Eyewitness Reports of the Nandi Bear

This mythical creature was named the Nandi bear by Europeans because accounts of its existence came mainly from the Nandi people (part of the Kalenjin). Early reports by Europeans describe a bearlike creature. For example Geoffrey Williams (1876-1951), a farmer in the Nandi Hills, said: “[I] was twice warned by the people not to sleep with my tent door open for fear of the ‘Shivuverre,’ which they describe as a nocturnal beast something like a hyena only infinitely larger and very savage. I heard of a skin in Kabras and tried very hard to obtain it; but could not do so. The Nandi say that they once killed one years ago owing to its having climbed upon the roof of a hut and broken through. It killed the people inside the hut, but others burnt the place down with the animal inside.  They say the reason it is never killed is because it is entirely nocturnal, it is very rare, and only attacks solitary people, who never return to tell the tale.”

Williams himself witnessed the creature, and this is how he described it: “I was travelling with a cousin on the Uasingishu just after the Nandi expedition, and of course, long before there was any settlement up there. We had been camped…near the Mataye and were marching towards the Sirgoit Rock when we saw the beast…I saw a large animal sitting up on its haunches no more than 30 yards away. Its attitude was just that of a bear at the ‘Zoo’ asking for buns, and I should say it must have been nearly 5 feet high…it dropped forward and shambled away towards the Sirgoit with what my cousin always describes as a sort of sideways canter…I snatched my rifle and took a snapshot at it as it was disappearing among the rocks, and, though I missed it, it stopped and turned its head round to look at us…In size it was, I should say, larger than the bear that lives in the pit at the ‘Zoo’ and it was quite as heavily built. The fore quarters were very thickly furred, as were all four legs, but the hind quarters were comparatively speaking smooth or bare…the head was long and pointed and exactly like that of a bear…I have not a very clear recollection of the ears beyond the fact that they were small, and the tail, if any, was very small and practically unnoticeable.The colour was dark.”

Clement Toulson (1867-1926), a farmer near Soy, also sighted the creature: “…one of my boys came into my room and said that a leopard was close to the kitchen. I rushed out at once and saw a strange beast making off. It appeared to have long hair behind and was rather low in front. I should say it stood about 18 in. to 20 in. to the shoulder; it appeared to be black, with a gait similar to that of a bear–a kind of shuffling walk…”

When the Magadi railway was being constructed, there were several reports of the creature. For example, Edward Hickes, engineer ((1873-1943) wrote in 1913: “It was almost on the line when I first saw it and at that time it had already seen me and was making off at a right-angle to the line…As I got closer to the animal I saw it was not a hyena. At first I saw it nearly broadside on: it then looked about as high as a lion. In colour it was tawny–about like a black-maned lion–with very shaggy long hair. It was short and thick-set in the body, with high withers, and had a short neck and stumpy nose. It did not turn to look at me, but loped off—running with its forelegs and with both hind legs rising at the same time. As I got alongside it, it was about forty or fifty yards away, and I noticed it was very broad across the rump, had very short ears, and had no tail that I could see. As its hind legs came out of the grass, I noticed the legs were very shaggy right down to the feet, and that the feet seemed large…This strange beast was first mentioned to me by Mr. Clifford Hill, who, on the first survey of this railway, had a young Dutch boy with him who came across one on the Koora Plains (Mile 71)…A native servant of one of the engineers, Mr. Archibald, also reported that he saw this strange animal, which he says, stood on its hind legs and looked at him…The only other instance of its actually having been seen is reported by a sub-contractor, Mr. Caviggia, who saw one at Mile 38, and his description is very like mine.”

Anne Spoerry, in her book They Call Me Mama Daktari (1997), recounts: “One of my friends, Josée Baradel, lived on the top of Ol Joro Orok at some 9,000 feet. She and her sister Mary were riding one day to Gilgil. They were descending a wide slope when they came upon a creature they had never seen before. It was hairy and looked like a small bear, young, clumsy and frightened. The two women were struck by its extraordinary rolling gait. When it moved it seemed as if it were mounted on ball-bearings. It had a short tail, and its back came up to about the bottom of Josée’s stirrups. The two rode round it for a moment to take a closer look and then let it disappear. They never saw it again, and the encounter remained a mystery. Mary told Louis Leakey, the palaeontologist, about the strange sighting. He was extremely interested, and told her that he knew of a fossil creature with revolving joints, but it had been extinct for millions of years. However, Dr. Leakey admitted that it was not entirely impossible that in such remote and inaccessible areas some pairs of ‘living fossils’ might survive. Two local tribes, the Kipsigis and the Nandi, are firm believers in the legend of the bear.”

There was a sighting by the DC at Eldoret, Nigel Corbett (1876-1947): “I was having lunch by a wooded stream, the Sirgoi River, just below Toulson’s farm…to my surprise I walked right into the beast. It was evidently drinking and was just below me, only a yard or so away…it shambled across the stream into the bush…[I] could not get a very good view, but am certain that it was a beast I have never seen before. Thick, reddish-brown hair, with a slight streak of white down the hindquarters, rather long from hock to foot, rather bigger than a hyena, with largish ears. I did not see the head properly; it did not seem to be a very heavily built animal.”

The illustration above is of a spotted hyena, which zoologists think may have been the creature. The spotted hyena is the largest hyena, which measures 95–165.8 cm (37–65 in) in body length, and has a shoulder height of 70–91.5 cm (28–36 in). Exceptionally large weights of 81.7 kg (180 lb) and 90 kg (198 lb) have been recorded. There is also speculation that the animal could have been a descendant of a now extinct specimen, the Chalicotheres pictured below. That animal, however, became extinct centuries ago.