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.


Sheila said...

Hi, I live in Washington State, a state notoriously known for Yeti sightings....I was curious if you think this is just a "mass hysteria" type of attitude from the people in India..?

Btw, I thought you spoke well and didnt need the captions underneath.. :)

Dawgmatix said...

Hi Sheila, thanks for the comment.. yeah there was definitely a huge amount of 'mass hysteria' generated by the media on this issue. The locals though have lived with the belief of its existence since long without any hysteria. Personally, I doubt that anything really exists anymore, even if it did once.
About my speaking on this, I'll have to take your word, because I still haven't seen the episode as MQ doesn't air in India! :)

zort said...

Hey has any one tried searching for this elusive animal yet? Like an expedition for finding it? If no then would you be willing to be a part of such an expedition? (Purely research based)