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The Mysterious Lost Ape of Africa

For centuries the jungles of Africa were, according to the natives, inhabited by a race of large, ape-like men that were immensely powerful and intelligent, but which were rarely seen. It all sounds very much like a cryptid such as Bigfoot, but the difference is in this case we are talking about the gorilla. These creatures were first described in the mid-19th century by French explorer Paul du Chaillu, who was one of the first outsiders to make contact with the pygmies of Gabon and Cameroon and the first European to “discover” the gorilla, but this was not all he supposedly discovered, and there is the possibility that he also came across an entirely new type of great ape that remains elusive and unknown, and much discussed to this day.

Among the primates that du Chaillu studied during his excursions, including the gorilla and chimpanzee, he also made mention of a creature he called the Koolakamba, named for its distinctive booming cry that the natives described as sounding like “Kooloo,”and which he specifically names as a separate animal from the other known primates. The physical description for the Koolakamba is similar to other great apes, but with enough differences to be intriguing. According to Du Chaillu, it was vaguely chimp-like, but with a larger cranial capacity, bigger, more pronounced ears, a flatter, human-looking face, lower and upper teeth that came together straightly, a stockier, larger build, and legs and a pelvic region more geared towards a bipedal stance and gait. Indeed, it was said that the creature preferred to walk around on two legs.

Along with his meticulous physical descriptions, Du Chaillu also included in his journals numerous illustrations and accounts from the Natives of the region the creature was found in, to whom the Koolakamba was well-known. There are also notes on the behavior of the Koolakamba, which differs from that of other great apes in the region in that they are supposedly solitary animals that do not travel in groups. It is all very intriguing, yet you will recognize the fact that among the known great apes, such as the gorilla, orangutan, chimpanzee, and bonobo, there is no Koolakamba among them at the moment, and debate has gone on as to what this mysterious ape might be and whether it really exists as a separate entity or not.

One of the main theories is that the Koolakamba may have been some sort of hybrid between a gorilla and a chimpanzee. This view was supported by the researcher Koppenfelds in 1881, when he wrote that he was convinced that the Koolakamba was a hybrid between the two, and he was also convinced that it was a very real creature. Koppenfelds would write:

I believe it is proved that there are crosses between the male Troglodytes gorilla and the female Troglodytes niger, but for reasons easily understood, there are none in the opposite direction. I have in my possession positive proof of this. This settles all the questions about the gorilla, chimpanzee, Kooloo Kamba,….etc.

Well, not exactly settled, because there are plenty of other theories as well. One is that Du Chaillu’s description is nothing more than a unique specimen of a known species of ape, perhaps an individual displaying some strange characteristics but still within the range of morphology for that species. Such examples have been seen before, most notably with the well-known Oliver the chimp, a former performing ape who exhibited a strikingly human-like appearance and preference for walking about on two legs. Such was his bizarre appearance and behavior that it was long speculated that he was a so-called “humanzee,” that is, a theoretical hybrid between humans and chimpanzees, yet upon DNA analysis after Oliver’s death in 2012 it was found that he was 100% chimp. It is possible that the Koolakamba that Du Chaillu described was a similarly unique or freakish individual, but the fact that he was very clear that this was a species known to the locals for generations doesn’t seem to fit in with this idea.

Oliver the chimpanzee

Then of course there is the idea that perhaps Du Chaillu was right, and that this was a genuine new species or subspecies of great ape such as chimpanzee or even gorilla. In the 1960s the famed primatologist Osman Hill did an extensive study on chimpanzees at Holloman AFB, which is today the Coulston Foundation. Hill reported that he had actually observed specimens of what he believed were the Koolakamba within his own chimp colony. However, many of his observations differed with the descriptions provided by Du Chaillu, such as the size of the ears and flatness of the muzzle, making it unclear if they are really describing the same thing. It was later found through molecular analysis in the 1980s that the animals Hill had designated as Koolakamba were actually, like Oliver, seemingly just regular chimps, although considering that such testing was still in its infancy at the time it might not have been accurate. There was also one very odd looking specimen who was photographed by Hill but never tested because it had died some years previously, and since it is long gone we will never know if it was one of these mysterious Koolakamba or not. Other chimps at the colony exhibited Koolakamba features and were thought to have been perhaps descended from these creatures, but this has never been confirmed. Nevertheless, Hill was convinced that the Koolakamba was real, and that the creatures Du Chaillu spoke of were an actual new subspecies of chimpanzee.

In more recent years another possible specimen of the legendary Koolakamba surfaced with photographs taken in 1996 of an extremely unusual looking chimpanzee at the Yaounde Zoo, in Cameroon. The photo shows a strange ape with a wide face, square-chiseled jaw, a skull larger than a chimp’s but smaller than a gorilla’s, and piercing yellow, very human-like eyes. It is obviously not a normal chimpanzee or gorilla, but rather seems to be a mix of the two, and when the photographs were released they had primatologists scratching their heads and talking about the possibility that this was a Koolakamba. The widely circulated photograph appeared in the November 1996 issue of the Newsletter of the Internal Primate Protection League (IPPL), as well as in The Fortean Times, generating endless discussion. Unfortunately, it seems that no one ever did any DNA testing on this unique specimen and it is now gone, so all we have are photos of this strikingly weird looking ape. What was the mysterious Yaounde Zoo ape? Who knows?

Photo of the Yaounde Zoo mystery ape

As it is now, the debate goes on as to what the Koolakamba might be. Is it some sort of ape-hybrid, anomalous individuals of a known species, or is it a whole new species or subspecies of great ape? As it is there has never been a confirmed specimen that has been studied, and until there is a reliable DNA analysis done on one or a Koolakamba found to studied we will likely never know, and it will remain a mystery.