National Animals: The Legendary, Extinct and Imaginary

Chollima
Flickr/Eric Lafforgue.

As the national animal of the United States, the majestic bald eagle is a well-known figure around the world. But interestingly, many other nations – from up-and-coming superpowers to tiny obscure islands – have placed extinct or never-existed-in-the-first-place national animals within their pantheon. International destinations specialist JHRGroup.com brings us this interesting roundup of winged horses, fire-breathing dragons and other national animals that aren't really real.

Scotland - Unicorn
Wikimedia Commons
Scotland - Unicorn

Scotland's adorably shaggy ponies starred in a viral marketing campaign earlier this year, but the official national animal is a far more fantastical hoofed beast: The unicorn has been a Scottish symbol since the 12th century, when it was used on the coat of arms by William I. In Celtic mythology, the unicorn of Scotland symbolized innocence and purity, healing powers, joy and even life itself. According to Scottish folklore, a free unicorn was a dangerous beast.

PHOTO: Bhutan - Druk (The Thunder Dragon)
Tourism Council of Bhutan / The Kingdom of Bhutan
Bhutan – Druk (The Thunder Dragon)

Many countries have a dragon as their national symbol, but mystical Bhutan has some surprisingly Game of Thrones-style dragon lore, especially considering its reputation as a modern-day Peaceable Kingdom. In Dzongkha (national language of Bhutan), the true name of this Himalayan land is Druk-yul, or Land of Druk ("The Thunder Dragon"). Bhutanese leaders are called Druk Gyalpo -- Dragon Kings. The dragon signifies the purity of the country, while the jewels in its jeweled claws stand for wealth and perfection.

PHOTO: Greece - Phoenix
F.J. Bertuch
Greece – Phoenix

For a country with such a lengthy and epic history, it's not surprising that Greece picked the phoenix as its national animal. In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a bird that can come back to life, regenerating itself from its own ashes. Greek nationals and international supporters are hoping that the current Greek administration can pull off a phoenixlike rise from the ashes of its current financial crisis.

Indonesia - Garuda
Gunawan Kartapranata
Indonesia – Garuda

The Komodo dragon is Indonesia's modern-day national animal, but the historic national animal is the Garuda - a chimera, with the wings, beak and feet of the golden eagle and a man's arms and trunk. This creature is referenced frequently in the region's ancient legends and appears on the national coat of arms. The chimera is actually common to both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

Chollima
Flickr/Eric Lafforgue.
North Korea – Chollima

Since North Korea was founded, the flying horse Chollima (similar to the winged Pegasus) has been its main national symbol. The upstart nation's first president wanted to instill the fighting spirit and heroism of the Chollima within his people. Today, the Chollima Statue is a major tourist attraction – although few people from Western nations get the chance to see it in person.

Wales - Welsh Dragon
Mametz Wood / Michael Yare
Wales – Welsh Dragon

Many Asian nations incorporate dragons into their national symbology, but Wales claims it. The Welsh dragon is a beloved national emblem used by many public and private institutions. The Welsh flag in its current format – with "a red ffyry dragon peyntid upon white and greene sarcenet" ("a red fiery dragon painted upon white and green silk") – dates back to Aug. 22, 1485, and a legendary battle between Henry Tudor and Richard III.

Mauritius - Dodo Bird
Roelant Savery
Mauritius – Dodo Bird

The sad tale of the disappearing Dodo bird is a modern-day evolutionary/sustainability fable, often taught in grade school. Dodos settled in Mauritius over four million years ago and since they had no predators, they forgot how to fly. Fast forward to the 1500s, when Europeans discovered Mauritius and the slow-moving, unsuspecting dodo. Between human appetites and the predatory animals that humans brought to the island, the ancient birds were hunted to extinction within a couple hundred years. As a sign of respect, the Dodo bird became the national animal symbol of Mauritius.

Portugal - Cock of Barcelo
Gloria Wandrous
Portugal – Cock of Barcelo

The Portuguese national animal is a colorful holy rooster. Legend has it, an innocent man in the town of Barcelos was falsely accused of stealing and sentenced to be hanged. En route to the gallows, the man swore that if he were innocent, a nearby dead rooster would come back to life and crow. The rooster, which in some versions of this tale had already been roasted, rose up and crowed. Naturally, the man was set free … and locals swear he was the one who built the original Barcelos monument.

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