Book Review by Skeptic Kenneth A. Sayers

"Something Hidden Behind the Ranges:
A Himalayan Quest"

by Dr. Daniel Taylor-Ide

When it comes to maybe-monsters, the Himalayan Yeti or Abominable Snowman is perhaps the world's favorite. Reportedly a man-ape five to seven feet tall, the elusive Yeti has for centuries left trails of footprints that have baffled nearly everyone. Nearly everyone, that is, except the scientists. Academia has held that the prints, almost always found in snow, are the melted and enlarged tracks of known Himalayan mammals - such as bears and langur monkeys.

That is not to say that the creatures have never been, at least allegedly, sighted. A number of well-respected Westerners claim to have encountered a Yeti, but these reports are invariably vague and give little detail. The Sherpas and other Himalayan hill people have a strong belief in the creatures, but it is often difficult to separate their real world from their metaphysical.

The modern Yeti myth began when British mountaineers Eric Shipton and Dr. Michael Ward photographed a very clear thirteen-inch Yeti footprint on Nepal's Menlungtse glacier in 1951. This five-toed print mysteriously endowed the Yeti with an air of scientific respectability, and for the next few years the Yeti seemed to rule the media. Moviegoers watched Peter Cushing and Forrest Tucker chase the Yeti across the big screen in The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. The London Daily Mail financed more than three hundred men to scour the mountains near Everest. And even Sir Edmund Hillary and Marlin Perkins trailed the primate that they weren't quite sure even existed.

Since that time, Yeti fever has calmed, but dozens of writers have attempted to solve the mystery. Most attempts have been mediocre at best, simply retelling countless "monster stories," and accepting at face value every unverified piece of evidence available.

A pleasant exception to this rule appeared in 1972, when Dr. John Napier, head of primate biology at the Smithsonian, published Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality (Jonathon Cape Ltd., 1972). In this now-classic book, Napier meticulously analyzed every Yeti footprint report that had been compiled up to that date. He had no trouble dismissing most of the tracks as those of known animals and concluded that a combination of legend and "false identity" had resulted in the modern belief in the Yeti. The aforementioned Shipton footprint was the only piece of evidence that that continued to bother Napier. He wrote: "The Shipton print . . . is the one item in the whole improbable saga that sticks in my throat; without it I would have no hesitation in dismissing the Yeti as a red herring, or, at least, a red bear."

Finally, more than twenty years after Napier penned his work on the Yeti, another writer has given the hypothetical creature the skeptical analysis it deserves. When I began reading Daniel Taylor-Ide's Something Hidden Behind the Ranges: A Himalayan Quest, I half expected more Sherpa monster tales, complete with out-of-focus pictures of vague indentations in the snow.

Instead, I found a critical, well-written book that almost puts the Yeti to rest. In my mind, Taylor-Ide reaches his conclusions in a much more convincing manner than other authors who discount cryptozoological (i.e., unknown) animals. But before discussing why, I will disclose the main thrust of the book.

The tale is mainly of Taylor-Ide's life and his fascination with the Abominable Showman. He opens the book speaking as an eleven-year-old living with his British family in India. One day he notices a copy of the July 4, 1956, issue of The Statesman lying on his kitchen table. Glaring up at him is the now-famous photograph of Shipton's Yeti footprint. Taylor-Ide becomes entranced with the legend, and ultimately, upon adulthood, ventures upon a number of expeditions to find out the truth behind the Yeti.

Taylor-Ide, at first, is certainly the typical Yeti "believer," out to find definitive evidence of a new Himalayan primate. He travels with his wife to camp in Nepal's remote Barun Valley to search for evidence. But then the focus of the story changes. Taylor-Ide finds that while the belief in a man-ape is widespread among common villagers, the expert Nepali hunters, who know the local fauna better than anyone, insist there is no such animal. And while he photographs a set of footprints almost immediately, subsequent analysis suggests that the prints come from a tree-living black bear, not a primate.

For a short time, Taylor-Ide works on proving the existence of an unknown form of tree bear in Nepal. But not too long after, he realizes that more important than the tree bear, more important than even the Yeti, is the preservation of Nepal's last wilderness. Of the 298 pages in the book, the first 176 are devoted to the search for the Yeti, the next 77 to the establishment of the Makalu-Barun National Park, and the remaining 45 to explaining away most of the available Yeti evidence.

Taylor-Ide clearly comes out of his experience certain that the Yeti is a myth. This conclusion has been reached before, but what is important is how Taylor-Ide reached it. Unlike numerous earlier Yeti criticisms by armchair scientists, Taylor-Ide made his findings in the field. In fact, it is quite apparent that Taylor-Ide set out on his exploits fairly convinced of the Yeti's reality. It was only after on-site research that he realized that there probably wasn't anything out there - making his conclusions all the more convincing.

Incidentally, much controversy has arisen recently concerning the "cryptozoological method," which is performed by questioning local wildlife experts in order to learn about possible scientifically unknown animals. Taylor-Ide and friends conducted such inquiries in the Barun
valley. While most skeptics have endlessly criticized this method, maintaining that the interviewers ask very suggestive questions, Taylor-Ide has proven that such an approach, if done correctly, can work. And in this case he has brought forward one of the best arguments to date against the Yeti, mainly that the wildlife experts in the Himalayas - the Nepali hunters - do not believe in the creatures.

To Cryptozoologists, perhaps the most important part of the book is found on pages 256 through 260. Here, Taylor-Ide tries his best to explain the 1951 Shipton footprint as an overprint of two bear tracks. To someone uninitiated in the subject, this may seem trivial. To others familiar with the Yeti legend, this is tantamount to explaining the origins of the universe, as many consider the Shipton footprint the main piece of evidence in favor of the Yeti. Taylor-Ide maintains that although his "overprint" hypothesis seems unlikely (considering the enigmatic clarity of the photograph), it is a much more viable alternative than accepting that it was left by a hair-covered, 600-pound primate.

Taylor-Ide's findings have importance to all those interested in a skeptical approach to cryptozoology. He relates an intelligent way to investigate reports of unknown animals, while at the same time he refrains from making evidence out of nothing. Also, his anecdotes on Himalayan life and natural history are, for the most part, accurate and extremely fascinating. Finally, and most important, Taylor-Ide communicates the need to preserve wild areas such as the Himalayas - places where human mysteries, real or imagined, can continue to thrive.

Author Kenneth Sayers is a biologist and freelance writer.
© Skeptical Inquirer March 03, 97 v21: n2. P 51-2

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