The hunt for Mokele-mbembe
The search for Scotland's Loch Ness Monster is world famous. Far less well-known is the hunt for a similar creature, Mokele-mbembe, which is reputed to live in the remote north of Congo-Brazzaville. But how strong is the evidence?
"I checked maps, and the data on the maps was white. It said, 'insufficient data to delineate terrain'. Well that got me!" says Dr Roy Mackal, a retired biologist from the University of Chicago.
"It's the end of the world. It gives you a feeling of a surviving prehistoric time."
In the 1980s, Dr Mackal led two expedition teams to the vast Likouala swamp and rainforest area of the Congo which is inhabited by pygmies, on the hunt for this mystery creature - Africa's version of Scotland's Loch Ness Monster.
The Mokele-mbembe is reputed to be a large reptile-like creature, with a long neck, and long tail.
Despite being a herbivore, it is said to roar aggressively if approached by humans. Some say it has a single horn, which it uses to kill elephants.
Many a Western explorer over the years has been gripped by the tantalising possibility that they could discover a creature - a formidable one at that - that has remained, as yet, unknown to science.
Rising 'out the water'
To date, there have been more than 50 expeditions to the region, but no scientific evidence, unless you include the large claw-shaped footprint recorded by a French missionary in 1776, and by a number of others since.
The only photographic images have been so fuzzy, they prove nothing.
But there is no shortage of eyewitness reports.
"I was in a boat on the river when I saw Mokele-mbembe. He began to chase us. Mokele-mbembe rose out of the water," one man told the BBC. "We ran, or he would have killed us."
Paul Ohlin, a community development worker who spent more than 10 years living with the Bayaka in Congo and the Central African Republic, just to the north, says the people who live in the area are in no doubt about the creature's existence.
"When people are sitting around the campfire talking, they talk about the Mokele-mbembe - it's something that's a reality in everyday life," he says.
At the same time he emphasises their "spiritual connection" and "mystical relationship" with it.
"The way they see the world is a little different to the way you and I see it," says Paul.
But their eyewitness reports still need to be taken seriously, in his view.
"Certainly mythology surrounds it," says Adam Davies, a British man who spends his spare time and money travelling the world in search of undocumented species, and has twice gone to Africa on the trail of the Mokele-mbembe.
"But when you put it to people, 'Is this a real creature?' they become quite affronted… and they consistently came out with physical descriptions."
"Never dismiss tribal accounts on the basis that they must be talking tosh because they are tribal - that's not right and it's actually disrespectful," he says.
The field of cryptozoology - the search for large, unproven species - extends well beyond the realms of mainstream science.
But those who believe Mokele-mbembe exists point out that some animals once dismissed by science have turned out to be real.
The most often cited example is the okapi - a cloven-hoofed mammal with zebra-like stripes on its legs, which lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just to the east of Congo-Brazzaville.
In the 19th Century, there was talk among Westerners in Africa of the existence of an "African unicorn" and the explorer Henry Morton Stanley - who had earlier tracked down the missing missionary, Dr David Livingstone - reported seeing a mysterious donkey-like animal on a journey through the Congo in the late 1880s.
It was only in 1901 that the okapi was properly documented and identified as a relative of the giraffe.
"I'd put Mokele-mbembe in the same category as the Loch Ness Monster," says Bill Laurance, professor at James Cook University in Australia, a conservation biologist and an expert in tropical rainforests.
"My gut sense is that the likelihood of the creature actually existing today is small.
"However, one thing you learn early on in science is never say never. We are still discovering new species all the time."
The Likouala region in the north-east of Congo Brazzaville is the kind of place that it is easy to imagine containing hidden mysteries. Congolese government officials say 80% of its 66,000 sq km is uncharted. Much of it is dense, often flooded forest, forming part of the second largest rainforest in the world.
"The idea of a creature which is very rare, living in a very remote area with a vast size to it, is not remotely implausible," argues Adam Davies.
But some wonder about the motivations of the Congolese who promote the existence of the creature.
US writer Rory Nugent who went to Congo in search of the Mokele-mbembe and wrote a book about his experience, Drums Along the Congo, says he saw "an elegant French curve moving through the water".
He believes it might have been the head of the famed creature, but he is also deeply sceptical.
"The guides were screaming about a god beast. Whether it was part of the show, whether there was somebody swimming under the water with flippers pushing a cardboard piece across the lake, I couldn't tell you."
Taking foreigners on expeditions to try to find the Mokele-mbembe is a good "money making operation" for those involved, he adds.
Mr Nugent fears that one day a kind of "Disneyland Congo" could be created in the area - similar to the tourist trap around Loch Ness - with scientists and tourists from the world flying in and out.
Those who believe the Mokele-mbembe exists argue that with further dedication of time and resources, one will eventually be tracked down.
But might the discovery of the creature be an anti-climax? Perhaps the mystery is what we enjoy most.
"I think there is a basic need or drive to entertain possibilities just outside of our reach," says psychology professor Jacqueline Woolley of the University of Texas.
"There is the excitement in believing that what seems impossible or improbable could potentially exist."
She says that for belief in creatures like the Mokele-mbembe to take hold, they "can't be too wacky and far out - they must be similar to real entities," but vary in just one or two ways.
"I realise my bias," admits Dr Mackal, who is now in his 80s. "I'm interested in discovering unknown species of animals."
"But I think that Mokele-mbembe still exist, and there isn't just one - they are reproducing," he contends.
"At 86 years old, I would dearly love to be alive if and when the animals are discovered." - BBC
Tuna fetches record $736K in Tokyo
This tuna is worth savoring: It cost nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.
A bluefin tuna caught off northeastern Japan fetched a record 56.49 million yen, or about $736,000, Thursday in the first auction of the year at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market. The price for the 593-pound (269-kilogram) tuna beat last year's record of 32.49 million yen.
The price translates to 210,000 yen per kilogram, or $1,238 per pound — also a record, said Yutaka Hasegawa, a Tsukiji market official.
Though the fish is undoubtedly high quality, the price has more to do with the celebratory atmosphere that surrounds the first auction of the year.
The winning bidder, Kiyoshi Kimura, president of Kiyomura Co., which operates the Sushi-Zanmai restaurant chain, said he wanted to give Japan a boost after last year's devastating tsunami.
"Japan has been through a lot the last year due to the disaster," a beaming Kimura told AP Television News. "Japan needs to hang in there. So I tried hard myself and ended up buying the most expensive one."
Kimura also said he wanted to keep the fish in Japan "rather than let it get taken overseas."
Last year's bid winners were Hong Kong entrepreneur Ricky Cheng, who runs the Hong Kong-based chain Itamae Sushi, and an upscale Japanese restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza district.
This year's record tuna was caught off Oma, in Aomori prefecture and just north of the tsunami-battered coast.
Bluefin tuna is prized for its tender red meat. The best slices of fatty bluefin — called "o-toro" here — can sell for 2,000 yen ($24) per piece at tony Tokyo sushi bars.
A Sushi-Zanmai shop in Tsujiki was selling fatty tuna sushi from the prized fish for 418 yen ($5.45) apiece Thursday.
"It's superb. I can do nothing but smile. I am very happy," said Kosuke Shimogawara, a 51-year-old customer, who pointed out that if sold at cost, each piece of sushi could cost as much as 8,000 yen ($96).
"It's unbelievable. President Kimura is so generous. I have to say thank you to him," he said.
Japanese eat 80 percent of the Atlantic and Pacific bluefins caught — the most sought-after by sushi lovers. Japanese fishermen, however, face growing calls for tighter fishing rules amid declining tuna stocks worldwide.
In November 2010, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas voted to cut the bluefin fishing quota in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean by about 4 percent, from 13,500 to 12,900 metric tons annually. It also agreed on measures to try to improve enforcement of quotas on bluefin.
The decision was strongly criticized by environmental groups, which hoped to see bluefin fishing slashed or suspended. - kasa
NOTE: Raw bluefin tuna is very good...but not at those prices. Lon
Sarah...get your gun!
A teenage mother shot and killed an intruder after a 911 operator said she was allowed to defend her infant son and herself with force.
Sarah McKinley, 18, killed Justin Martin with a single gunshot wound on New Year's Eve when he forced his way into her Blanchard, Okla. home and came at her with a long hunting knife, ABC News reports.
The deadly encounter occurred about a week after the young mom's husband died of cancer, according to TV station KOCO. Martin darkened McKinley's door on the day of her husband's funeral, several days before the shooting. He claimed he was a neighbor who wanted to say hello, but she didn't open the door.
Martin returned with an accomplice on Dec. 31, and they tried to force their way into the modest house. When McKinley heard the men trying to break in, she called 911.
She also holed up in her bedroom with a 12-gauge shotgun and a pistol, while she put a bottle in her three-month-old son's mouth.
"I've got two guns in my hand -- Is it okay to shoot him if he comes in this door?" McKinley asked the 911 operator.
"I can't tell you that you can do that, but you do what you have to do to protect your baby," the dispatcher told McKinley when she asked a second time. The call went on for 21 minutes as the men powered their way into McKinley's house.
Eventually, Martin kicked in the door and charged at her with a knife, but McKinley fired before he could injure her.
Police found Martin slumped over a couch that McKinley had used to barricade the door and pronounced him dead on the scene, TV station News 9 reports. They said McKinley's use of force was justified.
Martin's alleged accomplice, Dustin Stewart, fled when he heard the gunshot and later surrendered to police, according to The Oklahoman. Stewart was charged with burglary. - THP
The fight for Joan of Arc's soul
Almost six centuries after she was burnt by the English, President Nicolas Sarkozy will lead a commando operation tomorrow to free Joan of Arc from captivity.
Not from English captivity but from her status as a foreigner-bashing, official heroine of the French far right. Friday marks the 600 anniversary of Joan’s birth. Mr Sarkozy will take time out from rescuing the French and European economies to attend a series of events in her native village of Domrémy-la-Pucelle in the Vosges. He will also visit Vaucouleurs in Meuse, where Joan or Jeanne or Jehanne (1412-1431) spent the early part of her brief career as a religious visionary and resistance leader.
The xenophobic National Front adopted Jeanne d’Arc as an icon of ultra-nationalism two decades ago. The NF will celebrate her 600 birthday with an open-air rally led by the party’s leader Marine Le Pen and its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in Paris on Saturday.
President Sarkozy first attempted to wrestle Joan from far-right ownership during his bid for election in 2007. So did his principal rival, Ségolène Royal. Although the president is not yet a declared candidate, his appearances tomorrow will, in effect, mark his entry to this spring’s presidential campaign.
Implicitly or explicitly, Mr Sarkozy will, like Joan, pose as the saviour of a French way of life menaced by arrogant external forces and internal divisions and weaknesses. He will imply that he, not the National Front, is the true guarantor of French nationhood.
There is nothing new in posthumous attempts to recruit Joan of Arc to political or religious causes. She was virtually forgotten by the French for 400 years, until her re-invention first as a patriotic-republican and then as a religious-conservative heroine in the mid 19th century. In the US and Canada, she has become a feminist icon: a symbol of girl power. In Latin America, she is claimed by the revolutionary Left as one of the first popular, resistance leaders, a female Che in chain mail. In 1920 Joan was canonised by Rome as part of a campaign by the French church to recapture the soul of France from godless republicanism.
But who was the real Jeanne d’Arc? The story is well known. A cross-dressing peasant girl who came from nowhere, directed by “voices” of saints, to lead the French armies and defeat the English. She lifted a cruel siege of Orléans; created a sense of French nationhood; changed the course of the Hundred Years War; but was betrayed by French traitors and burned by the English as a heretic and a witch.
The problem is that, according to recent French historical studies, little of that is true. Jeanne never really led the French armies. She was a kind of mascot in armour. She was repudiated by the French king and ended as an independent, guerrilla leader. Her entire military career lasted just over a year. The Hundred Years War continued for 22 years after her death. In any case, her enemies were also French and Burgundian in what amounted to a desultory, muddled, three-way civil conflict.
Joan was sent by the dauphin, later King Charles VII, to relieve Orléans in April 1429, as part of a food convoy. She galvanised the city's defenders, who were under no real threat from a relatively small attacking force. They assaulted a few English outposts and the English army retreated.
She had played no great part in the skirmishes but became a heroine for Charles' previously demoralised forces, who won a couple of serious battles. Charles was anointed king and then, on Jeanne's urging, marched on pro-“English” Paris and was utterly routed.
Charles VII rejected Jeanne's messianic zeal to “boot out the English” and sought diplomatic solutions. Disgusted, she fought a brief guerrilla war, with a small band of devotees. She was captured by the Burgundians outside Compiègne on 29 May, 1430.
King Charles ungratefully refused to ransom her. The English paid £10,000 and handed her to the church, which strongly disapproved of peasant girls who spoke to saints. After a lengthy trial in Rouen, in which Jeanne defended herself with great intelligence and dignity, she was condemned for heresy and witchcraft (partly for having worn a man's clothes). She recanted, to avoid the stake, but a few days later was “found” in her cell dressed as a man. For having “relapsed”, she was burned alive.
Joan herself claimed that her women's clothes had been taken away. She had to dress as a man or go naked. This was probably a medieval sting operation, conducted by anti-Joan elements in the French church and the University of Paris.
Revisionism can go too far. The legend of Joan helped to solidify the “French forces” after her death. She did therefore play some part in booting the English out of France. Her second, posthumous trial, which cleared her in 1456, was a symbol of the post-war creation of a first, true sense of French national identity.
The transcripts of her two trials mean that Jeanne's personality and voice have survived through the centuries: calm, obstinate, driven but not really the voice of a fanatic. We learn, among other things, that she was a wonderful cook and a good-looking woman with large breasts.
Jeanne d’Arc was plainly a creature of a 15th century in which people, recovering from the black death and beset by terrible wars, saw signs and omens all around them. She is also oddly modern and inspired writers from George Bernard Shaw to Mark Twain, Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht because of the mental strength that she - an illiterate teenager - displayed in standing up to her malevolent inquisitors.
It is possible to dismiss Jeanne/Joan as a medieval fanatic. It is also possible to recognise in her the stirrings of belief in the individual conscience, one of the building blocks of western modernity. To make her a heroine for xenophobes is to diminish her. To recruit her, 600 years on, to a struggling president’s re-election campaign is ridiculous. She belongs to all of us.
National icons: Saint George
It is not only France that has a problem with far-right political parties appropriating national symbols as their own. England's patron saint is celebrated by right-wing extremist parties such as the British National Party (BNP), the English Defence League and the League of St George as a heroic symbol of the English ideals of honour and courage.
The BNP leader, Nick Griffin, was flanked by a party member dressed in a St George costume when he launched the party's manifesto on St George's Day in 2010.
Little is known about the almost mythical dragon-slaying saint, but he may not have been the most appropriate symbol for such nationalistic parties. Legend has it that he was born in Cappadocia (now Turkey) and lived in Palestine before becoming a Roman soldier. It is doubtful that he ever visited Britain. - independent
Joan of Arc: Her Story
Maid of Heaven: The Story of Saint Joan of Arc
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