Tracking Bigfoot, by Jan Mcgirk, UK
March 1, 2006
At first glance it might have seemed like nothing. A 10cm impression in the mud of the Malaysian rainforest. On closer inspection, however, it seemed as if it might be the astounding find the expedition had been hoping for.
A footprint of the creature known as Sasquatch in Canada, Yowie in eastern Australia, Bigfoot in the western US, Yeti in the Himalayas or - to locals - the Mawas.
Said to grow up to 3m tall, with an awesome armspan, a trio of these undiscovered hominids were at the centre of a flurry of unconfirmed sightings by frightened plantation workers three months ago.
And in the fading light of the Bukit Lantang woods on the fringe of dense forest in Johor state, a single splayed print appeared to offer the most compelling evidence yet that we were on the trail of the mighty beast.
The Mawas appears to have grabbed for support when it teetered off-balance, because tree branches 3.35m overhead had been damaged, directly above the spot where the animal's left heel had sunk 10cm into a muddy puddle. A stick had snapped beneath one of its toe depressions.
A second fresh footprint proved impossible to find, but recent damage to a rotting log, located a couple of strides away, suggested it might have borne a prodigious weight.
For the excitable team of Yeti hunters, mainly a mix of Singaporean enthusiasts and volunteers from the capital Kuala Lumpur, it was vindication. Even the sceptics, including this reporter, were secretly impressed.
As with the two extremely faded footprints that had been found preserved in fresh tar on a nearby road, this print measured nearly a triple handspan across, roughly 28cm by 48cm. The Australian tracker Tony Burke, part of the Singapore team, estimated that to make such a print, an animal would have to weigh at least 240kg.
"I'm a cynic, but if we could see a right footprint as well, we could at least measure its gait. Maybe if we had some scat, I could be totally convinced," he said. "I am about 50% there. Let's see what the lab results are."
An official government committee of research scientists, appointed by Abdul Ghani Othman, the Chief Minister of Johor, has been trying to verify Bigfoot's existence since late January by interviewing witnesses, setting up camera traps in its likely haunts, and collecting evidence from tribal informants in the national parks.
But our paranormal investigators' search party, tailed by an excitable science-fiction film crew from Los Angeles, was anything but stealthy.
Kong Kam Choy, a 40-year-old construction worker who likes to trek through the jungle in his free time, persuaded the gaggle of researchers to tramp through a leech-infested grove near a palm plantation where he had come across unusually big tracks that he could not readily identify.
It was just two hours before dusk, thunder was rumbling and the group was disappointed, having made a futile afternoon voyage upriver to examine a set of tracks discovered on January 10 near the Tanjung Sedili creek. These had since been washed away by tropical downpours and overrun by wild boar.
Then we struck gold. Kenny Fong, an e-commerce professor who founded Singapore Paranormal Investigators five years ago, came running when Josh Gates, a sci-fi documentary maker, summoned him to check out the peculiarly large footprint.
Fong considers himself a debunker who is keen to spot a hoax. Using a police crime scene kit designed to preserve footprints for court evidence, he set about the job.
A technician required three full bags of plaster (at 0.5kg a bag) to fill the huge depression made by the single footprint. The muddy size 20 footprint was doused with hairspray before quick-setting plaster was poured into each crevice.
As the group gawked and cameras whirred, the print took on that unmistakable and almost comically ominous Bigfoot shape - the flat foot with four rounded digits, plus a gorilla-like big toe jutting out from the side.
"People say Bigfoot doesn't exist, and I have had my doubts. But what else could it be?" asked Fong, who promptly toppled off a hillock in his excitement to photograph the group in front of the fresh paw print.
According to Vincent Chow, a Malaysian bio-diversity expert, this area of diverse rainforest has been rife with Bigfoot sightings all month.
"An elephant has been foraging in those woods for food, so farmers set off explosives to frighten it away from their fields," he said.
"But animals get accustomed to these blasts and ignore them. Now we think a Bigfoot family of three may be shadowing the elephant, who clears the way.
"Fourteen large footprints were found nearby on Saturday. Then at 4am, workers were awakened by 10 minutes of weird hooting, a kind of call and response session, while they were asleep at a palm oil plantation."
The planter, Abdul Rahman Ahmad, said his terrified workers at Komping Lukut had described the eerie night cries as long drawls in three distinct pitches.
"They said it sounded like squeals of wild pigs mixed up with the deep barks of gibbons - but not like owls," he recounted. They also heard heavy crashing through the underbrush. Chow speculated that at least three different animals, which the local tribes call Hantu Jarang Gigi, or "snaggle-toothed ghosts", must have been involved in this curious chorus.
Many cultures have legends about man-beasts. Recorded sightings in North America date back to the early 1800s. According to some Native American tribes, the Sasquatch are not flesh-and-blood creatures in the first place but spirits which appear to humans in times of crisis.
But despite numerous sightings, photos and footprints of often questionable origin, there has never been conclusive proof that these creatures exist. No droppings, no bones, no hair and no bodies found - alive or dead.
So far, the same remains true of the Malaysian Mawas.
A photo of the clear new footprints preserved in tar ran in Kuala Lumpur's leading English daily, the New Straits Times, recently. The animals are said to range all along the dense jungle that connects Endau Rompin, Kota Tinggi and Tanjung Piai districts and are not exclusively vegetarian. Their huge bulk must also be maintained by hunting fowl and mule deer near the swamps.
Some scientists theorise that these enormous Malaysian apes might have descended from Gigantopithecus, a huge primate that roamed southern China more than 300 000 years ago.
Jane Goodall, probably the most distinguished primatologist in academia, is an unabashed Bigfoot enthusiast and recently confessed: "I'm a romantic, so I always wanted them to exist. People from very different backgrounds and different parts of the world have described very similar creatures behaving in similar ways and uttering some strikingly similar sounds . . . so the existence of hominids of this sort is a very real probability."
Some think that the sightings may be linked to environmental changes, or the destruction of the rainforest.
Hamid Mohd Ali, a frog-catcher from the Orang Asli tribe, claims he came eye to eye with a giant ape, which his people call the "Siamang", late last year. Other locals allege that they saw the giant creature cross the road at twilight or leap down from a river bank.
"We believe that people can only see it once in a lifetime," Hamid said. "But in this year alone, four villagers have seen it and we think this is because of the shrinking jungle."
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