Monday, 16 July 2012

"Colloque Cryptozoolgie", Dinant, Belgium

This first appeared in Fortean Times, issue 290, July 2012. I have corrected the French-language spelling mistakes that appeared in the print article, and for which I apologise. (Thirty-year old French O Level, as alluded to in the report!)

Dinant local boy Adolphe Sax immortalised sitting on a bench in the street outside his former house

The Belgian town of Dinant lies at the foot of the Ardennes mountains and at the end of the railway line from Brussels. You've done Dinant in a couple of hours, taking in the grey, onion-domed church and the cable car ride to the citadel that dominates the town. Local boy Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, is immortalised in bronze, sitting on a bench on the pavement with his instrument outside La Maison De Monsieur Sax, "more or less on the spot where his original house stood."

But I wasn't in this underwhelming small town in Belgium to pay homage to Monsieur Sax. I had come to Dinant for the annual "Colloquium of Cryptozoology" – a whole weekend of cryptozoology talks – in French!

The eleventh colloque de crypotozoologie was in a nearby hotel that had its own forest in its grounds. The colloque had long breaks for meals – with cherry beers and chocolate mouse because, "we are in Belgium, after all." Talks were generally a shortish 40 minutes or less – of which I was glad, seeing as they were in a foreign language in which I had only a 30-year-old O-Level.

The town of Dinant, onion-domed church on the River Meuse in the foreground, citadel built by the Dutch during their brief occupation of Belgium in the background

It was a cosy affair with less than forty attendees. Most punters hailed not from Belgium but from France – a mother and daughter from just outside Paris, two Parisians of Russian origin and a retired couple the way from Marseilles, another six hours by train after a change at Brussels. This made my Eurostar commute from London to "any Belgian station" (according to my ticket) look easy. I found those from the South of France easier to understand than the Parisians and Walloons, (Francophone Belgians) whose French was harder to follow.

"Any Belgian station"

Ornithologist Jean-Jacques Barloy kicked off proceedings, lecturing on (as far as I could tell!) "Audubon's mysterious birds." Apart from his better-known encounter with a huge "Washington's eagle" (FT 262), ornithologist and artist John James Audubon described in his 1839 masterwork Birds of America other birds unknown to science (FT222:42–44). These included the small-headed flycatcher, the carbonated swamp warbler, Cuvier's kinglet and Townsend's bunting.

The mystery bunting, based on a specimen sent to the Smithsonian by one John Townsend, may have been a more colourful bird that lost its pigment during its preservation or storage. Barloy says Audubon's mystery kinglets, warblers and flycatchers were down to his tendency to name birds based on their resemblance to bird families in Europe, when they were really nothing of the sort. These birds were "misidentified or confused" rather than unknown.

Chemist and telecommunications engineer Michel Raynal said reading about the "Florida Monster" in Charles Fort’s Lo! first got him into cryptozoology thirty years ago. The lack of concrete evidence for cryptids "poses a problem of proof", but Raynal gave examples of, "in the total absence of sightings," animals whose existence was correctly predicted before their eventual discovery.

Michel Raynal

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace both noted that Madagascan orchids "each had a corresponding pollinating insect" but for the magic orchid Angraecum sesquiipedale, the pollinator was unknown. The 20cm nectar tubes sticking out of the magic orchid suggested that whatever pollinated it would need a proboscis around 25cm (11 inches) long. Wallace compared the "search for such a creature" with the then recent discovery of the planet Neptune – found by observing "perturbations" in other planetary orbits. Walter Rothschild discovered the mystery missing moth Xanthopan morgana praedicta ("predicted") in 1902, with a proboscis of the anticipated length.

The entire population of the small, dark brown Guyanan lizard Gymnopthalamus underwoodi is female. It reproduces pathogenically. Raynal said that many pathogenic lizard species started as hybrids between two sexually reproductive species, and a sexually reproducing lizard Gymnopthalamus speciousis was known from the same habitat. Some bits of DNA in G. underwoodi weren't in G. speciousis, allowing scientists to predict the DNA sequence of the missing species that hybridised to produce G. underwoodi – with considerable accuracy, as it turned out when the aptly-named lizard species Gymnopthalamus cryptus was finally discovered up in 1993.

Raynal also noted reports of rhinos from apparently rhino-free Gabon. The African nation of Gabon does, however, have some recently evolved ticks now feeding on a range of big mammals – bison, for example – but very similar to specialised rhino ticks. Rhinos ticks are, notes Michel, easier to produce than “testimonial proof”.

A selection of rhino ticks

Doctor of cinematography Florent Barrère looked at the now well-known giant squid, and the more dubious giant octopus or "kraken octopus", once believed to lurk somewhere off the Cote d’Azur. Pierre Denys De Montfort's 1802 Histoire Naturelle de Mollusces includes a "colossal octopus" along with De Montfort's drawing from an ex-voto in the chapel of St Omar in St Malo, Brittany, giving thanks for saving the life of a sailor threatened by a gigantic octopus.

De Montfort's drawing of a common octopus, suspiciously similar to his "kraken octopus"

In De Montfort's drawing, the octopuses' huge tentacles coil round the rigging of a ship. The problem is the De Montfort's is the only existing account or image of the ex-voto in the chapel, which was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944. The ex-voto, possibly based on secondhand accounts collected from Dunkirk sailors by De Montfort, may never have existed. And elsewhere in Historie Naturelle de Mollusces there's a drawing of a common octopus looking exactly like its colossal cousin.

We were then treated to the "Belgian premiere" of Marie Voignier's documentary L’Hypothèse du Mokélé Mbêmbé – with English subtitles, hurrah! It follows a permanently glum Michel Ballot through the dense, noisy jungle of Congo Brazzaville in search of an alleged living dinosaur. Ballot has a remarkable resemblance to scary German actor Klaus Kinski. His appearance and demeanour lend an already odd enterprise that otherworldly quality familiar from the tense Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski going-mad-in-the-jungle movies Fitzcorraldo and Aguirre: Wrath of God. Recommended! Ms Voignier (on the left, with Ballot on the right in this photo) couldn’t make it in person, nor did she provide any more information about her mysterious film, although she hopes to do so next year.

Sunday's talks started early so those with a train to catch in Paris could get there before French presidential election campaign madness gripped the city. The day opened with sixth-form college English teacher Alain Bonet. The fortean-tinged French blockbuster movie Le Pacte Des Loupes (The Brotherhood of the Wolf) inspired him to research the "Beast of Gévaudan" – the creature (or creatures) that terrorised a region of southwestern France from 1764. Several official hunts, some with thousands of royal dragoons, led to several courtiers and military men ending their careers when attacks resumed again, before these fizzled out three years later.

Bonet found a surprising number of original documents still survive from that era. Some attacks were recorded twice or mis-transcribed – one boy victim of La Bête became a girl in the next report of the same incident. From this data Bonet has drawn up "the definitive list" of La Bête's victims – 128+ attacks, 49+ attacks with wounds, deaths 104, total 281+. Most attacks were on girls or women, or males under 16 – men outdoors would have usually carried tools or weapons.

English teacher and Beast of Gévaudan enthusiast Alain Bonet

One of the two animals shot in hunts for La Bête was an "extraordinary wolf" but smaller, with too many teeth. Hybrid wolf-dogs and unlikely wolf-hyena hybrids were among the explanations offered. Bonet suggests La Bête was a wolf showing unusual behaviour, so startling that witnesses misidentified it. While there are records of attacks on humans by wolves in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, these were definitely wolves, not a “bête exotique”. Contemporary France had more of these, such as la Bête de Toulon and la Bête de Cote’Azur.

Father of cryptozoology Bernard Heuvelmans was, of course, Belgian, and Catherine Gravet, doctor of literature at UMONS University in Brussels, examined the 25 different "argumentative techniques" Heuvelmans employed in his apparent mission to convert the world to his cryptozoological ideas.

Dr Gravet's revelations on Heuvelmans were more bizarre than any of the weekend's mystery animals. Heuvelmans regarded cryptozoology as "more important than oncology" – the study of cancers. He was disturbingly keen on indoctrinating "the youth" to his crypto-crusade. He sent Tintin's creator Hergé a dossier of cuttings and drawings – made by one of Heuvelman's several brief wives, an illustrator – of the yeti. This insinuated its way into Hergé's interpretation of the yeti in Tintin in Tibet. Heuvelmans used his influence to ensure that bestselling Belgian adolescent paperback thriller series Bob Morane (he's a secret agent who saves the world) included a Heuvelmans-quoting sidekick and a civilisation of tool-using yetis who join Morane in fighting the perfidious Chinese Communists.

Dr Catherine Gravet

The signature of Tintin's creator Hergé greets Eurostar arrivals at the top of the escalator at Brussels South Station

And another woman who was briefly Madame Huevelmans – Monique Watteau, aka Alica Lindburgh – channelled Heuvelman's eccentric mission to convert unbelievers to cryptozoology through a series of messianic "eroto-fantastique" novels.

There was one other Brit at the Dinant gig, marine biologist Dr Charles Paxton, and we both learnt an important French word that weekend – témoignages –"sightings". With Monsieur Bonet the English teacher translating into French, Dr Paxton told how he number-crunched data from sea monster accounts from 1758-2000. He concluded that the creatures seen were "closer than you'd get by chance alone", suggesting witnesses underestimated the distance they were from the animal. He put a two-metre high model of a "tall black monster" on Lake Windermere, and asked people to describe it. While it was actually 337 metres away, most people described it as 500 metres away.

Children proved "lousy witnesses" in Paxton's Windermere experiment, female witnesses "significantly underestimated" the upright object's size, "males slightly over-estimated" its height. This prompted much Gallic giggling and a joke by Monsieur Raynal in French, the only word of which I caught was "pénis."

Dr Paxton has also extrapolated from a curve of discoveries of marine animals over two metres in length since Linnaeus that there remain quite a few whales yet to be discovered. There are only two known marine reptiles "above two metres", the leatherback turtle and the estuarine crocodile (sea snakes aren't quite long enough to make the grade). This, concludes Dr Paxton, makes it "statistically unlikely" that any sea monsters out there yet to be discovered will turn out to be plesiosaurs or other reptiles.

Dr Charles Paxton, en Anglais!

Self confessed "Belgian bigfooter" Eric Joye is the director of Abepar asbl, the organisation that organises the colloque, although Eric pretty much is Abepar asbl. Eric ended the colloque with his account of his latest trip to British Columbia in search of the elusive hominid. He had already treated attendees to his impressions of sasquatch grunts, screams and calls over dinner. He described the chilling experience of hearing a sasquatch call, imitating it and getting a response. Although coyotes are also good mimics, and Eric once got a coyote yelp in response to his impressions, the sasquatch call was "recognisably not a coyote."

Eric Joye

The French-speaking crypto-scene seems more rigorous in its researches than its English-language equivalent, which is too often reliant on enthusiasm alone. At the Dinant crypto-gig, cryptozoology was seen as a discipline, not a hobby, with consideration given to "investigative tools and "the rules of evidence". And Francophone "cryptos" understood that you also have to write up your findings in a way that engages the reader. It's a pity so much Francophone crypto-literature, of an intimidatingly high standard, never crosses the language barrier.

Next year, Abepar asbl's director promises conference-goers Dinant's famous koek biscuits traditionally made in the shape of animals, churches and such – but custom-made in the form of a sasquatch footprint.

* "Cryptozoologia", Abepar asbl's website, is at, where there are proceedings from its conferences as (paid-for) downloads. The 12th colloque crytozoologie is in Dinant in April 2013.

* There's a five-minute video of this year's event here.

© Matt Salusbury

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