Sunday, October 19, 2008

Capricious hair and disappearing Yetis - how the Goral lost its range!

So, the Yeti (mande burung) hair turned out to be from a goat. Everyone knows that by now. Just a case of false alarm, huh? It was just a dear old Goral (Nemorhaedus goral) who was having a bad hair day. Dipu Marak got his five minutes of fame, the officials of the Meghalaya Forest Department are heaving a sigh of relief and the media circus will move on elsewhere for fresh meat (during the peak of the circus, some Hindi news channels even proclaimed that people in Meghalaya were so terrified of the mande burung that nobody dares venture out of their homes after nightfall!). Okkay so is everybody accounted for? Umm.. not quite… There is a certain Ian Redmond, the 'ape expert' who was heading the investigation of the hairs.

This is what he had to say :

"Nevertheless, the DNA test is an interesting result because the reported location where this sample was collected is way south of the published distribution maps of the Goral species, which is said to live between 1,000 to 4,000 metres up in the Himalayas.

Perhaps we have a more modest discovery - extending the known range of the goral rather than confirming the existence of the lowland yeti,"

Sorry Ian, but that is complete nonsense. There is published scientific information on the fauna of this region and it clearly states that the Brown Goral (Nemorhaedus goral hodgsoni), one of the three subspecies of the Himalayan Goral is found in Meghalaya. Among others, one publication by the Wildlife Institute of India, my former institute is even available on the net. It is locally known as chon.gipa matrong. I have sighted it myself and just a couple of weeks back one was killed near a village by some hunters.

So where DID Ian get his 'known range'? Unfortunately, the figure of 1,000 - 4,000 metres appears to have been lifted verbatim off some mammal encyclopaedia or some such ready-reference guide. One such guide is the Grzimek series on world fauna. The section on Bovids which contains information on the Himalayan Goral provides the same figure. These are excellent books, but unfortunately the information in them is frequently outdated. The maps are even worse, and the so-called 'distribution range' diagrams (see picture below) are nothing more than artistic squiggles based on pure conjecture. On the other hand, the maps produced by the Wildlife Institute of India is mostly based on actual field research, making them relatively more accurate. Even the Meghalaya Forest Department has produced management plans for the two protected areas in question - Nokrek and Balpakram which record the Goral among the fauna.

Can you possibly believe that a senior scientist investigating Indo-Malayan fauna would not conduct an exhaustive search for scientific literature, but rather depend on some 'big name' generalized account? It defies logic when such statements are made and even reported by the BBC.

I would like to believe that he was just plain lazy and never bothered searching, because if he did find them and discarded them, that would establish a common but unfortunate phenomenon - scientific racism. It happens all the time, ask any scientist from the third world and they will tell you how it shows up regularly in the form of missing references to key papers.

A last point. Note how Ian refers to the 'lowland yeti'. So, we can safely assume he has already analysed the hairs of the 'highland yeti'. And mapped its 'known range'. Wonder what goat that is !!



Wildlife Institute of India

Mande burung, the Indian Bigfoot