Is the 50-Foot Congo Snake Fact or Fiction?

Posts on internet forums and social media purport that a 50-foot snake lurks in the African Congo, inspired by a decades-old story. Still, there's no scientific evidence that such a titanic snake ever existed — at least not in modern times.

By Max Bennett
Jan 16, 2024 2:00 PM
Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus), one of the longest snakes in the world
The reticulated python (Python reticulatus) is among the longest snakes in the world, known to reach lengths of 20 feet on average, according to the Natural History Museum in London. (Credit: Mark Kostich/Getty Images)


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In 1959, Colonel Remy Van Lierde of the Belgian Royal Air Force was on helicopter patrol. He had flown in over 400 missions, his eyes trained to spot friend and foe below. That skillset that would help him with the ensuing ordeal over the Katanga region of the Congo, for what he saw next shocked him and his copilot: A truly gargantuan snake, estimated by his account to be over 50 feet in length.  

This measurement would easily have made it the largest snake alive on Earth, dwarfing today's titans of the slithering world, like the green anaconda and the reticulated python. Green anacondas average around 15 feet in length; reticulated pythons, meanwhile, have been known to regularly stretch beyond 20 feet, according to the Natural History Museum in London.

But experts are less convinced. Is this Congo cryptid really on the frontiers of science, or merely a wartime illusion? 

According to experts, there's no scientific evidence that a 50-foot snake exists. Still, Van Lierde's wild story — which continues to circulate on podcasts and internet forums today — captures our collective fascination with the biggest snakes who ever lived. 

What’s the Story Behind the 50-Foot Congo Snake? 

According to Van Lierde’s claim, detailed during a 1980 interview with the British TV show Mysterious World, the creature reared its sinewy body nearly ten feet into the air as the helicopter swooped over for another close pass. In the interview, he was quoted as saying, “I felt if I got any closer, it would have struck at me. It could have easily eaten a man.” 

Read More: No, Egyptian Artifacts Were Never Found in the Grand Canyon

Van Lierde estimated that the beast’s head was two feet wide; enough to comfortably make lunch out of current snake heavyweights. The anaconda, the most voluminous of all serpents, can have a mid-body diameter of over a foot in the largest measured individuals.  

Still, resident species of the Congo never approach the magnitude of the creature described by Van Lierde. In Africa, the largest known snake is the African rock python, growing to 20 feet long in the most exceptional of cases, a far cry from the (allegedly) lofty lengths of the Congo titan.  

Who Else Believed the 50-Foot Congo Snake Story?  

To help verify his own outlandish claims, Van Lierde and company took a single grainy photograph of the creature in question.  

Clearly, the image seems to depict what is ostensibly a giant snake, looking massive in comparison to the nearby trees. Or are those bushes? Or grass? Are those dark patches at the top left just shadows — or even looming termite mounds, a common sight in the Congo? 

Read More: How to Spot Pseudoscience Online and IRL

The ambiguous picture excited some appraisers at the time. Ivan Sanderson, a biologist and cryptozoology enthusiast, analyzed the document and came to a striking conclusion: the snake was not merely 50 feet long, but 200. In his eyes, the dark shapes were certainly termite mounds, which could grow up to 26 feet tall and over 50 feet wide in the Katanga region.  

Do People Still Believe the Story Today?

It seems Sanderson wasn’t the only one enthralled (or terrified) by the notion of an as-of-yet undiscovered leviathan. The photograph made the rounds on social media in 2023, inspiring a wave of lookalike shaky camera videos with claims of monstrous snakes. Van Lierde’s sighting was even mentioned in a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.  

Nevertheless, per a Reuters report released in 2023, no herpetologists are convinced that such a collosal snake is alive today. But not all hope is lost for those infatuated with the notion of a terror of the river.

In fact, the proportions outlined by Van Lierde are in line with some prehistoric specimens that really did exist.  

What Were Some of the Biggest Real-Life Snakes in History?   

Titanoboa, growing upwards of 45 feet in length according to a landmark 2009 study published in Nature, is the longest and heaviest snake of all time. The ancient serpent lived in the steamy swamps of the Eocene over 40 million years ago, in what is now northeastern Colombia. 

Read More: Meet Titanoboa: The Biggest Snake In the World

The creature fed upon the abundant fauna of its wetland habitat, which included eight-foot-long turtles and crocodiles that would give their largest modern-day counterparts a run for their money.

Nowadays, the Congo basin doesn’t host the same supersized reptiles, so it’s unlikely that a Titanoboa copycat would thrive today the same way it did eons ago. 

Are There Other Tales of Unproven Creatures in Africa?

Beyond real prehistoric relics, Van Lierde’s sighting isn’t the only cryptid — a creature whose existence is unproven, like Bigfoot and or the Loch Ness Monster — that may await daring discoverers in the Congo. Some explorers have claimed sightings of an uncannily dinosaur-looking animal, known colloquially as mokele-mbembe.  

By some accounts, the creature appears as a four-legged lizard with a long neck and a single horn. This depiction bears a striking resemblance to the looming sauropod dinosaurs of the Mesozoic era. These were the largest land animals during the heyday of reptiles and included towering titans like Argentinosaurus in their ranks, which are estimated to have stretched to over 120 feet in length.  

However, as with Van Lierde’s Titanoboa lookalike, there is likewise no evidence that a swamp-dwelling sauropod still lurks in the Congo today. Nonetheless, it is nearly certain that imaginative adventurers, enthusiasts and podcast hosts alike will continue to be fascinated by tales of mysterious and fearsome beasts. 

Read More: How Sauropods Evolved to Their Enormous Size

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