Saturday 23 October 2021

A "Tree Crocodile" in Papua?

       The jungle clad mountains and valleys of New Guinea, just north of Australia, have turned it into a vast patchwork of "ecological islands" with new, rare, species just waiting to be discovered. By following up clues left by the natives, one of our more prominent zoologists, Dr. Tim Flannery managed to locate two new species of tree kangaroo concealed in localised pockets. The possibility that the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, believed to be extinct in Australia, may still exist in the Indonesian half of the island, is something I have discussed in this blog (here and here) and in my up-dated second edition of Bunyips and Bigfoots. Just the same, it was still a surprise to discover a 1955 article by a certain Walker Pearson, about a legendary giant lizard, or "tree crocodile" in Papua. Not only that, but he was able to cite, not only native legends, but credible reports by Europeans concerning the cryptid.
       First of all, a brief discussion on geographic terminology. The independent nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) takes it name from the two jurisdictions under which it was governed by Australia. In 1526 the Portuguese mariner, Dom Jorge de Meneses touched on the Vogelkop Peninsula at the far northwest of the island, and named it Ilhas dos Papuas, the "island of the Papuas". The last appears to have been a name used in eastern Indonesia for the Melanesians, and was probably stressed on the second syllable, whereas now the stress falls on the first. Then, in 1545, the Spaniard, Yñigo Ortiz de Retez followed the north coast of the island and, noting a resemblance in countryside and inhabitants to the Guinea coast of Africa, called it Nueva Guinea. New Guinea thus became the name of the island. After the Dutch claimed the western half, Germany began colonising the northeastern section, so the British colony of Queensland induced Britain to annex the south eastern section, under the name of Papua. Once the Australian colonies federated into the new nation of Australia, Papua was turned over to its control, and during the First World War, Australia conquered German New Guinea.
     This meant that while Papua remained a Crown Colony, the Territory of New Guinea was administered as a mandated trust territory under the League of Nations, and later the UN. When Indonesia managed to get hold of Dutch New Guinea, it named its new colony province West Irian. Since then, they have renamed it Papua.
     For the purposes of this story, however, Papua refers to the original Crown Colony, south of the Owen Stanley Range, and in particular, the broad swath of country inland from the Gulf of Papua.
     Getting back to the subject, the author reported that the Papuans call the giant lizard Aou-Angi-Angi (this appears to come from the Mékéo language), which means the "crocodile that lives in trees", although it is hard to see how that phrase could fit into such a short word. According to legend, it would stalk its human victim, strike him with its long tail, then tear at him with its needle like teeth and claws.
When food is scarce, it sometimes comes creeping out of the bush to feast on the dead, laid on platforms in the trees. 
     A plausible allegation. We tend to assume ground burial as the norm for the disposal of dead bodies, and forget that it depends on the use of metal shovels. Where stone hoes or wooden digging sticks are the norm, this is not practicable, especially if the ground is hard or, as in the hinterland of the Gulf of Papua, swampy, with a high water table. For this reason, the natives of both New Guinea and Australia were more likely to go in for tree burial - thus leaving the deceased's remains vulnerable to any scavenging arboreal predator.
      After this introduction came a couple of second hand stories. One was of a Visiting Magistrate, who was asked by some village elders to help them get rid of a rampaging Aou-Angi-Angi. They could not show him the monster, but assured him that a neighbouring village had invoked sorcery to send it against them!
     Another was the time Assistant Magistrate Thompson was approached by a disturbed "police boy" from the village of Gibu, close to the mouth of the Turama River. (Google Earth locates it at 7°49'S, 143°51'E). Apparently, two village men entered the jungle, and discovered a lizard as big as a crocodile. When they attempted to cast a noose around its neck, it reacted violently, knocking one of the natives, called Sigai, to the ground with its tail, while biting off the lower arm of the other native, who nevertheless escaped back to the village. Sigai, however, remained in the forest, where he lived with the monster, which was now regarded as a god, even riding on its back. His daughter would go to the edge of the forest every day to converse with her father, asking questions about the future of the village, and leaving food. The police boy alleged that he had seen the "god". Thompson followed the girl into the jungle, where he failed to see Sigai, but did catch a glimpse of the animal, which looked like a big crocodile, except that it was up a tree.
      I suspect that this story had gained a bit in the telling. Nevertheless, the author was able to cite a couple of good documents. The first was by Father Joseph Guis, a French missionary who worked among the Roro and Mékéo people in the hinterland of the Gulf of Papua. According to an online encyclopedia:
The Mekeo region lies between 7°15′ and 8°45′S and 146°20′ and 146°45′E, 100 kilometers to the Northwest of the capital city Port Moresby. It consists of nearly 400 square kilometers of low-lying fluvial plain with varied grassland, forest, riverine, and swamp habitats. Villages are situated along the meandering tributaries of the Angabanga and Biaru rivers. There are two seasons: a "wet," during the Northwest monsoon from December until April; and a "dry," from May through November. Annual rainfall averages between 100 and 180 centimeters, and temperatures fluctuate Between 20°and 30°C.
     Between 1897 and 1901, Fr. Guis published articles about his experiences in two French church magazines, and these were consolidated in 1936 in a book entitled, La Vie des Papous. Côte sud-est de la Nouvelle-Guinée (Roro et Mékéo), which translates as "Life of the Papuans. South-east coast of New Guinea (Roro and Mekeo)." Walker Pearson was able to access this work in the British Museum Library and translate the relevant section. Note that, although published in 1936, the data relates to the end of the previous century.
     Certain villages in the Mekeo district (the hilly back country behind Hall Sound in the Papuan Gulf) . . . namely Inafoka, Eboa, and Inuaboue . . . do not bury their dead, but expose them on platforms of boughs built in the jungle until only the skeleton remains. . . . The corpses are washed with cold water every morning until decomposition is complete, or until they vanish, for at Eboa a kind of enormous iguana, the Aou-Angi-Angi (the man-eater), comes out at night to devour the corpses . . . Both the existence and the ferocity of this creature have been widely discussed, some people disputing the probability of either. But today there is no longer any doubt about the reality of this giant iguana. One of our Brothers - a brave man and, moreover, armed with a gun - fled this monster when he caught sight of it in the jungle near Onghinfeke. A Father at Inaouaia was jibing at one of the local natives for being so afraid of the Aou-Angi-Angi. "Have you seen him yourself?" the Father asked. "Have I seen him?" the native replied. "I've seen him eating my wife!"
     The second document he was able to cite was provided to him by the Royal Geographical Society: The Annual Report of the Territory of Papua for the year 1936-37 by the Lieutenant Governor (Sir Hubert Murray). Sir Hubert Murray, I venture to add, was a judge and Lieutenant-Governor of Papua from 1908 to 1940. He was our greatest colonial administrator, but most of his fellow countrymen know nothing about him. Even my wife, Esther, who was born and raised in New Guinea, was never taught the history of the colony at school there and, of course, those of us who were educated in the home country received no information either.
      Be that as it may, the Annual Report provided details of an expedition by Ivan Campion "in the indescribably-rugged delta regions around the head of the Papuan Gulf." Campion was an experienced explorer. In 1927-28, along with another official, Charles Karius, he had crossed the country from the Fly River to the Sepik. This time, now an Assistant Resident  Magistrate, he took Patrol Office C.J. Adamson, twelve native policemen, and twenty-seven convicts to serve as porters, on a five month expedition through unexplored territory inhabited by uncontacted, hostile tribes. According to Walker Pearson, they explored the area between the  Ramu and Purari Rivers, but this makes no sense. The Purari flows into the Gulf of Papua, but the Ramu flows to the north coast, and is separated from the Purari by a mountain range. I suspect he meant the Purari and the Kikori.
     Be that as it may, the crucial entry occurred on 4 May 1936, when "the explorer and his mean were battling their way yard by yard up the Kikori River towards the River Mobi." The Kikori enters the Gulf of Papua through a large delta, and near the head of the delta stands the town of Kikori at 7°24' S, 144°13' E. I have not been able to locate the Mobi River on any map, but there is a town called Maubi downriver from Kikori on one of the delta branches. In any case, it will be noted that this is about two degrees west of the Mekeo area referred to by Fr. Guis, and very close to the site of Thompson's experience.
      On the day in question, one of the native police pulled at Campion's arm and pointed to a great tree beside the river bank. Up in the canopy, he saw what he first imagined was a huge tree kangaroo. Just then, the other police fired a ragged volley at the animal, and the next minute a gigantic lizard crashed, dying to the ground. Campion noted that it was longer than a good-sized crocodile, and it still held, clutched in its jaws, a cuscus (a type of possum) as large as a fox terrier. Campion concluded that it was big and powerful enough to dispose of a human being. The police called it an Aou-Angi-Angi.
     To this report, Sir Hubert added the comment:
     I first heard of a 'land crocodile' or 'tree alligator' many years ago. I have never seen one, and its existence was doubted. Ahuia-ova, a well-known native of Port Moresby, also told me that he had shot one of them, and seen two others. The one he shot had been fighting a pig which it tore in pieces. It was, he says, as big as a small crocodile. He cut it open, cut out the fat and made oil, which he sold for 4s. to Mr. Ballantine, a former treasurer. The realistic touch suggests that there is some foundation in the story. The other two which he saw were, he said, so big that he was afraid to shoot; in one case he hid behind a tree; in the other he ran away. Ahuia had a gruesome story to tell of a Gorohi native whose dog was seized by one of these 'alligators'. The Gorohi saved the dog, but was seized himself, carried up a tree, and torn to pieces. His head was found at the bottom of the tree.
     I suspect that that last part of the story had grown in the telling. Sir Hubert also added that the animal was called si-e in the language of the Koita of Port Moresby.

     So, what is it? Sir Hubert referred to the opinion of the missionary, Rev. Mr. Parry, that it might be a close relative of the Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis, and that it must be very rare. The Komodo dragon, as the world's biggest lizard, can reach 10 feet [3 metres] in length, and weigh 70 kg [154 lb], as much as a man. Some have been known to reach 90 kg [198 lb.] Such a thing could really be described as being as large as a small crocodile. However, I find it hard to believe that something so bulky would regularly climb trees.
     The largest known lizard in New Guinea is the crocodile monitor, or Papua monitor, V. salvadorii, itself also a close relative of the Komodo dragon. It is arboreal, and inhabits the lowland rainforests and mangroves of the southern part of the island, all the way to the Vogelkop. Remember, these animals continue to grow, albeit slowly, throughout life, so most specimens will be below maximum size. And, of course, there will always be freakishly large individuals. A good sized crocodile monitor would measure 8 feet [2.4 metres], of which more than half would consist of its long, whiplike tail. However, it would not normally weigh in at more than 14 kg, or just a fifth of the Komodo dragon.
     Does Papua harbour a rare, arboreal monitor even bigger and more dangerous than V. salvadorii? The trouble is, the article was written in 1955, and the most recent official sighting in 1936. Since then, despite the increase in population, exploration, and animal collecting, nothing more has been heard about it. I'm afraid I must conclude that these old tales refer back to exaggerated stories of the more prosaic Varanus salvadorii.

Reference: Walker Pearson, "The thing that eats men", The Wide World January 1955, pp 166-171. (This was the Australian edition; the UK and US editions were probably December 1954.)

Here's a more recent Youtube.


  1. Great read, a monitor of some size seems likely. I think this cryptid also goes by the name of Artrellia, and is believed to eat men and live in the tree tops.

  2. These things die out mercilessly. The drought sent people over hunting bush meat, leading to food shortage. Any such creature then becomes bushmeat to brave souls with guns, if they had to just shot and killed them before then.