and sable. But no woolly mammoths. I had no idea my footage was used to make this fake sighting.
Whether woolly mammoths really still exist or not, the possibility surely seems to capture the imagination nonetheless. Another creature straight out of the Ice Age is a bit scarier, if not as large. For a large swath of prehistory one of the most fearsome predators around were several species of large, powerful cat-like beasts with long, curved front teeth that earned them the collective name of the “saber-toothed cats,” or also commonly the “saber-toothed tigers,” which existed all over the world from between around 42 million years ago right up to the Pleistocene epoch 11,000 years ago. The best known of these predators would probably have to be the genus Smilodon, which is what most people are imagining when they think of a saber-toothed cat. Considering that these creatures are an iconic example usually talked of when talking about mass extinctions during the ice age and are almost synonymous with the idea of extinct prehistoric megafauna, it may seem that they are deader than dead, but on the contrary there have long been sightings of what seem to be possibly surviving specimens right up into the present day, or at least something very much like them.
One cryptid that seems as if it could possibly be representative of a type of saber-toothed cat allegedly haunts the remote regions of the Ennedi Plateau, in eastern Chad, Africa. The natives of the area have long told of two distinct types of large, cat-like creatures, one that inhabits the mountains, which they call the Hadjel, Gassingram, or Vossoko, and another that prefers areas near water, which are locally called the Mourou N'gou, Mamaimé, or Dilali. Collectively often referred to as the Ennedi Tiger, these beasts are described as being much larger than a lion or other extant big cat, and covered in thick, dark red or reddish-brown fur which often exhibits black or white stripes. Most interesting of all is that the creatures are said to sport two very long, sharp front fangs, which are often described as being “like a walrus” and claimed to be up to 16 inches in length. It certainly sounds very much like a saber-toothed cat, and indeed when natives have been shown pictures of these creatures they have been convinced that this is what they are, in particular the Machairodus genus, which existed in the Middle Pleistocene.
Far from being merely an elusive mystery creature known to the natives of the region, the Ennedi Tigers have been spotted by outsiders on occasion as well. In 1910, there was a rather dramatic account of a group of French missionaries who were traveling up the Bamingui River when they were pounced upon by a massive cat with large protruding fangs, which apparently leapt right out of the water to drag down one of their party like a crocodile before submerging and vanishing. In the same area there was a hunter and naturalist named Marcel Harley, who found a dead hippopotamus in 1920 by the river that exhibited deep, grievous wounds that were seemingly inflicted by no known predator, which he would later write about in his diary. In 1975 the hunter Christian Le Noel was with some native guides at the Ennedi plateau when they heard a booming, spine-tingling roar issue forth from the murky depths of a cave. The panicked natives allegedly immediately identified it as one of the saber-toothed creatures, and refused to continue further. Interestingly, Le Noel would also on the same excursion find a horribly mutilated hippo near the river Ouandja, which he believed had been killed by something with very long fangs.
There have been curious accounts of possible saber-toothed cats from other parts of the world as well. In Mexico there was an account from the great cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson, who claimed that in 1940 he had come into the possession of a unique skin from some sort of big cat, which natives said had been killed in the area not long before. The skin measured around 6 feet long, and was unlike any sort of cat known to the area, displaying stripes of dark and light brown, very dark hindquarters, and most unique of all some sort of hairy ruff that grew upwards from the shoulders and over the neck and ears. Sanderson had the skin stored for future analysis, but unfortunately it was destroyed along with other unique skins when the building was flooded. Based on the unique nature of the skin, Sanderson speculated that it was a new species, which he called the “Mexican Ruffed Cat,” and there has been speculation since that it might have come from a surviving saber-toothed cat.
From South America there was an account in 1966 from a seaman in Paraguay who claimed to the naturalist Peter Matthiessen that the locals of Columbia and Ecuador often spoke of a striped big cat around the size of a jaguar out in the jungles that possessed outsized, and very sharp protruding front teeth. Interestingly, in Paraguay there was a possible saber-toothed cat shot and killed in 1975. The carcass apparently had elongated front teeth measuring 12 inches long, and when a zoologist named Juan Acavar examined it he reportedly believed it to be a surviving saber-toothed cat. It is unknown what happened to the specimen after that, which is frustrating to say the least, following a long legacy of supposed missing physical evidence of cryptids.
Another large predatory beast that supposedly went extinct in the Pleistocene epoch was the giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), which was bigger than the grizzly or the polar bear, up to 12 feet tall if standing on the hind legs and weighing up to 2,500 pounds or more, and is perhaps the largest mammalian land predator to have ever lived. A giant short-faced bear would have been a formidable sight prowling across the landscape, and some reports have long suggested that they still do. One area where incredibly large mystery bears have been sighted is the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, where the locals claimed that they were not typical brown bears and which they called the Irkuiem and also the “God Bear.”
In 1855, the French zoologist Pucheran came the conclusion that these bears were a separate species, and in 1920 zoologist Sten Bergman had a chance to examine a skin from one of the alleged beasts. He noticed that the size was beyond a usual Kamchatka brown bear, and that it had a different sort of fur, which prompted him to name it as a separate subspecies he called Ursus arctos piscator, or more commonly known as Bergman’s Bear. In the 1960s there was a report from Russian hunter Rodion Sivolobov, who further testified that the natives of the region often spoke of strange-looking bears much larger than usual, which also had a different, unique appearance. In 1987, Sivolobov even claimed to have gotten hold of a skin from one of the bears but it is unknown what happened to it. It has sometimes been speculated that Bergman’s bear was perhaps a relic population of the extinct short-faced bear, despite the fact that Kamchatka was not in the historical range of Arctodus simus.
Another curious case of a possible surviving giant short-faced bear is that of what is known as MacFarlane’s Bear. In 1864, the naturalist Roderick MacFarlane was brought an extremely unusual hide and skull of some sort of mystery bear by Inuit hunters while staying at Fort Anderson in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The skin was very unusual in that it had yellowish hair, and the skull was also somewhat misshapen and had a peculiar tooth formation not typical of a normal bear. The Inuits explained that the hide and skull were from a type of massive bear not like others, which was said to roam about in the most remote areas and was rarely seen. The author and outdoorsman Caspar Whitney had his own possible sighting of one of these mysterious bears in the late 1800s, which he described thus:
It is a peculiar looking bear, seeming a cross between the grizzly and the polar, and it has this peculiarity, that its hind claws are as big as the fore claws, while its head looks somewhat like that of an Eskimo dog, very broad in the forehead, with square, long muzzle, and ears set on quite like the dog's. It is very wide at the shoulders, and its robe in color resembles the grizzly.
Not quite knowing what to do with the strange skin, MacFarlane sent it to the Smithsonian Institution. The hide then was stored away and sort of forgotten until 1918, when it was found and examined by the zoologist Clinton Heart Merriam, who was so impressed by its strangeness that he labelled it as not only a new species, but also an entirely new genus, calling it Vetularctos inopinatus. In more modern times it has been called perhaps a specimen of giant short-faced bear, but there has been a lot of skepticism about this. It has been suspected that the so-called MacFarlane’s Bear could have been just as Whitney had speculated, merely a polar bear-grizzly hybrid, which has been known to occur on rare occasions and which also display yellowish fur and oddly shaped skulls. However, the MacFarlane Bear is still often discussed to this day, and whether it is a real example of a physical specimen or not, reports of outsized bears unlike others continue to sporadically come in from the frigid far north.
Is it possible at all that creatures so large and which have been accepted as extinct for so long could still dwell out in the uncharted wilds of our planet? Is there any chance at all that any of these accounts could hold the answer to this question? As with many mysterious cryptids of our world, the ultimate answers remain frustratingly vague, and we are left to simply wonder if these mighty and majestic beasts just may have hung on well past their extinction to lurk, stuck in time in a sense, on the fringes of our ever evolving civilization.