The orange ape that walks like a man
The Orang Pendek of Sumatra
by Nicholas Hellen and Jonathan Leake
12 October 1997 -- The hairy orange creature broke cover from the dense jungle and, striding confidently on two legs, paused briefly in the clearing to look directly at the British woman 200 yards away.
That was what Debbie Martyr says she saw after a five-year search for the mythical orang pendek, a primate which some suspect could provide the missing link in the evolution of man.
The creature vanished into the dense Sumatran jungle before Martyr could reach for her camera, but the sighting was enough to re ignite the hunt for one of the animal world's biggest mysteries. If Martyr can resolve it she may shake humankind's unique view of itself as the only animal to walk upright and possess intelligence.
While others remain skeptical that such an animal exists, Dr David Chivers, a fellow of veterinary anatomy at Selwyn College, Cambridge University, and the principal academic adviser on the project to find it, is convinced the orang pendek does exist and will represent a significant new discovery. "We are talking about hundreds of these creatures. The most likely scenario is that it is a new species of ape; a gibbon or an orang-utan. However, there is a possibility it has something to do with human evolution," he said.
Martyr believes the evidence she has gathered since her sighting on September 30, 1994, is even more persuasive. Her team has sent samples of the animal's hair, droppings and latex casts of its distinctive footprints for examination by experts at Cambridge University and the Institute of Zoology at London Zoo. The team has copious records of the pendek's feeding expeditions through the jungle in its search for its favorite diet of ginger roots.
Most tantalizingly, researchers have two photographs which may show pendek conducting its own observations of Martyr's team. One, taken by the Indonesian manager of the team's camp, shows a creature blundering around the campsite at night. It was, however, too fuzzy for scientific proof. Another, also taken at night, was clearer, but has also been discounted because its failed to show pendek's distinctive feet, raising doubts about its authenticity.
Besides Martyr, two other members of the team, Jeremy Holden, a British photographer, and Yanuar Achmad, an Indonesian anthropologist, say they have also seen pendek as it roamed the slopes of the 13,000ft Mount Kerinci, deep in the region's national park.
The creature is also familiar to local farmers, who say they have had to tolerate its raids on their crops for decades. Chivers, deputy chairman of Flora and Fauna International, which is overseeing the search, said: "The locals are in awe of it. Fortunately, it is a very different culture from central Africa, where bounty hunters kill the gorillas."
The area's potential to reveal new species has been demonstrated by automatic infrared cameras which have captured the first pictures of the golden cat and Salvadori's pheasant. The BBC, which is supporting the expedition, plans to use the images in The X Creatures, to be broadcast next autumn.
Western travelers have been fascinated by reports of the creature since the beginning of the century. In 1924 a Dutchman named Van Herwaarden told how he had encountered an animal of a very human appearance. He raised his rifle to shoot it but could not, deciding it would be like committing murder.
There is a risk that the team's painstaking efforts to research the animal will have to be diverted into saving it. The forest fires which have destroyed vast tracts of jungle are threatening the fragile habitat. The pall of smog hanging over the park has killed dozens of orang-utans.
Tests on only a small proportion of the samples have left experts uncertain. Dr Robin Crompton, senior lecturer in anatomy at Liverpool University who has examined casts supplied by the BBC, said he doubted they were real. They showed an animal which combined the firm heel print of a human with pressure markings on the side of the foot, typical of orang-utans. "The evidence is unconvincing," he said.
Attempts to analyze hair samples have been hampered by lack of funds. Dr Malcolm Hall, a geneticist, who spent 12 months examining pendek's hair at Liverpool University said its unusual orange pigmentation had thwarted the standard DNA test. He was unable to raise fresh funds but this weekend he said: "I remain very open-minded. Validation will make or break a career."
The Institute of Zoology in London needs £15,000 before its expert, Dr Mike Bruford, can afford to examine samples of hairs and droppings. Since no hairs have been plucked directly from the animal, even a negative result would not necessarily prove that it does not exist.
The confirmation of the orang pendek's existence would provoke as many questions as it answered. The most crucial issue would be to establish its ancestry: some believe that it is most likely to be a new species of orang- utan or gibbon, varieties of which are common in Sumatra. Such a discovery would be exciting enough but there are two far more fascinating possibilities: one is that the orang pendek is a new species of great ape which has survived intact for millions of years in its Sumatran hideaway. Fossil records show that 25m years ago there were dozens of such ape species but most have become extinct leaving just three: orang-utans, gorillas and chimpanzees.
A new fourth species would shed crucial light on the origins of both humans and other primates. The most fascinating possibility, however, is that the orang pendek is a primitive humanoid. If so it would throw into doubt accepted evolutionary theories which suggest that humans evolved from African apes, not from those in Eurasia.
Dr Phyllis Lee, a lecturer in biological anthropology from Cambridge University, said the findings were fascinating. "The most important evidence is that this creature habitually walks on its hind legs. The only other primates known to have done that are the ancestors of human beings. It could just be that we have found a long-forgotten cousin," she said.
Copyright: The Sunday Times, October 12 1997
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