An Interpretation of the Mongolian Death Worm, Painting.
Braving violent sandstorms akin to fog with an attitude problem, tent-shredding twisters that blast men off their feet, and an ice river that caves in as their vehicles are crossing, the four men continue on their journey. Their thoughts are haunted by the creature they are tracking, a legendary beast said to be capable of spitting lethal corrosive venom, or killing from a distance with an electrical discharge. This was the quest to find the truth about the Mongolian Death Worm.
The Expedition Team.
The intense experiences just described were critical moments for leading cryptozoologist, author and zoological journalist Richard Freeman, in the expedition he led in 2005. The mission: to track one of the world’s most fearsome cryptids, an animal that strikes terror into the hearts of many Mongolian people with its abhorrent appearance and deadly demeanour – and not just for those who have seen it.
Image: Takeshi Yamada
Death Worm Model
The Death Worm’s existence has been reported in these columns, but it was time to set the record straight and get the lowdown from Freeman himself. So what prompted him to embark on the expedition in the first place?
Says Freeman: “The Mongolian Death Worm is legendary. I had heard talk of the creature for quite a few years before we left for the expedition. The Death Worm was first mentioned in the West by American adventurer Professor Roy Chapman Andrews, who was the inspiration behind Indiana Jones.”
“But the Death Worm was largely forgotten when Mongolia was under socialist rule. The Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle helped rekindle interest with his investigations in the 1990s. Actually, I met Ivan – and he was a wonderful guy – and he inspired us to make another expedition.”
Traditional Mongolian Yurt
“In preparation, we had some leaflets printed up in Mongolian and distributed in the areas we were visiting. They explained that a group of British scientists would be travelling through the area and offered a $50 reward for a specimen of the allghoi-khorkoi – an indigenous word meaning “intestine worm” because of the Death Worm’s resemblance to a blood-filled cow’s intestine.”
Parchment Depiction of the Death Worm.
So which were the most compelling accounts told by local people during the investigation?
“There were literally dozens and dozens of stories. The oldest eyewitness account came from a 90 year-old former policeman who saw the Death Worm when he was 16; the most recent had seen it just the year before we arrived. All the reports dovetailed with the description of a two-foot long, reddish, worm-like creature lying in the desert – although some people said it is greyer in colour.”
Death Worm Carving.
“There was the friend of park ranger who had seen the Death Worm three times: the first in 1965 when he saw its head poking out of a hole in the sand; the second the next year when he saw one eating a mouse. The third time was in 1972, when he actually killed a worm by throwing a rock at it, but this time some Russian scientists who were researching snakes in the area took the body away. So it’s likely that a Death Worm specimen today lies forgotten in the vaults of some Russian museum, just as there are other unknown species preserved in museums around the world.”
“Another man we met close to the border with China was a retired Mongolian Army colonel who in 1973 had been in charge of a now-abandoned socialist base. He witnessed one that had come out in the rain at sunset. Coiled up in the desert, what he thought was a tyre was actually the Death Worm. The description was like many of the others we had heard: reddish-brown, a few feet in length, and shaped like a sausage. He drove off to get his camera but it had gone by the time he got back.”
Gathering More Evidence
What of its supposed weapons – its reputed ability to kill by spitting acidic saliva or electrocution?
“We came to the conclusion that they are apocryphal. I think that the Death Worm is either a worm lizard – not actually a worm but a group of primitive burrowing reptiles that look like huge, bright pink earthworms and are related to snakes and lizards. It’s either one of these or a sand boa, which is a red-brown coloured burrowing snake. I don’t think it’s poisonous; I think that’s apocryphal.”
Image: Gustavo Durán
Why might such myths have arisen?
“Maybe it grew out of the idea that some snakes are poisonous, so it’s better to avoid all of them. Although other times the native stories turn out to be true, like the story of the Hero Shrew in Africa, which was said to be able to support a man’s weight on its back – and in fact it can because of its mesh-like vertebrae.”
Image: grande illusion
So what led to the suspicion that the Death Worm was a reptile, and what confirmed this on the expedition?
“I suspected that it was a reptile because the habitat would be too dry for a worm – and so the cold, barren Gobi Desert proved to be. Everyone else’s descriptions corroborated this too – both previous studies and the numerous reports we gathered from people, many of which suggested it was scaly.”
Mini Bus In Action.
So what was the closest the expedition party came to encountering the elusive Death Worm?
“I don’t think we ever got near to it. Unfortunately, we didn’t get close. Not there at the right place or the right time. The Gobi is a massive place where you can literally drive for three days without not only seeing another human but another sign of a human.”
Did they take any practical steps to try and ensnare the Death Worm?
“On one occasion we did set traps using a series of sunken buckets connected by mesh above ground level. The idea is that the creature crawling along bumps into the mesh and cannot carry on forwards, so runs along the mesh until it comes to the bucket and drops in. After a night of thunderstorms and heavy rain, we checked the buckets in the morning but they were empty.”
The Search Continues.
“It’s interesting though because in general we found that the Death Worm was often associated with water, rainfall and wells. So too were various stories of encounters with snake-like dragons – quite distinct from and much larger than the Death Worm. We heard of a doctor who went to draw water from a well in a place called Bulgan Sum and who was stunned to find what he described as a green scaled Chinese dragon lurking at the bottom.”
Wells (often associated with sightings).
“Another time we were told of a wise man that had seen a dragon slithering into a well. When word got around, the communist party officials came and poured oil in the well as punishment, because the story was considered superstitious or religious and so against the political ideology of the time. But ill fortune struck the men, as two mysteriously died and the third was left childless.”
All told a fascinating expedition – but where next for Richard Freeman and his team?
Reveals Freeman: “Next year we’re off to Sumatra on the track of the orang-pendek, an undiscovered species of upright walking ape, which comes down from the mountains to the semi-cultivated lands where the fruit trees are.”