Mystery 'Bigfoot' ape hidden inside remote museum could rewrite history books

Exclusive: Yahoo has spoken with the world's top primate experts as debate over the strange creature's species grows.

Background - a pick up truck on the dusty bushmeat highway, stacked up with bikes. Inset - the Chimporilla strung up in a tree.
The 200kg Chimporilla has been called a devil, a gorilla, a chimpanzee, and a new animal. Source: Kisangani University/Cleve Hicks

When the 200kg animal was first encountered by Congolese villagers they feared it was a “devil” or a “monster”. Six years on, the “Chimporilla” has eluded classification because the world’s top primatologists are split on whether it's a gorilla, chimpanzee, hybrid, or some strange new creature.

One conservationist has declared it's confounding mystery similar to the legendary North American "Bigfoot".

Kisangani University’s Dr Casimir Nebesse was part of a team that retrieved the Chimporilla's lifeless body from a tree and collected it for scientific research in 2018. He had been contacted by villagers who claimed to have killed it in self-defence. “They told us this animal had made trouble. It destroyed the crops, banana plants, cassava, then it began to attack the population of this village," he told Yahoo News Australia.


The 'Chimporilla' is now displayed at the university's museum in Kisangani. Source: Conserv Congo/Adams Cassinga

The Chimporilla was found in the town of Bayaguma on Congo's “Bushmeat Highway”, 25km from Kisangani. But despite there being hundreds of dead jungle animals strung up for sale along the notorious stretch of road, villagers had never encountered anything similar.

They claimed the giant male primate had killed a person so they shot it 12 times — one bullet brutally pierced its face, killing it.

But what's worth noting here is that experts with knowledge of human and ape conflict, report that whenever a primate is killed by villagers, they are nearly always described as the aggressor. But more often than not the creature is simply scavenging for food because its jungle home has been destroyed to make way for a plantation.

But one thing that appears clear is the reported uniqueness of the animal as no similar remains have been collected in the area – however an unverified story suggests villagers may have killed and eaten a female and her baby days before the male attacked.

The Congo has been plagued by civil war and the situation inside the country remains treacherous — highlighted by an attempted military coup in May. But for animals, the dangers they face are also dire including threats from mining, development, poachers and worst of all the bushmeat trade — a 2021 United Nations report found it to be a key driver of extinction.

The city of Kisangani is home to 1.6 million people, but despite its size, the city is difficult to reach by road as it’s located in the middle of the jungle and surrounded by rivers.

After the Chimporilla was dissected, its blood, kidneys, lungs, heart, liver, muscles and spleen were collected for genetic testing. Its massive hands were measured at over 22cm long and its feet are even bigger at 28cm.

Its skin was mounted, and its taxidermied remains are now displayed at a museum in Kisangani where it has remained largely "hidden" from the world's attention simply due to distance.

One man who has been determined enough to have studied the Chimporilla is Congolese conservationist Adams Cassinga. For him, the Chimporilla could be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to undiscovered natural wonders living in the Congo's impenetrable jungle. And it's them he is trying to protect as profit-driven humans cut deeper into territories that have been the domain of animals.

He is unsure what sort of creature the Chimporilla is, but he compares it to a Sasquatch or Bigfoot.

"But there is a difference," he points out. "This one is visible, it is there at the museum and I want to find out what it is."

Unverified reports of chimpanzee and gorilla hybrids roaming remote parts of the Congo date back to the nineteenth century. A legendary "Koolakamba" that was transported from Africa to Germany was described as large and “unmanageable”. Like the Chimporilla, scientists could not agree on what species it was.

A map showing of the Congo showing the distance between  the Chimporilla discovery site and Maiko the closest known gorilla population.
A map shows the distance between the Chimporilla discovery site and Maiko, the closest known gorilla population. Source: Google Earth

The physical characteristics of gorillas and chimpanzees can vary between locations, and for decades there have been several controversial claims by scientists that they have discovered new species. In 2003, popular media reported accounts of large, aggressive apes living in the Bili region at the end of the Bushmeat Highway. Some even claimed they howled at the moon.

But although they are culturally divergent, and sometimes nest on the ground like gorillas, most researchers do not believe the Bili ape's genetics are significantly different from other chimpanzee populations.

When it comes to the Chimporilla, University of Kisangani experts believe there’s no mystery and it is simply a lost gorilla — that’s what they reported after its body was dissected. But looking internationally not everyone agrees, and Yahoo has contacted experts in Poland, UK and remote corners of Africa in an attempt to solve the mystery.

Little is known of the Chimporilla before it died, but we have acquired several rare images of him. One gruesome still shows the animal strung up in a tree where it was killed.

Another shows him on the back of a pick-up truck three days after he was shot. Others are too bloody to publish as they show the Chimporilla being dissected.

The Chimporilla was discovered dead and strung up in a tree after it was shot 12 times. Source: Kisangani University
The Chimporilla was discovered dead and strung up in a tree after it was shot 12 times. Source: Kisangani University
Biologists wearing gloves examining the Chimoprilla in Kisangani back in 2018.
Biologists examined the Chimoprilla and dissected its body. Source: Kisangani University

Having studied other primates along the Bushmeat Highway, primatologist Dr Cleve Hicks is fearful for creatures like the Chimporilla. On his drive between Kisangani and Bili more than a decade ago, he saw hundreds of monkey carcasses and okapi skins.

“We found something like 42 chimp orphans to the north of where [the Chimporilla] came from. And for every orphan you see in a market, we can estimate that 10 adults have been killed,” he told Yahoo from his office in Warsaw.

“We have found a new chimp culture up there, what we think is the largest continuous population of chimps on the planet, and we risk losing it."

Dr Cleve Hicks posing with the animal.
Dr Cleve Hicks studied the Chimporilla's remains during a visit to the museum. Source: Supplied
A baby chimp leaning against a wall on the Bushmeat Highway.
Ten adult chimpanzees are often killed by poachers just to secure one baby. Source: Cleve Hicks

Because the Chimporilla was shot hundreds of kilometres away from known gorilla ranges, Hicks is certain he knows what species it is.

“I have a pretty strong opinion on what I think it is. And it’s a bit of a controversial one. But I need to point out I’m not certain, this is just what I think” he said.

“I would love it to be a gorilla. But if it was, it would be mind-blowing. It would rewrite the history or biology books on the distribution of the gorilla. Because it would put them hundreds of kilometres away from the closest ones we know of.”

Hicks had heard rumours of the Chimporilla for years and was delighted when he was shown its taxidermied body when visiting Kisangani.

“It’s mounted in a way to look like a gorilla. And it definitely is a big male ape — an intimidating looking fellow. But it’s quite decayed, so I cannot be sure, but looking at the facial structure it looks like a male chimp. In fact I'd eat my hat if it's not a chimp."

A sketch of the Chimporilla by Cleve Hicks. It's in black and white and was drawn in 2023
After studying the Chimporilla and sketching its likeness in 2023, Hicks determined it was a chimpanzee. Source: Cleve Hicks

World renowned gorilla expert Ian Redmond cut his teeth working as a researcher for Sir David Attenborough, and he’s since appeared in over 50 wildlife documentaries. While he hasn’t seen the taxidermied specimen in person, he was willing to share a theory.

Convinced the animal is most likely a gorilla, he believes it could be a “stray individual” that fled an attack from humans or other primates further east and kept walking until it arrived at the village where it was shot. Others believe it could be an escaped pet, and some controversially think it could be a part of an undocumented gorilla population.

"We don't know the accuracy of the provenance, because sometimes animals get carted around on the back of the bicycle, if they think you can get a better price somewhere else," Redmond said.

"Or it could be that somebody ordered a gorilla. In some tribal cultures gorilla meat in reserved for the chiefs and the big men. So if a chief is hosting neighbouring chiefs, it's disrespectful not to serve them gorilla because gorilla is big man's meat.

"But then you wouldn't think that culture would exist where gorillas didn't."

Redmond's believes the Chimporilla is a gorilla based on the photographs and a university report we shared with him.

“It doesn’t appear to have large ears. Chimpanzees have big ears and gorillas have little ears,” he said.

"However, the silvering on the back is more chimp-like. But it's not a very big animal. It's big for a chimp, but not for a gorilla. From the shape of its nostrils it looks like a Grauer’s gorilla that’s not fully mature.”

The Chimporilla lying dead on the back of a pickup truck.
A rare photo shows the Chimporilla on the back of a pick-up truck before it was dissected. Bullet wounds can be seen on its face and body. Source: Kisangani University

Field biologist Dr John Hart has come to a different conclusion. He’s lived in the Congo since the early 1970s and describes the Chimporilla as an “only in the Congo type of story”.

Like Hicks, Hart believes the animal is a chimp, but he thinks the debate could possibly be resolved with a DNA test.

"Samples were taken but mysteriously no one has ever seen the results of genetic analysis," he said.

“Maybe you’re onto an incredible discovery or maybe it’s a hoax. It is fun though. It’s a great little story.”

Genetic samples were collected in 2018, but they’ve never been tested due to a series of delays caused by problems acquiring endangered primate tissue export permits.

For years, the samples had been stored at Kisangani University and they only made their way to Belgium for DNA testing in January 2024.

The woman who has the power to test them is eco-wildlife biologist Dr Anne Laudisoit. She spoke to Yahoo as she waited for a flight out of Zanzibar, and excitingly she has agreed to begin the process of DNA sequencing.

Laudisoit said there was excitement when they were first collected. Researchers were initially leaning to it being a gorilla, because that's what it looked like when it was strung up in a tree. She believes this assumption about its species seemed to influence the way it was displayed at the museum.

“When the taxidermy was done on the specimen, it was really mounted to have the attitude of a gorilla. Then we thought it might also be a chimp for some reason, but it’s never really been decided,” she said.

Because the samples took so long to ship, they became less of a priority. They now sit at the University of Antwerp. But Laudisoit believes they can be sent to the city’s zoo for testing this year.

However skeptics fear because the testing of the specimens has taken so long, they could have been compromised years ago. They suspect the results will only produce a clue rather than a complete understanding of what species the mysterious Chimporilla is.

If the Chimporilla's identity is ever truly confirmed, Adams Cassinga believes it will be "sad" to see the end of the mystery. But he hopes its story will lure scientists to the Congo, so they will conduct more research into other animals that are yet to be formally described. The more that is known about them, the more effort can be made to protect the jungle they call home from human destruction.

“I don’t think a lot of people have been aware of the Chimporilla, it's just been a Congolese story and sometimes people don't give a damn about us," he said.

"There are way too many dark stories in Congo and all the intriguing and beautiful stories are always overshadowed,” he said.

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