The Panda and the Yeti — Part one
from Aimée Crocker Queen of Bohemia by K.M.C. Taylor
Walter Morgan “Gerald” Russell, Aimée Crocker’s grandson by Gladys and second husband Walter Russell, shared his Bohemian grandmother’s interest in exploring the more exotic and untamed corners of the globe. He was a beautifully built boy who had been a competitive lightweight boxer, judo expert and polo player. Unlike his theatrical father and his flamboyant mother, Gerald was more interested in serious, scientific endeavors — but not in the sterile environment of a laboratory. After college, Russell spent many years in field studies throughout Africa and Asia collecting mammals, reptiles, and amphibians for museums and zoological gardens. He became known for the care and patience he employed in finding specimens.
While collecting zoological treasures during the Percy Sladen Expedition of 1932, Russell and biologist Ivan T. Sanderson had a bizarre and frightening experience in Mamfe Pool, part of the Mainyu River in the high forests of the British Cameroons. Their separate boats were sucked
by swirling currents near the mouth of a cave. Sanderson heard a “gargantuan gurgling roar and something enormous rose out of the water, turned it to sherry-colored foam and then, again roaring, plunged below. This ‘thing’ was shiny black and was the head of something, shaped like a seal but flattened from above to below. (The head) was about the size of a full-grown hippopotamus.” Sanderson and Russell chose not to stick around. The unclassified creature, known as Mokele-mbembe to the natives, was said to have killed all the hippos that once lived there.
The locals told Russell that the ferocious monster was actually not carnivorous; their diet consisting of the llana fruits that grew along the rivers. Some legends describe Mokèlé-mbèmbé as having an elephant-like body with a long neck and tail, a small head, and gray-brown in color, a description which has been suggested by some cryptozoologists to be similar in appearance to that of the extinct Sauropoda. Some traditions, such as those of Boha Village, describe it as a spirit rather than a flesh and blood creature.
Two months later, in the Assumbo Mountains during that same expedition, Sanderson was trying to capture a rare hammer-headed bat with a three-foot wingspan on a rock at the edge of the river. He reported in his book Animal Treasure that without warning a jet black creature with gigantic wings, a short snout and a monkey-like face flew directly toward him, its lower jaw hanging down and revealing itself to be unnervingly well-stocked with very large white teeth. Gerald screamed out. Sanderson quickly ducked down into the water as this terrifying apparition skimmed overhead. They both fired several shots at it as it soared back into view. The creature escaped unscathed. After comparing notes, Sanderson and Russell both estimated the creature’s wingspan to be at least 12 feet. They agreed that the flying animal was not a bird but either a pterodactyl or a giant bat. The natives called this flying creature “Olitiau.” The story of the giant bat was reported in the The Geographical Journal for The Royal Geographical Society in 1935. (It made no mention of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé
Gerald would spend the rest of his life pursuing these “animals of discovery’’ — unclassified, mythological and extinct creatures. There have been many others. The giant squid of antiquity wasn’t confirmed until 1865. The mountain gorilla was so reclusive that it was not identified by European science until 1902. Until its rediscovery in 2007, the La Palma giant lizard was believed to have been extinct for around 500 years. Another amazing discovery was the coelacanth, a fish thought to have been extinct for 65 million years until one was hauled up from the Indian Ocean in 1938. A species of finch not known since the time of Charles Darwin and supposed to be extinct was found during Cousin Templeton Crocker’s Expedition to the Galapagos Islands in 1932.
Back in the mid-19th century there was another “mythical” animal reported by natives that was waiting to be found and captured — the giant panda.
Having brought back alive three Komodo dragons from the Dutch East, sportsman William Harvest Harkness Jr. of Manhattan set out in the autumn of 1934 after the giant panda of China. After his successes in Africa, Gerald Russell, grandson of the famous Aimée Crocker, was selected to participate.
Prior to 1869, very few Westerners had ever seen or heard of the giant panda, known locally as a beisung (white bear). In 1869, natives brought a dead one to a French missionary by the name of Armand David. Mr. David sent the pelt of the bear to the Museum of Natural History in Paris, France.
The first Westerner to see a real giant panda in the wild was a German zoologist by the name of Hugo Weigold. The first white men to shoot one were Theodore Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of the American president, in 1929.
No giant panda had ever been brought out of the wild alive. So scarce was the bear that when the Roosevelts shot theirs, inhabitants of the nearest village, 25 miles distant, had never seen or heard of such a creature.
Before Harkness’s adventure to the giant panda’s wild, bandit infested habitat could begin, however, he fell ill in Shanghai and died. When his recent bride Ruth learned that she was a widow, she told Washington Post Magazine that she had “inherited an expedition.”
Later that year, Gerald Russell returned as a member of the Ruth Harkness Asiatic Expedition to Tibet. Together they left Shanghai and went 1,500 miles up the Yangtze River into Szechwan Province.
Richard Perry, in his book The World of the Giant Panda, confirmed, “W.M. Russell obtained a half-grown tame beisung [giant panda], which was wandering free on a Wassu farm and apparently thriving on grass and other vegetation.” It was actually a six-week-old female 16 inches long; weighing 4 lb. 12 oz. Ruth Harkness and Gerald Russell were the first to bring the elusive giant panda out of the wild. The event garnished international headlines. It had been 67 years from the first time Westerners heard of the giant panda until a live one was captured by a western expedition. During this period, twelve well-staffed and equipped professional expeditions failed to collect a single live specimen of the creature. Pandamania was instantaneous. More than 53,000 visitors showed up at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, who acquired the adorable bear, for the exhibit’s opening day.
Gerald was living in New York when World War II broke out. In 1939, he was one of the first Americans to volunteer for service with the British Royal Navy, having known France as his home most of his life and having been educated in England. This was when the war was strictly a European affair. Russell was wounded in the first action between British naval forces and the battleship Scharnhorst. As an officer he subsequently saw action in the Mediterranean and the Normandy landings.
After World War II, Russell returned to his passion for cryptozoology when he journeyed to China to find and capture a rare, little known animal, the golden takin, but was forced to abandon his efforts because of advances by Chinese Communist armies.
Part Two: The Abominable Snowman