Sunday, June 22, 2014

Our continuing fascination with the Mongolian death worm

Mongolia's Gobi is one of the world's greatest deserts, covering over 500,000 sq. miles.
Unlike many deserts, there are very few sand dunes here. Instead, it is shaped by large, foreboding expanses of barren, sometimes rocky plains and outcroppings.

The climate of the Gobi is one of extremes, with the temperatures capable of changing over 60 degrees within 24 hours. Desolate, windy and exceedingly cold in the winter, it is home to only the hardiest of life, be it plants or animals. The wild ass, Bactrian, or two-humped camels and the Gobi bear call this region home, as does the Mongolian Death Worm. Death worm? Yes, the death worm. Elusive and secretive, this creature has never been captured, photographed or scientifically documented, yet according to a small body of literature, and even more movies and documentaries, they are said to be real. Called the Olgoï-Khorkhoï or "large intestine worm," by locals, the Mongolian death worm is as real as any terrifying creature you can imagine.

According to British biologist Karl Shuker in his book "The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Paranormal Mysteries" (2002, Metro Books), he says: "One of the world's most sensational creatures may be concealed amid the sands of the southern Gobi desert. ... It is said to resemble a large fat worm, up to 1 meter (3 feet) long and dark red in color, with spike-like projections at both ends. It spends much of its time hidden beneath the desert sands, but whenever one is spotted lying on the surface it is scrupulously avoided by the locals." The loathsome death worm can kill in a number of ways, all of them gruesome, to say the least. It has been known to spit a stream of yellow, very corrosive venom at an unwary animal or person getting too close, always resulting in death. If that doesn't scare the unwary off, the worm can also electrocute from a distance of three or more feet, a sort of discharge not unlike ball-lightening. And of course, touching the creature is an instant death penalty.

Very few people have come across the Mongolian death worm and lived to tell about the encounter. Everyone knows someone who has seen it, or died from an encounter, but almost no one was able to say they themselves had seen the worm. It is said that the Mongolian death worm lives under the sand, but in the summer months of June and July, it will frequently pop up to kill prey. With very little scientific literature documenting the existence of the Mongolian death worm, it is with some surprise to find an English language account of the creature, published in 1922 in Asia Magazine. The magazine published selections from zoologist Roy Chapman Andrews' 1926 book, On the Trail of Ancient Man. The narrative was a description of the second of a number of expeditions sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History to document the zoology of the Gobi desert. As Andrews was to describe things, in 1919, he and his party were in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, then called Urga, to meet with the Premier and a few other officials to finalize any additional permits needed for the expedition. He wrote: Then the Premier asked that, if it were possible, I should capture for the Mongolian government a specimen of the allergorhai-horhai. I doubt whether any of my scientific readers can identify this animal. I could, because I had heard of it often.

None of those present ever had seen the creature, but they all firmly believed in its existence and described it minutely. It is shaped like a sausage about two feet long, has no head nor legs and is so poisonous that merely to touch it means instant death. It lives in the most desolate parts of the Gobi Desert, whither we were going. To the Mongols it seems to be what the dragon is to the Chinese. The Premier said that, although he had never seen it himself, he knew a man who had and had lived to tell the tale. Then a Cabinet Minister stated that "the cousin of his late wife's sister" had also seen it. I promised to produce the allergorhai-horhai if we chanced to cross its path, and explained how it could be seized by means of long steel collecting forceps; moreover, I could wear dark glasses, so that the disastrous effects of even looking at so poisonous a creature would be neutralized. The meeting adjourned with the best of feeling; for we had a common interest in capturing the allergorhai-horhai. I was especially happy because now the doors of Outer Mongolia were open to the expedition. In making a very long story short, Andrews was to mention the creature again, in a 1932 book, The New Conquest of Central Asia, where he repeated the earlier story, but added that while never seeing the elusive creature himself, too many other people had seen it, or knew someone who had seen it that this added credence to the story, even though he didn't believe it existed. The Mongolian death worm does have it's advocates in today's scientific world. Cryptozoologist, Ivan Mackerle (1942-2013), was a Czech, living in Prague, and had access to Russian and Mongolian literature on the Olgoï-Khorkhoï, and it was he who introduced the terrible worm to the western world. He became fascinated with the creature, and the tales he was able to translate led to his eventual expeditions into the Gobi in 1990 and again in 1992.

Mackerle's accounts of his search for the death worm, and his unusual methods in trying to get it to come out from under the sands, were published in the Czech magazine Reflex in 1991, then again in another Czech magazine Filip in 1992. Based on Mackerle's works, any reference in the literature today, or at least since the 1990s can be attributed to his writing.

So does the Mongolian Death worm exist? Perhaps, and more than likely, not. But it certainly does make for a great story, and one frightening enough to keep small children from wandering out of their yurts at night to go wandering in the desert. Like Godzilla and his fiery beginnings in Japanese tales, the Mongolian death worm has also spawned a number of movies, like Tremors, Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune, Ivan Efremov's 1954 short horror story, Olgoï-Khorkhoï, and a number of other books, movies, video games and documentaries. Who knows, maybe the creature will be captured, but then, the enticing mystery of it will be gone forever.

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