The Mngwa (or Nunda) is an alleged big cat from the folklore of coastal Tanzania in East Africa.
The man-eating cryptid is native to the forests of eastern Tanzania along the Indian Ocean coast.
The name Mngwa is from a word meaning “mysterious creature.” The creature’s other name Nunda means the “fierce one.” (George Eberhart, 2002).
The creature’s elusive nature probably inspired the name (Mngwa). No one ever provided proof of its existence despite multiple reports from the early 20th century.
Tanzanian folklore describes the Mngwa as a mysterious felid. It exceeds all known species of big cats (genus Panthera) in size, including lions, tigers, and leopards.
Alleged eyewitness accounts described the creature as a ferocious felid the size of a donkey. It has a grey coat with dark tabby cat-like stripes or brindled markings (George Eberhart, 2002).
The markings are described as brindled because they are not as well-defined as a tiger’s stripes. They are more subtle and merge or blend with the background coat color.
The beast has small ears, long, sharp claws, and a thick bushy tail.
The species is allegedly distinguishable from other big cats due to its unique coat color and markings. Its tracks are also easy to identify because although they are similar to the leopard’s track, they are about the size of a lion’s track.
The creature also does not roar like a lion or tiger. Instead, it makes a purring sound similar to the sound of a domestic cat. However, the purring sound is louder and harsher than that of an ordinary domestic cat.
The Mngwa is nocturnal
Reports of the Mngwa sneaking into villages at night to kill adults or carry off children came from the Indian Ocean coastal towns of Lindi and the village of Mchinga in the early 1900s.
Because most encounters with the creature and reported killings occurred at night, the animal is presumed to be a nocturnal hunter.
The natives feared it and reported sightings in a locality often caused mass hysteria due to the belief that the species was habitually man-eating.
Man-eaters are an exception rather than the rule among big cats. Most big cats turn into man-eaters only due to illness, old age, and other conditions that make them unable to catch prey.
Such conditions may include human encroachment and degradation of their natural habitats.
However, people considered the Mngwa an exception because it allegedly hunted and killed humans for food as a matter of choice.
Reports that the Mngwa was responsible for killings in an area led to hunts for the man-eater, but no one ever caught a Mngwa.
An origin story
Tanzanians shared various tales about the origin of the Mngwa or Nunda. According to a Swahili story, a felid pet of Sultan Majnun developed a taste for the flesh of domestic cats.
After killing and eating many local cats, it started killing and eating humans (Karl Shuker, 2010). It killed and ate the sultan’s three eldest sons. When Sultan Majnum sent his men to kill it, it became a Mngwa (Nunda) and escaped to the bush.
The sultan’s youngest son swore revenge. He went to the bush with a party of hunters to track the beast.
In his rage, he mistook several other animals for the Nunda, including a zebra, a rhinoceros, an elephant, a civet, and a giraffe (Karl Shuker, 2010). He finally caught up with the creature asleep under a tree.
It was the size of a donkey. It had sharp claws, teeth, and brindled grey fur.
The sultan’s son killed the animal while it slept and returned home to his father’s gratitude.
Sightings and Tales
Sightings of the Mngwa are rare, but some natives claimed to have seen the creature in the wild. A few European explorers also claimed sightings in the early 20th century.
According to Karl Shuker (2010), a European explorer and hunter named Patrick Bowen tried to track a Mngwa that allegedly killed an infant in a Tanzanian village.
At first, he did not believe native stories about the Mngwa. He thought a lion carried off the child. But when he saw the animal’s tracks, he realized it was not a lion.
Captain William Hichens, 1922
Captain William Hichens, a British colonial official in the former colony of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), reported a series of killings ascribed to the Mngwa in Lindi, a coastal town in southern Tanzania.
Hichens recounted that while he worked as a Native Magistrate in Lindi in 1922, a native constable or askari (colonial police officer) found his colleague missing from his post.
After searching, he found the officer dead under a stall with his body severely mutilated. He reported the incident to his superior officer.
The officer concluded that a predatory animal killed the constable. He believed the culprit was a lion.
Hichens investigated the incident and found grey-colored strands of hair stuck in the victim’s nails and gripped in his dead palms. He concluded that the dead man had grappled with the animal before it killed him.
The observation led to a puzzle because no one knew of any predatory creature in the region with grey hair. Lions in the region’s forests also weren’t known to venture close to the villages and towns.
However, the puzzle appeared resolved when the district governor, an Arab, reported that two men said they had witnessed the attack. The men said they saw a beast attacking the constable and described it as a big cat with a greyish coat and brindle pattern.
The men believed the creature was the Mngwa or Nunda.
Hichens was skeptical but decided to watch overnight with two Askaris. When no Nunda came at night, he dismissed the governor’s story as local superstition.
But soon after, another askari died in similar circumstances. Colleagues found the askari mangled at his post with greyish hair in his hands.
More deaths occurred at Lindi and neighboring villages along the Indian Ocean coast over several weeks. The incidents led to a mass panic among the locals as reports spread about a big cat mauling people at night.
Efforts to trap the creature failed until the killings stopped as mysteriously as they started.
The mystery of the killings was never conclusively resolved.
William Hichens, the 1930s
Another spate of killings ascribed to mysterious big cats occurred in the 1930s in Lindi and its environs.
An old hunter who survived an attack later testified that he had encountered a Mngwa. He described the creature as a big cat with a grey coat and brindled stripes.
Hichens considered the man a reliable witness because he was a veteran hunter with years of experience tracking and killing man-eating felids.
Many wildlife experts and cryptozoologists believe eyewitnesses might have mistaken known species for a cryptid.
The creatures that people might have mistaken for a Mngwa include
The African golden cat
The cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans suggested that the Mngwa was likely the African golden cat (Caracal aurata or Profelis aurata).
The African golden cat is a species of wild cat native to the rainforests of West and Central Africa. It also lives in Central and East Africa. Wildlife experts consider the golden cat one of the most elusive wild cats.
Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker agreed with Heuvelmans that the golden cat was the best candidate for the Mngwa. He noted that the species has a spotted grey morph that most closely matched alleged eyewitness descriptions of the Mngwa.
The cat ranges in coat color from red and gold to grey and black.
Another alleged trait of the Mngwa that supposedly suggests it could be the African golden cat is its call. Alleged eyewitnesses claimed that the Mngwa did not roar but purred like a domestic cat.
However, Shuker pointed out that the wild cat couldn’t be the Mngwa because it was not as large as descriptions of the Mngwa suggested. The golden cat was bigger than the domestic cat (Felis catus) but smaller than the leopard or lion.
Heuvelmans thus proposed there might be a giant version of the African golden cat unknown to science.
The golden cat was also not as deadly as the legendary Mngwa.
According to authors Mel and Fiona Sunquist in Wild Cats of the World (2002), some East African witchdoctors used to run a lucrative extortion racket that involved threatening to send a lion to kill people if they did not pay up.
To instill fear in people, the witch doctors allegedly sent assassins dressed in lion skins to kill people who refused to pay up.
The “lion men” were known in Tanzania as the mjobo in the 1940s. They killed people and made it look like a man-eating lion had attacked them.
Some skeptics proposed that Mngwa sightings could be due to rare oversized male leopards with unique coat markings.
A surviving prehistoric cat
Many species of prehistoric cats roamed the forests and savannas of Africa during the Pleistocene epoch (c. 2.6 million-12,000 years ago).
Some cryptozoologists proposed that the Mngwa may have been any of them.
Possible species include:
Giant Cheetah (Acinonyx pardinensis)
Scimitar-toothed cat (Homotherium)
Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology by George M. Eberhart (2002).
Mystery cats of the world: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts by Karl Shuker (1989).
Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery by Karl Shuker (2012).
Wild Cats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist(2002).
https://karlshuker.blogspot.com/2010/04/nunda-in-search-of-strange-one.html, “Nunda: In search of the strange one,” accessed on March 24, 2023.
https://karlshuker.blogspot.com/2021/03/is-this-mysterious-painting-portrait-of.html, “Is this mysterious painting a portrait of the Nunda?” accessed on March 24, 2023.