There is no other creature from prehistory other than the dinosaurs 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.
Accounts of sightings of supposed Woolly Mammoths go way back. In the book Mystery Creatures of China, by David C. Xu, there is an account from 579 AD, in which one of the creatures was purportedly captured out in the wilds near Yanzhou, China. According to the report, hunters managed to catch alive what they called the Daxiang, meaning “great elephant.” It was described as truly massive, a “gigantic elephant with long, black hair,” and it was apparently kept in captivity for some time. It is unknown just what happened to this creature after that, but it is a curious historical oddity.
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 extensive, 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 from everything else. The explorer wrote of how he had seen “hairy elephants” roaming about, which is remarkable considering that there were no such indigenous animals in the region at the time, and also Ingram’s notes were usually quite accurate and meticulous. What were those creatures he saw? We may never know for sure.
Another very early account comes from Bernard Heuvelmans’ epic book On the Track of Unknown Animals. In the 1580s, a Russian family called the Stroganoffs supposedly sent mercenaries, led by a Yermak Timofeyevitch, to hunt down some bandits in Siberia who were pillaging their salt mines of the region. When they passed the Ural Mountains, Yermak claimed that they had come across what he said was a bizarre “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. Indeed, they were reportedly called by the natives “mountains of 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:
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 seemed 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 valleys 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 travelers. 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 frigid, bleak taiga, and that he had then followed the tracks for several days. He would say of these tracks:
I say huge tracks, for they were a long way larger than any of those I had often seen of animals I knew well. It was autumn. There had been a few big snowstorms, followed by heavy rain. It wasn’t freezing yet, the snow had melted, and there were thick layers of mud in the clearings. It was in one of these big clearings, partly taken up by a lake, that I was staggered to see a huge footprint pressed deep into the mud. It must have been about 70 cm across the widest part and about 50 cm the other way, that’s to say the spoor wasn’t round but oval. There were four tracks, the tracks of four feet, the first two about 4 m from the second pair, which were a little bigger in size. Then the track suddenly turned east and went into the forest of middling-sized elms. Where it went in I saw a huge heap of dung; I had a good look at it and saw it was made up vegetable matter. Some 10 feet up, just where the animal had gone into the forest, I saw a sort of row of broken branches, made, I don’t doubt, by the monster’s enormous head as it forced its way into the place where it had decided to go, regardless of what was in its path.
He apparently followed the mysterious giant tracks for days and began to think that he would never find the source of them. Through all of this the weather was getting harsher and more frigid, threatening to force him to abort his hunt, but then the tracks would appear to get fresher and fresher, giving him renewed resolve, and he would finally come across two apparent woolly mammoths. He would say of the ensuing bizarre 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.
The hunter said that he had then taken aim with his rifle, but as he only had five rounds left was afraid he would anger the creatures rather than kill them, and so he made the decision to call off his hunt and leave the animals be. 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 snd to freedom. 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.
In the November 28, 1896 edition of The Portland Press there was a curious account of 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 and making various measurements, 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.
Accounts go on into later years as well. From 1922 we have a report from the Evenk people of northeastern Siberia, who at the time claimed that they frequently sighted the hulking beasts, and were even in the possession of well-preserved mammoth skins. The Evenks were able to describe in detail the appearance of the creatures, which was very much like a mammoth, as well as their behavior, movements, and even their eating habits and preferred diet. In later years there were some reports of pilots seeing herds of mammoths wandering in single file about the frozen wastes of Alaska and Russia, and in 1956 there was a report from a village near Russia’s Taz River, where a school teacher had spotted a mammoth while out picking mushrooms.
Even more recently there is a report from 1989, in which a hunter in Siberia said he saw two groups of three mammoths a piece, and a 1998 report from a group of gold prospectors who saw a herd of the animals in uncharted wilderness at a tributary of Indigirka River in Yakutia. What is going on with such reports? Is there a chance that this long forgotten behemoth still roams the wilds of the world? Could they have possibly escaped extinction? There is no way to really know, and such accounts float about amongst the many others of supposedly extinct creatures that may or may not still roam the wilds of our planet.