The buru was a most unusual creature. Bluish-white in colour, it was around 15 feet long. Its fish-like skin had no scales; instead it had rows of spines along its sides and back. It came with a triangle-shaped head ending in a snout. It walked on short stumpy legs and defended itself ably with its sharp teeth, claws and a powerful tail that also gave the buru its peculiarly amphibious characteristics. The buru had a hoarse bellowing call.

This description of the buru first appeared in a book written by the Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, although he had never seen or heard it himself. All he had heard were the origin stories of the Apatanis, who lived in the remote river valleys of former Upper Assam, an area now in Arunachal Pradesh, where the buru played an important role and where he did his fieldwork in the mid-1940s after the World War II had just ended. The British zoologist and agricultural officer, Charles Stonor, who visited this region in the late 1940s, also wrote about the buru.

The buru in myth

Centuries ago, the Apatanis travelled through the passes of the Himalayas to settle in this region. In their oral narratives, this region was then a swampy lake in the midst of high mountains, drained by rivers. The silt made the area fertile and this is where the Apatanis chose to settle down as agriculturists.

Their settled way of life was different from other ethnic groups around them, such as the Miris and the Nishis, who lived by hunting and shifting cultivation. To clear the lake, however, the Apatanis had to fight the buru, whose amphibious nature enabled it to hide away in the waters.

The burus could be dangerous adversaries. According to one story, a hunter who had once killed a young buru young died at the hands of its angry mother, who chased him and, with one swipe of her immense tail, forced him into the swamp where he drowned. Still, the ancient Apatani warriors were a brave lot. They took the help of brass plates as shields in their fight against the buru. This bravery, as Fürer Haimendorf noted first-hand, brought them into frequent skirmishes with other groups such as the Nishis.

The original James Bond

These accounts drew the attention of the British correspondent of the Daily Mail, Ralph Izzard, then living in Delhi. Izzard, who had a rather adventurous life as a reporter, frequently worried about there being nothing to explore any more.

Izzard had actually doubled up as a secret service agent on many an occasion. In 1936, he was in Berlin, ostensibly working for the Daily Mail, when German soldiers looking for spies surrounded the restaurant he was in. A friendly waitress stowed Izzard away in the lavatory, where he did debate the possibility of flushing his passport down to avoid detection and possibly imprisonment. But the soldiers, dissuaded by the friendly restaurant staff, soon dispersed.

During the war years in the secret service, Izzard devised a plan to capture one of the Nazi encryption machines called the Enigma. He hoped to wreck a captured German bomber on the French coast, and get the rescued soldiers, dressed in Luftwaffe uniforms, to infiltrate the Nazi secret service.

But before Izzard’s Operation Ruthless could be carried out, a German U-boat was captured, and an Enigma machine was soon in British hands. In Buenos Aires, Izzard’s boss, Sir Ian Fleming, watched him playing poker with Nazi officers. This was soon after the war, when the Nazis were on the run and some had fled to friendly South American nations. This scene inspired Fleming and was immortalised in the first James Bond book, Casino Royale.

Izzard’s search for the Buru

Soon afterwards, Izzard found himself in India. He reported for the Daily Mail on the trauma of Partition. When he read about the buru, he exchanged letters with Charles Stonor, who admitted that he had not seen the creature either but merely said that if the buru indeed existed, it was a reptile “of the size of an ox, with a prominent snout.” Stonor surmised it was “either a primitive kind of crocodile, or even a dinosaur." It was this speculation that would fuel the new pseudoscience called cryptozoology, dedicated to animals rumoured to be in existence but never seen.

Accompanied by Stonor, Izzard travelled to Upper Assam, determined to traverse the old Apatani trails in search of the Buru. They hacked and slogged their way through the forests, endured heavy rain and the endless bites of leeches and mosquitoes. Izzard later described this expedition in a book, written in 1951, called Hunt for the Buru.

Izzard never caught sight of the buru and consoled himself with the fact that it was winter, the time when the buru hibernated in the mountain caves around the valley. Izzard wrote of at times glimpsing the strange shadows on the surface of the water, but these came to nothing. The lake that had once been the buru’s rumoured home was now so shallow  that it could not even, as Izzard wrote, have “concealed as much as an otter”.

Despite this, Izzard’s thirst for adventure remained unquenched. Two years later, as Sir John Hunt prepared for his expedition to Mount Everest, Izzard was determined to get a scoop for his newspaper, despite the fact that Time magazine had secured the rights to report on the expedition.

It was in Kathmandu’s British Embassy that the team had camped first, meeting reporters and hosting press conferences. Izzard secured a memorable interview with Tenzing Norgay, who complained of the poor facilities accorded the Sherpas, who did most of the gruelling work associated with expeditions. This made Izzard unpopular with Hunt, who declared him an “enemy of the expedition” and refused to share any information with him.

Undaunted, Izzard set out on his own, without a compass or a map, to work out the route taken by Hunt as he headed out for the Everest. Izzard walked from Kathmandu to Tengboche, a trekking distance of a week, and it took him another three days to locate the base camp.

One of Hunt’s colleagues wrote later of how despite the freezing temperatures Izzard was nattily dressed in a sports jacket, but his lips were blue and his eyes inflamed in a clear case of snow blindness. Some months later, Izzard would set off on another adventure with his friend, Stonor, to find the Yeti. This time as well, he failed to find the mythical creature but he did manage to write another book, The Abominable Snowman Adventure.

Buru in pseudoscience

The elusive buru continued to intrigue those associated with cryptozoology. To them, it appeared to be a kind of monitor lizard or komodo dragon, a large lizard found in Indonesia. These creatures were common to southeast Asia. Mythical creatures similar to the buru appear in stories from Iran, which talk of the dragon called “ahi”. The ancient Vedas also record that the asura Vritra was known as “ahi”. As a dragon, he held the waters captive and caused drought before he was killed by Indra. The International Society of Cryptozoologists finally ceased to exist in 1998.

Ralph Izzard, however, went on to work in west Asia for many years. With his wife, Molly, he wrote a book based on their long years in Lebanon, where he had a first-hand glimpse of conflicts in Cyprus, Egypt and Palestine. Another book, Smelling the Breezes, tells of the Izzard family’s – the couple and their two sons and two daughters – 300-mile expedition across the hills of Lebanon.  It was a journey on donkeys and their cook accompanied them as interpreter.