Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Orang-Pendek: on the Track of Sumatra's `Short Man'

From the earliest age I suffered from that wonderful malady men call 'wanderlust. Growing up with thrilling and exotic images of distant lands and strange creatures from magical series like The World About Us and Life on Earth, I would always be dissatisfied with suburban, industrial England. Add to the mix an early addiction to Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who, then is it any wonder I became a cryptozoologist?

This section was written by Richard Freeman from the book "Wood Knocks" by David Weatherly

My work has taken me to every continent save Antarctica. I have searched for the Tasmanian wolf, the Mongolian death worm, the yeti, the giant anaconda, the almasty and many other creatures, but it is Sumatra and its 'short man' that keep calling me back.

Orang-pendek means 'short man' in Indonesian. The creature is said to be powerfully built and immensely strong, but relatively short at around 3 to 5 feet in height. It walks upright like a man and rarely, if ever, moves on all fours. It is generally said to have dark brown, grey or black fur, but honey-coloured or reddish hair has been reported. Sometimes a long mane of hair that falls down to the shoulders is also mentioned.

The orang-pendek generally seems to be a solitary creature, though there are rare reports of groups of them being seen together. Many Indonesians fear the orang-pendek on account of its massive strength, but it is not thought of as aggressive. Often the creature will move away from any human it sees. It is said to occasionally use rocks and sticks as crude weapons, hurling them when it feels threatened. Like most wild animals it is probable the orang-pendek might become aggressive if cornered or surprised.

Its diet is primarily herbivorous, consisting of fruits, vegetables and tubers. There are some reports of the animal ripping open logs to get at insect larvae. Rare reports tell of it taking fish and freshwater molluscs. Early reports tell of some of them feeding off the flesh of dead rhinoceros that had fallen into native pit traps.

Native knowledge of the creature goes back into the mists of history, and there are a number of localized names for the orang-pendek around the Island. It is called sedapa or sedapak in the south-eastern lowlands. Gugu is the name in southern Sumatra, whilst in the Rawas district it is atu rimbu. In Bengkulu it is known as sebaba.

One of the earliest accounts comes from William Marsden in his 1784 book, 'The History of Sumatra: containing an account of the government, laws, customs and manners of the native inhabitants, with a description of the natural productions, and a relation of the ancient political state of that island.'

William Marsden (1754-1836) was an English orientalist who joined the East India Company at the age of 16 and was sent to Sumatra, where he became principal secretary (presumably a liaison) to the Dutch Colonial government. In his book he mentions a race of wildmen covered in long hair and rarely met with.

There are many instances of encounters with the orang-pendek during the Dutch Colonial period, and in particular the first few decades of the 20th century. During this time much was written about it. Interest waned in the 1930s, and apart from a chapter dedicated to the orang-pendek in Bernard Huevelmans' book 'On the Track of Unknown Animals: the creature was almost forgotten.

As Indonesia opened up as a tourist destination in the 1980s new reports began to come in. They were consistent and sometimes made by highly reliable people. There is not the space here to leg the legion of sightings, but a fairly comprehensive list may be found in my book `Orang-pendek: Sumatra's Forgotten Ape.'

Instead, here I will concentrate on my own experiences and my own thoughts on the animal.

I first ventured into the rainforests of Sumatra in June 2003. The small expedition team consisted of Dr. Chris Clark, Jon Hare and myself. We contacted Debbie Martyr, a travel writer turned conservationist. Debbie, who now resided in West Sumatra, had become the head of the Indonesian tiger conservation group. She has seen the orang-pendek on more than one occasion. Debbie was very helpful, suggesting where to look and what guides to employ.

Whilst in a hotel in Padang, the unattractive capital of West Sumatra, we met a man in his fifties (called Stephano) who claimed to have seen orang-pendek. He told us in 1971 he had accompanied an Australian explorer called John Thompson into the jungles of Kerinci-Seblat national park. He had seen small human-like primates with yellow hair. In order to stop Thompson shooting them he told the Australian a curse would descend on anyone who killed one of the creatures.

Sadly before we could question him more our transport arrived to convey us south to Sungai Penuh were Debbie Martyr lived.

The next day we met Debbie Martyr. Debbie is a charming lady who reminded me a lot of the chimp conservationist Jane Goodall. A former journalist, Debbie first came to Sumatra as a travel writer in 1993. She had heard tell of orang-pendek and assumed it was a legend, no more than a bit of local colour. Later a guide was telling her of the animals he had seen in the jungle. He said he had seen rhino, sunbear, tiger, elephant and orang-pendek! About six weeks later Debbie herself saw the animal. Debbie told us the most recent sighting, about 3 months previously, had taken place in the jungle surrounding Gunung Tuju, or the Lake of Seven Peaks, a large volcanic lake in the park. She photocopied several maps for us and also spoke of a lost valley. Despite being shown on the map,

Debbie told us no one had ever been there. It looked like a couple of days hike from the lake, and the contours showed a wickedly steep-sided canyon.

We all felt it would be exciting to look for the valley, and Debbie arranged for guides to lead us in. Sahai was a small bespectacled man in his early thirties, who, if dressed in a suit and tie could pass for an accountant, along with his brother John and an older man called Anhur.

We travelled down to Sahar's village, Polempek, and next day began the expedition proper.

Fully stocked, the six of us set out into the foothills of Gunung Tuju. The foothills were fine but as the gradient grew more acute I began to suffer. Gunung Tuju is 3000 meters high. Much of the way the path is at something like 75 degrees. Imagine a gargantuan winding staircase, with stairs made of moss-slick tree roots jutting at differing angles. Like the labour of Sisyphus in Greek mythology, the climb seemed never ending. I collapsed with exhaustion, staggered on, collapsed again and vomited with overexertion.

Finally we made the summit. The land falls away dramatically to the 4 km lake, Gunung Tuju, a strange, unearthly turquoise in colour. It lies in the bowl of an extinct (or maybe just dormant) volcano. The lake's waters are biologically impoverished, and geothermal influences keep it warm. Only one species of small fish and one species of freshwater crab live there, but nevertheless support several fishermen who sometimes come up from the village.

Using fishermen's canoes so decrepit they could have come off the Ark we crossed the lake. Whilst the others set up camp, Sahar led Jon, Chris and I out into the jungle. Sahar' s skill as a guide was astounding. The slightest bent twig or misplaced leaf caught his eye. Things you or I would walk straight past tell him the secrets of the jungle. He pointed out the trail of a Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) through the bushes, where the bulky animal had hardly disturbed the greenery, yet later we found its three-toed footprints.

We came upon a possible orang-pendek footprint unfortunately damaged by rain. I measured the print but it was too damp for casting. It was narrower at the heel than at the front, and pressed about half an inch into the ground. Further along the trail we came across seven prints crossing a large muddy puddle. Similar in size and shape to the earlier print they too had suffered rain damage. The gait was definably that of a biped. A fallen log crossed the puddle, and as Sahar pointed out, a human would have crossed by the log as opposed to walking through the mud.

A little further on Sahar indicated some damaged plants. Known as pahur, the pith inside the stem is a supposed favourite food of orang-pendek. A number of the plants seemed to have been dexterously peeled apart and the pith eaten. A flattened area of moss on a nearby tree stump may have been where the creature sat whilst eating. We hid and waited in silence, but apart from the calls of birds and insects nothing disturbed the stillness of the jungle.

Sahar told us that in 2000 he heard the cry of orang-pendek. He demonstrated....

You can read the rest by purchasing the book "Wood Knocks" by Devid Weatherly here.

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