chapter  3
Cryptids and credulity: The Zanzibar leopard and other imaginary beings
Pages 37

Borges and Guerrero’s playful collaboration, referred to above, takes the form of a parody of medieval bestiaries, and comprises a series of descriptions of ‘imaginary beings’, some of them imagined by the authors themselves and mixing real and sham erudition in Borges’ characteristic style (di Giovanni 2003: 133). It was originally published in 1957, anticipating the appearance in English of Bernard Heuvelmans’ On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), the locus classicus of cryptozoology and model for numerous modern bestiaries.1 Cryptozoology, literally ‘the science of hidden animals’, has been defined as ‘the study of the evidence for animals that are undescribed by science’ (Eberhart 2002: xlvii). ‘Undescribed’ is also unrecognised, and therein lies the contradiction that has led some critics to dismiss cryptozoology as a pseudoscience (for example Simpson 1984: 1), and that exposes its origin in the compilations of ‘fantastic zoology’ that are spoofed by Borges and his co-author(s) (Dendle 2006). There is nothing intrinsically unscientific about searching for new (unde-

scribed) and old (extinct) species, and one cryptozoologist has defined the discipline concisely as ‘a targeted-search methodology for zoological discovery’, noting that it is only one of a number of possible means to achieving this end (Arment 2004: 9). But all too often cryptozoologists’ desire to find hidden species and identify the imaginary as real leads them to downplay the negative evidence that carries more weight with conventional zoologists and ethnozoologists (Simpson 1984: 12-14; Meurger 1988: 11-24). Although there is also a strong tradition of debunking fakes and false claims within cryptozoology, it has failed to establish itself as an academic discipline (Coleman 2002: xxxiii), while

the professional association founded by Heuvelmans and colleagues – the International Society of Cryptozoology – has long since been defunct and its journal (Cryptozoology) extinct (Eberhart 2002: xxvii; see also Turner, this volume). Our epigraph highlights a boundary problem that cryptozoologists have

also struggled with: what kinds of phenomena or imaginary being fall within their remit? The subjects of cryptozoology are generally now referred to as cryptids, on one definition ‘the alleged animals that cryptozoologists study’ (Eberhart 2002: xxiii, also xlvii). Some restrict this to non-microscopic creatures they consider most likely to be discovered to be living species; others include historical and contemporary entities that are more obviously mythical (compare Greenwell 1985; Arment 2004: 11-12, 16-18). In his encyclopaedia Eberhart takes the broader view, and lists ten categories that most of the ‘mystery animals’ in his compilation fall into:

1. Distribution anomalies […] 2. Undescribed, unusual, or outsize variations of known species […] 3. Survivals of recently extinct species […] 4. Survivals of species known only from the fossil record into modern

times […] 5. Survivals of species known only from the fossil record into historical

times […] 6. Animals not known from the fossil record but related to known

species […] 7. Animals not known from the fossil record or bearing a clear relationship

to known species […] 8. Mythical animals with a zoological basis […] 9. Seemingly paranormal or supernatural entities with some animal-like

characteristics […] 10. Known hoaxes or probable misidentifications […]

(2002: xxiii-xxiv)2

The subject of our chapter is the analysis of narratives and statements about an animal, the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi), which might be included in Eberhart’s third category, given that it has been declared by some authorities to be extinct, though many Zanzibaris remain convinced of its continued existence. The classic example of a carnivore in this category is the Thylacine or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), and in a later section we will explore some of the differences and significant parallels between the two cases. Unlike its marsupial analogue, the demise of the Zanzibar leopard has been so recent that zoologists cannot be sure that no individuals survive. In this respect its cryptozoological (and ontological) status remains uncertain. However, as an anthropological analysis of indigenous and other narratives

about the leopard shows, it can be described under more than one of Eberhart’s headings: as the undescribed (and unusual) variation of a known species, as a mythical animal with a zoological basis, and perhaps even as a supernatural

entity with animal-like characteristics. Whereas popular cryptozoology typically reduces the investigation of imaginary beings to a single dimension (‘do they exist or not?’), we argue that only careful anthropological and ethnozoological research can unravel the complexity of cases like that of the Zanzibar leopard and other so-called cryptids. And, as this introduction has implied, cryptozoology itself can also be analysed anthropologically, a subject we will return to briefly in our conclusion.