Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Meghalaya’s Yeti: The mande burung – the inside story from a wildlife biologist in Meghalaya

If you still haven’t heard of the media frenzy over the recent ‘discovery’ of the ‘Indian Yeti’ or the ‘cousin of Bigfoot’ in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, just read on because I KNOW what I’m talking about. And if you are one of those few who don’t know what or who Bigfoot and the Yeti are.. well.. then I guess you can just stop reading and move on to whatever the hell you were doing !

The internet has been abuzz in the last few weeks with stories of an ‘ape-like creature’ in the mountains of the Garo Hills of Meghalaya. Stories of the repeated sightings, kidnapping of humans, fossilised footprints, nest building and even video clips kept doing the rounds. Much of these stories started after an adventurous BBC reporter, Alastair Lawson landed up in Tura in the West Garo Hills and filed this story . Before you could say ‘scientific enquiry’, the paranormal addicts were out and the blogs and websites were having a field day. How am I any different you ask? Okay, fine since you ask.. I live in the Garo Hills and am a wildlife biologist by profession. Its my job to know this stuff !!
latest news on this is that during his trip to the Garo Hills, Mr. Lawson was handed over a few strands of hair allegedly belonging to the mande burung. The hair was taken to the UK (probably in contravention of the Wildlife Protection Act and the Biodiversity Act!) and an initial visual inspection of hair structure was done with microscopes which proved inconclusive and could not identify which animal the hair came from. This isn’t surprising as positive identification of hair source based only on microscopy is not possible for many species, especially not by somebody in the UK unfamiliar with Indo Malayan fauna! Now, they say, the hair samples are being sent to the Oxford Brookes University for DNA extraction and fingerprinting. That should be able to identify the general taxonomic category of the owner of those strands if such an animal does not exist. If not, we’ll know soon enough. So its make or break time!

Now, first the basics… Reports of hominoid cryptids (slang for cryptozoological animal, cryptozoology itself means the study of mythical or legendary animals whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated such as the Yeti and the Lochness monster) are not new. They have been reported from each and every continent (except maybe Antarctica). The Yeti and the Bigfoot are just two of the most famous ones, the former because of Sir Edmund Hillary’s claim to have seen footprints in the snow on the way to Mt. Everest and the latter … well just because its American!!
In reality similar creatures have been reported with great accuracy and frequency especially from parts of China and all of southeast Asia (example Yeren of China, Nguoi Rung of Vietnam, Bir Sindic of Myanmar, Hantu sakai of Malaysia and many more). Northeastern India (where the Garo Hills is present) lying next to southeast Asia shares enormous ethnic, cultural and ecological similarities. Together, they also comprise the Indo Malayan biodiversity hotspot. Is it any surprise then, that stories of such creatures are common here?

Okay so what about this creature? First, lets get the orthography right because BBC and Mr Lawson really screwed up on that. In the Garo language the creature is called mande (man) burung/buring (forest) which is self explanatory and not mande barung as reported by the BBC. Locals have always known about this creature, a 3m tall and 300 kilograms black and grey ape-like animal. The sudden renewal of interest seems to have been the handiwork of the Achik Tourism Society, an organisation run by a few hardcore believers.
Or maybe it isn’t that simple.
You have to admit they are creating the perfect advertising campaign to attract the Yeti, Sasquatch and Bigfoot crowd to remote Garo Hills. Money does talk Mr. Dipu Marak, doesn’t it?

Oh, you’re still reading. That proves you have an open mind and are willing to believe (albeit with a pinch of salt) the testimony of local eyewitnesses.
is a sample. Well if you discount some of the really crazy stories like a man being kidnapped by a female mande burung, being kept in a nest for three days and being forcibly suckled with “bitter and sour tasting milk”, most of the other stories have a great deal of uniformity at least in the description of the creature. The region where it is reported from, the Nokrek Biosphere Reserve and the Balpakram National Park are both truly remote areas. Steep and rocky mountains, gorges, thick tropical jungles and vast network of underground caves formed because of the limestone deposits make it unusually difficult to traverse. I haven’t seen tougher terrain anywhere else in the northeast. It’s not easy to completely discount the existence of an unknown animal in such surroundings.

Mistaking animals for such creatures are not uncommon and have happened before. In many cases it has turned out to be a bear. The footprints of a bear too are eerily similar to that of human or hominid footprints. In this area of the Garo Hills, the two species of bears that are found are the Asiatic Black Bear (
Ursus thibetanus) and the Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus). Of them, the former is larger and could be mistaken for a creature of this sort.

There is however an even more intriguing possibility. It could be one of the last surviving members of the prehistoric giant ape Gigantopithecus blackii, remains of which were found in China and Vietnam and is thought to have been geographically distributed across southeast Asia. There are other ancient hominids of the same nature which were thought to have roamed across southeast Asia and India not very long back. They are Meganthropus palaeojavanicus and Pithecanthropus erectus (later known as Homo erectus, the Java Man). Pithecanthropus was announced in 1894 and was initially thought to be the ‘missing link’. Either way, this isn’t the end of the story. And something tells me even if the DNA tests show that those strands of hair belong to a bear or a serow, some people will still keep searching. I am one of them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Finding Maraland

My recent article in Himal Southasian Magazine (June, 2008 issue) about my experiences of surveying and discovering one of the most remote corners of northeast India. I wish I could write an 'unofficial' version of some of my experiences during this time too. I doubt much of that would get published anywhere :)
For photographs related to this area, do visit my FlickR album. There is a link on this page:

Finding Maraland

Few wildlife biologists have treaded the paths of southern Mizoram's lush forests – and those who do, emerge rooting for the people.

By : Anirban Datta-Roy

A baby cried, an old man coughed with tuberculosis-infected lungs, and two young men and a girl crooned an old Mara song. A Burmese cheroot was lit, and passed it to anyone who showed any enthusiasm for smoking this vile imitation of a cigar. Suddenly, the vehicle we were all travelling in skidded, the tires spinning and splattering us with mud. We were stuck again.

Still, things seemed perfectly normal in the early-morning chill. It was November 2006, and I was making my way back to the village of Phura, deep in southern Mizoram. The ride from the town of Saiha to Phura is a mere 98 kilometres, yet it was to take 14 hours in a battered Mahindra pickup, loaded with people and sacks of rice. During that time, our vehicle snaked along precipitous foot trails, which had been cut wider to serve as tenuous roads. The rice sacks were meant for the public distribution system, but for the moment they also served as seats for the 30 to 40 passengers at the back. Twelve of my co-passengers were friends from nearby villages, and the others I recognised by sight. They knew that I was here for the ramsa ('wild animal' in the Lushai language) survey, which was to document mammals and birds in the area.

A little more than a year earlier, my colleague Arpan and I had been sitting in the state capital Aizawl, trying to decide where to start a community-based conservation initiative. We could hardly have imagined that we would eventually reach Mara District, in the southernmost tip of Mizoram, a place that seemed surprisingly blank on the political map. It intrigued us that there still existed areas with such minimal human presence and vast forest cover. Even wildlife biologists had neglected this lush area, due simply to its remoteness.

Within a week we were in Saiha, the district headquarters, sitting in the house of Deputy Conservator of Forests Thaly T Azyu, of the Mara Autonomous District Council Forest Department. He told us that we could visit Palak Lake – pala tipa in the local Tlosai Mara tongue. The lake was close to the village of Phura, but going further south into those blank spaces on the map, we were told, would involve "a bit of walking". With that bit of advice, we set out.

Around Pala Tipa
Palak Lake, the largest lake in Mizoram, is a breathtaking sight, surrounded by mountainous jungles and jhum fields. The place abounds with birdlife. Common moorhen, darters, oriental pied hornbills, imperial pigeons,
trogons and garrulous laughing thrushes are all abundant in the area around the oval-shaped body of water. The lake itself measures about 400 by 600 metres, and has an almost crater-like appearance, with the lake's water level inside the rim higher than that of the surrounding ground.

To its east and southeast, the lake touches a lush patch of primary forest, which has retained much of its canes, palms and massive dipterocarp trees. A broad variety of mammals also continues to thrive here, in spite of the area's proximity to two major villages, Phura and Tokalo. (Not all mammals have done well, though. When we were there, a lone elephant was wandering the area – all that was left of the last herd in this area.) The only source of previous information for the Palak Lake area had come from Samrat Pawaar and Aysegul Birand's astounding 2001 survey of the Indian Northeast, which had documented some species of wildlife completely new to science.

From Palak, our guide Radia led us to our next stop, the village of Tokalo, after a steep and relentless climb of seven kilometres. As we trudged on, my backpack seemed to get heavier with each step. This was a sensation with which, like myself, visitors to this area have longed been forced to deal. Reverend Reginald Lorraine, the first missionary to visit Mizoram, back in the early 1900s, put it well when he said, "In this land, you can either go up or down."

Over the next 11 days, we forced our weary legs through all eight villages of the area. Wherever we went, a handshake and a chibai (a Lushai greeting) was all it took for people to welcome us into their houses, and give us food and shelter much beyond their meagre resources. As Arpan quizzed the village elders on their land-tenure rights, village-council dynamics, system of selecting jhum lands and cycles, I asked the hunters which animals could still be found in the immediate surroundings. With just a few photographs, a field guide and a very problematic translator at our disposal, it was a miracle that anyone could understand anyone else.

But the information that we found was exciting. I was thrilled to hear the locals reporting the presence of clouded leopards, wild dogs, Phayre's leaf monkeys and many other rare animals. Then there were the trophies, hanging near the entrance to virtually every house. These told of an amazing diversity of mammals, reptiles and birds. Skulls of wild pig, sambar, serow, barking deer, casques (the helmet-like craniums) of hornbills and squirrel tails decorated the entrances of many of the simple bamboo habitations.

However we looked at it, the signs were extremely encouraging. In spite of all the animal remains that we saw, active hunting of large mammals seemed an activity restricted mostly to the few professional hunters in the villages. While these hunters occasionally shared their catch with relatives, depending on the size of the animal, there was no sale and most of the meat was for self-consumption. Others hunted mostly in the vicinity of the villages, and most of the skulls that we had seen had been shot by farmers guarding their jhum crops. Commercial hunting had yet to enter the region, we concluded.

There were other encouraging signs in Maraland, as well. Each village had forest reserves for both 'supply' and 'safety' uses. These showed both foresight and appreciation for the importance of the forests in the lives of these communities. The supply reserve, a patch of forest that was utilised by the villagers for their daily needs, had a host of intricate rules to discourage overexploitation by a select few. The safety reserve, on the other hand, was akin to the sacred groves elsewhere in India – such as those in the Khasi hills nearby or the Kodagu District in the Nilgiris – only without the 'sacred' aspect. The safety reserve was absolutely out of bounds for any use during normal times, and there were severe penalties for people who broke the rules. Meanwhile, jhum cycles had remained at roughly six- to seven-year intervals, always outside of the forests, giving the forestlands sufficient time to replenish themselves.

There was no need to look any further. This was exactly the place we would set up our conservation project.

The survey
First we needed to confirm the presence of the animals being reported by the local people, through rigorous
field surveys. This was, of course, easier said than done. The steep mountains and persistent rains on the small, muddy roads made vehicles useless. This also meant that we would not have the luxury of staying in a village and travelling out to our survey locations.

These conditions essentially decided for us what we needed to do. We had to build a bamboo camp in the forest, carry our supplies there and then get on with the surveying. The survey itself would rely on our sightings, call detections and other indirect evidence of animal presence, such as droppings and tracks. We also had five infrared 'camera traps' to be set up in the forest, which would allow us to capture images of the elusive nocturnal fauna.

Days began early. The field team, consisting also of two forest guards and one field assistant, would start off after a cup of tea at dawn. We walked the various animal trails, streams and ridgelines, looking for animals and birds. Often, we would have to diverge from our predetermined route when we heard gibbon calls, in order to get to a ridge or peak from where we could catch a glimpse of these elusive yet vocal animals. When they were close, it was even possible to sneak up on them below the tree where they were causing the ruckus.

It was important to be alert at all times, though not only in the name of animal detection. Self-preservation was a constant worry in the rugged landscape. Often, the only way to come down the slopes of a hill would be, much like apes, to slide down the inclines while our arms held on to whatever trees or bamboo stems we could grasp. Inevitably, our days ended with cut hands and bruised legs, and extremely sore backsides.

Our visits to nearby villages for rice and other supplies also brought us closer to the local communities. There would always be an appreciative and interested audience to hear about our team's latest experience in the forest. Advice was never in short supply, ranging from helpful suggestions on areas that the survey team should visit, and tips on paths and trails we had not seen, to somewhat more personal proposals that hinted at me getting married and settling down in their village. Those fireside sessions, punctuated by the calls of tokkey geckos, would inevitably lead late into the night. Occasionally, the locals also voiced some concerns. Why are you doing this survey? What does it mean for us? Is it true that the whole area is going to become a sanctuary, and that we will all have to leave? At other times, they were preoccupied with the bamboo flowering, which had just started. What is the government going to do about that? What about when the rats come in swarms, and famine strikes?

It was apparent that communication was lacking between the state authorities and the villagers, as the former had already taken some measures to tackle the problem of the mautam, or bamboo flowering that takes place every half-century. In this remote corner, however, few had heard about these initiatives, and quite naturally feared the unknown. Their isolation also meant that people had long been deprived of various essential services, such as health care, schools and markets at which to sell their produce. This also included access to information regarding the various schemes that were available, including income-generation undertakings such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or rice-supply programmes such as the Public Distribution System.

Maraland development

Our survey came to an end after we returned twice more to the Palak Lake area. During this time, we set up two more field camps, discovered six more troops of Phayre's leaf monkeys, saw leopard tracks right outside our camp, braved an army of leeches, survived on crabs and soyameal for two weeks, and skinned, bruised and sprained more body parts than we cared to remember. We also managed to confirm the presence of 42 species of mammals, 136 species of birds and 40 species of butterflies. We also identified troops of the endangered hoolock gibbon.
It was a proud moment for us when we finally presented the survey results in the presence of the dignitaries and officers of the Mara District Council. It had the desired effect. Soon, hardnosed bureaucrats were reminiscing about animals and birds that they had seen in their own childhood villages. Suddenly, everybody was talking about wildlife and conservation. Of course, some were comparing the culinary merits of various types of monkey, but this was to be expected: attitudes do not transform overnight.

But things were already starting to change. Maraland's inherent seclusion had long been due to the simple lack of roads, but that is bound to be gradually whittled away. There is already talk about the dirt road between Kawlchaw and Phura being metalled. There are also periodic surges of enthusiasm within government agencies to 'develop' Palak Lake and its surrounding areas. But past actions in the name of development have been disastrous. During the 1980s, the Fisheries Department introduced the African cichlid fish and common carp into Palak Lake, resulting in the complete extinction of the original species, about which very little is known. Also during the 1980s, the Agriculture Department reclaimed the swamps surrounding the lake for wet paddy cultivation, which contributed greatly to the extinction of the area's elephant population. Today, it is only that solitary, forlorn, middle-aged elephant that survives.

Now, the Tourism Department is keen to make the site into a tourist attraction. The problem here is not development per se (inevitable as it is), but rather uninformed development schemes that are more harmful than helpful. If tourism is promoted as haphazardly as were the examples from 20 years ago, it will undoubtedly have a negative effect on Mara's ecological balance.

At the end of the day, despite our focus on wildlife, it was clearly the poor peasant, living in near-primitive conditions in remote villages, who needed immediate attention. It was not too difficult to see that conservation in these mountains would succeed only when we were able to provide these communities with basic services, and answer their lingering questions. This realisation should perhaps make us feel daunted, even intimidated. But, somehow, the warm winter sun and the cheerful lives of the Mara people ended up giving us hope that it is possible to strike that elusive balance between people and conservation.


Himal Southasian -

Samrakshan Trust -