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In Search of Orang-pendek

Sumatra’s orang-pendek has been described as one of the most likely cryptids to actually exist. Richard Freeman dons his jungle survival kit and ventures into the rain forest to see for himself.

There’s no denying it – we are impressed by big things: dinosaurs, whales, rhino, skyscrapers. Mention mystery apes to the man in the street and he will imagine bipedal hairy giants, at least 10 feet (3m) tall. And, indeed, many reports do speak of large creatures, such as the yeti, the yeren, the Sasquatch, and the yowie. But, for every bigfoot there is a littlefoot – and none are so famous as Sumatra’s orang-pendek.

The name in the local language means ‘short man’. This small, stocky, upright ape has been reported since the days of the Dutch colonists. A couple of years back I compiled a list of the ‘top 10 cryptids most likely to actually exist’ for Animals & Men magazine. Orang-pendek was second on the list, right after the thylacine. Why? Well, for a start there was the list of consistent sightings going back well over a century. There was also the fact that a journalist and conservationist, Debbie Martyr, claimed to have seen the animal more than once. (see FT83: 19 and interview, p37). And, lastly, there was the remoteness of the area in which it was supposed to live.

And orang-pendek isn’t the only cryptid to stalk the Sumatran jungle. The cigau (pronounced chi-gow) is an undiscovered big cat, generally described as smaller but more stocky than a tiger, sporting a lion-like mane, golden fur, a short tail, and forelegs longer than its hind legs, the latter detail reminscent of the hyena. Any trip to Sumatra would demand that we kept an eye out for this animal as well.

The great CFZ expedition to Sumatra was not my idea. CFZ member Dr Chris Clark had wanted to investigate orang-pendek for years, and in 2003 organised a trip, graciously asking me along as a zoologist. Whilst discussing this at the 2003 UnConvention, we found our third expedition member, Jon Hare. Cambridge graduate, martial artist, and science writer, he would be the Mallone to Chris’s Challenger and my Sumerlee.

Debbie Martyr was very helpful in planning the expedition, suggesting where we should look and which guides we should employ. By June 2003, after much preparation, we were off.

From Britain we flew to Singapore, from where we took the ferry to the once-beautiful but now devastated island of Batam, gateway to Indonesia; and from Batam, an hour’s flight brought us to Padang, the largest (and possibly ugliest) city in Western Sumatra, a sprawling collection of ugly buildings and malodorous shanties. We checked into the surprisingly good Dippo International, where the evening afforded a fittingly fortean entertainment in the shape of an Indonesian Elvis impersonator.

The following evening, quite by chance while drinking in a local bar, we met our first eyewitness – Stephano, a man in his fifties who claimed to have actually seen orang-pendek. He told us that 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 and, in order to stop Thompson shooting them, had told the Australian that a curse would descend on anyone who killed one of the creatures.

Stephano had also heard of the cigau from the Kerinci locals. They had told him that it had a head like a lion and a body like a horse and that it ran fast through the jungle. Sadly, before we could question Stephano further, the bus arrived for Sungai Penuh, heralding an eight-hour journey across some extremely bad roads.

The next day we met orang-pendek’s best known champion, the charming Debbie Martyr. A former journalist, Debbie first came to Sumatra as a travel writer in 1993. She had heard of Sumatra’s mystery ape, but had assumed it was just a legend, until a guide, describing animals he had seen in the jungle, mentioned casually that he had only ever seen one orang-pendek. Some six weeks later, Debbie saw the animal for herself. She now resides in Sumatra, as head of the tiger conservation team, and spends her spare time investigating orang-pendek.

Debbie told us that the most recent sighting, about three months previously, had taken place in the jungle surrounding Gunung Tuju, or the Lake of Seven Peaks, a large volcanic lake within the national park. She photocopied several maps for us and also spoke of a lost valley a couple of days hike from the lake. Despite the fact that it was shown on the map (so it couldn’t be that lost), Debbie insisted that no one had ever been there. The contours showed a wickedly steep-sided canyon. “We just don’t know what’s down there,” she said. A lost valley… it sounded perfect.

Debbie had also arranged guides: Sahar, a small bespectacled man in his early 30s, his brother, John, and an older man called Anhur.

We took a bus from Sungai Penuh to Sahar’s village, Ulonjourni, where we stocked up on supplies (a lot of rice and noodles) for the expedition. After a night at Sahar’s house (a mini-animal sanctuary in its own right, with geckos, grasshoppers, and a magnificent rhinoceros beetle) we set off into the foothills of Gunung Tuju.

The initial climb wasn’t too taxing, but as the gradient grew more acute I began to realise my limitations. It’s some 3,000 meters (9,840ft) to the top, and the way up resembles a gargantuan winding staircase made of moss-slick tree roots jutting out at a variety of angles. The climb seemed endless; eventually, I collapsed with exhaustion, staggered on, collapsed again and vomited. The rest of the party split my backpack between them and helped me up. All five of them (including Chris, who is pushing 60) romped up the mountain like goats.

Finally, we made the summit. The land falls away dramatically to the 4 km- (2.5mile)-long lake of Gunung Tuju, which is an unearthly turquoise in colour. It lies in the bowl of an extinct (or perhaps just dormant) volcano. Geothermal in nature, its waters are warm. There are many legends attached to Gunung Tuju. It is said, for instance, to be home to a djinn. Some years ago, a waterspout was seen moving around the surface of the lake, and on another occasion a fisherman and his canoe were sucked down by a “whirlpool”. The man escaped but his canoe never surfaced. Perhaps the geothermal nature of the lake may offer an explanation here – a release of carbon dioxide may have occurred, changing the water’s buoyancy for a time.

The waters of the lake are biologically impoverished. Only one species of small fish and one species of freshwater crab live in them – although fishermen are plentiful. Until recently, it was believed that the fish were poisonous. Then a wandering shaman cast a spell to make them edible; if my experience is anything to go by, he didn’t do a very good job.

Sahar hailed the fishermen, who appeared across the lake in their dugouts and paddled towards us. They took us across the misty waters to their huts. As a storm was brewing, we abandoned any idea of forging on to set up camp and spent the night with the hospitable fishermen in their huts, dining on rice, noodles, and bitter fish.

Next morning, woken by the whoops of gibbons, we were ferried by the fishermen to our intended camp. While John and Anhur constructed a bivouac out of branches and plastic sheeting, Sahar led the rest of us into the jungle.

The rainforest here smells very like an English wood. The towering trees are wreathed with vines, the vines are covered in moss, the moss is festooned with fungi. The buzz of cicadas and other insects fills the air, mingling with the metallic screeches of exotic birds. Gaudy bracket fungi sprout from rotting tree trunks that fall across gorges and streams that run down from the surrounding mountains like ribbons of quicksilver. The great paradox of the rainforest, though, is that despite being the greatest concentration of life on earth, the animals are hard to see. Vegetation and shadows hide most of them, and the larger ones can hear you coming from far away.

Sahar’s skill as a guide is astounding. The slightest bent twig or misplaced leaf catches his eye. Things that you or I would never notice tell him the secrets of the jungle. He showed us the trail of a tapir through the bushes; the bulky animal had hardly disturbed the greenery. Later, we found its three-toed footprints.

Then we came upon a more interesting footprint – possibly left by an orang-pendek. Sadly, it had been damaged by rain and was too damp for casting; narrower at the heel than at the front, it pressed about half an inch (1.3cm) 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. As Sahar pointed out, a human would have crossed by the log rather than walking through the mud.

Not far from here, Sahar indicated some damaged plants. Known as pahur, the pith inside the stem is a 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 might have been the creature’s seat whilst eating. We hid and waited in silence, but apart from the calls of birds and insects nothing disturbed the stillness of the jungle.

As the rains began in force we headed back to camp.

The following morning, we set out on a different trail. Several miles into the forest, Sahar noticed hair stuck to a tree trunk. It was about an inch (2.5cm) long, dark grey, and was a metre (3.3ft) above the ground. We collected the hair for analysis. Close by, pahur plants had been stripped and their pith eaten, and we found a stick with tooth marks in it; the bite was four inches (10cm) across.

Further along the trail we found more hair, somewhat lighter in colour than the first sample but similarly on a tree trunk a metre above the ground. We came upon piles of droppings – but these were from tapirs and civets, and not, sadly, our quarry.

Sahar told us that in 2000 he had heard the cry of orang-pendek. He demonstrated: “UHUUUUUUUUR-UR-UR,” a weird, drawn-out moan followed by two grunts and quite unlike any animal vocalization I’m familiar with. There were no further signs of orang-pendek that day.

Next day, after a swim in the lake, we took yet another path into the forest, accompanied by gigantic bees the size of small mice (which we christened B-52s). The going was slower here, as the vegetation was denser and the guides had to hack it away with their parangs (machetes). The noise would have scared most animals away, but we found more hair on this day than any other: over 60 hairs in a hollow tree, short and grey like the others.

Next morning, woken by the whoops of gibbons, we were ferried by the fishermen to our intended camp. While John and Anhur constructed a bivouac out of branches and plastic sheeting, Sahar led the rest of us into the jungle.

The rainforest here smells very like an English wood. The towering trees are wreathed with vines, the vines are covered in moss, the moss is festooned with fungi. The buzz of cicadas and other insects fills the air, mingling with the metallic screeches of exotic birds. Gaudy bracket fungi sprout from rotting tree trunks that fall across gorges and streams that run down from the surrounding mountains like ribbons of quicksilver. The great paradox of the rainforest, though, is that despite being the greatest concentration of life on earth, the animals are hard to see. Vegetation and shadows hide most of them, and the larger ones can hear you coming from far away.

Sahar’s skill as a guide is astounding. The slightest bent twig or misplaced leaf catches his eye. Things that you or I would never notice tell him the secrets of the jungle. He showed us the trail of a tapir through the bushes; the bulky animal had hardly disturbed the greenery. Later, we found its three-toed footprints.

Then we came upon a more interesting footprint – possibly left by an orang-pendek. Sadly, it had been damaged by rain and was too damp for casting; narrower at the heel than at the front, it pressed about half an inch (1.3cm) 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. As Sahar pointed out, a human would have crossed by the log rather than walking through the mud.

Not far from here, Sahar indicated some damaged plants. Known as pahur, the pith inside the stem is a 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 might have been the creature’s seat whilst eating. We hid and waited in silence, but apart from the calls of birds and insects nothing disturbed the stillness of the jungle.

As the rains began in force we headed back to camp.

The following morning, we set out on a different trail. Several miles into the forest, Sahar noticed hair stuck to a tree trunk. It was about an inch (2.5cm) long, dark grey, and was a metre (3.3ft) above the ground. We collected the hair for analysis. Close by, pahur plants had been stripped and their pith eaten, and we found a stick with tooth marks in it; the bite was four inches (10cm) across.

Further along the trail we found more hair, somewhat lighter in colour than the first sample but similarly on a tree trunk a metre above the ground. We came upon piles of droppings – but these were from tapirs and civets, and not, sadly, our quarry.

Sahar told us that in 2000 he had heard the cry of orang-pendek. He demonstrated: “UHUUUUUUUUR-UR-UR,” a weird, drawn-out moan followed by two grunts and quite unlike any animal vocalization I’m familiar with. There were no further signs of orang-pendek that day.

Next day, after a swim in the lake, we took yet another path into the forest, accompanied by gigantic bees the size of small mice (which we christened B-52s). The going was slower here, as the vegetation was denser and the guides had to hack it away with their parangs (machetes). The noise would have scared most animals away, but we found more hair on this day than any other: over 60 hairs in a hollow tree, short and grey like the others.

Back in the 1960s, when he was travelling on one of the trade routes from Kerinci to other parts of Sumatra, Sahar’s father had also seen the cigau. He and four other men were on a path through the jungle when one of them had committed a great taboo – he had eaten rice straight from the pot rather than waiting for portions to be given out.

In the dead of night, the cigau came from the forest to claim him. It stalked right into their camp and dragged him off into the darkness, its golden fur, lion-like mane and distinctive legs all clearly visible. The men searched the jungle for their lost comrade, but when they found him he was dead, disemboweled by the cigau.

It would be easy to dismiss the cigau as a bit of folklore – the wrath of the jungle sent to punish transgressors – but similar attributes are given to the very real tiger, which also punishes transgressions (we had been warned, for instance, not to bathe naked in the lake lest we meet such a fate).

Sahar’s father had also talked of a cigau whose lair was near a fallen tree that formed a natural bridge over a river. It would swim out and devour those who slipped into the water. Debbie commented that she had many recent reports of a cigau emerging from rivers and lakes, most of which mentioned the detail of the creature flinging back its mane to shake off the water.

It is worth pointing out a couple of things in relation to such tales. Whilst on the trail of the naga in Thailand (see FT166:30-35) I was told of the popular belief in a golden, lion-like cat in the Thai jungles. The city of Singapore was founded, so the story goes, after a nobleman saw a golden lion in the jungle where the city now stands. Singapore, in fact, means “lion city”. Another, undeniably factual, point is that crocodiles are absent from this mountainous part of Sumatra, so a big cat could certainly enter the water without fear of predators.

We were also told of the belief of Sahar’s people that the progenitor of their clan was transformed into a tiger. They maintain that shamans of the clan can commune with jungle spirits, among which the tiger is foremost.

We had been so lost in conversation with Debbie and Sahar that we missed the minibus that was to take us on the next leg of our journey. Fortunately, we found a bus that travelled through the night and carried us to our destination. The proprietor of our guesthouse was Mr Sapandi, a keen birdwatcher, who had heard of orang-pendek but had never seen it. After another bus trip, a bumpy motorbike ride, and a two-day trek (thankfully mostly downhill) we reached the extremely remote village of Sungi-Kuning (yellow river). From here we would set off on the mountain trail into the jungle.

Before we got into the jungle pass we walked for over an hour through the coffee plantations that have encroached far into the jungle, resulting in the loss of thousands of acres of rainforest. Black eagles and monster insects abounded here, including plenty I’d never seen in any textbook. We encountered black hornets with bright yellow spots, impressive insects as long as my index finger that would undoubtedly liven up an English picnic.

Finally we reached the pass and followed the path through the jungle, spotting a pair of three-striped ground squirrels and a small toothed palm civet.

But as we pushed on, it became clear that Jon was unwell. He was deathly pale and trembling, cold and clammy to the touch. He was clearly too ill to continue and worried that he might have contracted malaria. Sahar offered to take him back to Mr Sapandi’s guesthouse and rejoin us later. Parentis, Chris and I set up camp by a stream and hoped that Jon was wrong about his sudden affliction.

When Sahar returned, we continued our trek, at dusk reaching the tiny village of Sungi-Khuning. Sahar told us that a man who had recently seen orang-pendek lived in the village and would come to talk with us. That night about 23 people crowded into our guesthouse – but, strangely, the witness was not among them. It was only after we had returned to Britain that we learned Sahar had later tracked down this man; he was a poacher, which perhaps explains his reluctance to talk to us. A few months previously, he had been checking snares he had set for deer in the jungle. In one he found a powerfully built, upright ape struggling to free itself. Panicking, he jabbed at it with his spear, but the ape snatched it away and snapped it like a twig. It then let out such a bellowing roar that the man fainted. Upon waking, he saw that the orang-pendek had freed itself and was walking off into the jungle.

Next morning, we trudged through yet more plantations bordering the village before finally reaching the jungle and making camp. The rainforest here was at a lower altitude, warmer, damper, and thicker than the mountain rainforest surrounding Gunung Tuju, and less disturbed by the presence of man.

We had employed an extra guide, a local man who apparently knew the area better than Sahar or Parentis. On our first trek, he led us round in circles, up pointless ridges, and into dead ends. In one morass I lost the parang I had brought back in Sungi-Penuh. Each time we paused to sit and rest, the forest floor came alive with leeches, a living carpet of vampiric annelids squirming towards us, homing in on our body heat. By the time we had swatted them aside, half a dozen more would have attached themselves to our legs from the rear and be gorging themselves on our blood. Trousers, socks, and even boots proved no deterrent.

As we returned to camp, the new ‘guide’ led us up a vegetation-choked blind alley. As we turned back to retrace our steps along a crumbling riverbank, a section gave way and I fell five feet (1.5m) into the river; not a long fall, but on the way down I thumped my coccyx on a rock jutting from the bank.

One final day of leeches and mosquitoes, during which the jungle devoured Chris’s parang, and it was already time to make the arduous trek back. Once past Sungi-Khuning, what had been all downhill going was all uphill coming back; I was soon reduced to a staggering pace and it was all I could do to put one foot ahead of the other.

Back in Sungi-Penuh we checked into the Aroma Hotel once more and soon located Jon. He had spent five days at Mr Sapandi’s guesthouse, suffering not from malaria but food poisoning, and Mr Sapandi had kindly nursed him through his fever and back to health.

From here, one of the tiger conservation team was kind enough to drive us the eight-hour journey back to Padang, the Dippo Hotel and a final pleasant evening of food and cold beer.

As soon as we arrived back in Britain, we sent our precious hair samples off for analysis to Dr Lars Thomas of the University of Copenhagen and waited, with high hopes, for the results (for more orang-pendek hairs see FT166:7).

The smaller pale hairs, it turned out, were all from a Malayan tapir – but the longer brown ones were not. Neither were they primate. They were from some kind of felid. Lars has tried to match them to all known cat species in Sumatra, but so far he has failed. As I write, we are awaiting samples from the Asian golden cat, the only species he had not compared it to. If he eliminates the golden cat then it looks as if this could be the first tangible evidence of the cigau.

The cigau may once have had a wider range. In Malaya and Indo-China, legends of golden lion-like cats abound. But, as far as I know, there have been no recent sightings outside of Sumatra. The nearest true lions are the Asian lions of northwest India. We could postulate a creature related to the Asian golden cat (which, it should be noted, has a golden coat and short tail) but far larger and more powerfully built, intermediate in size between a leopard and a tiger. This is, of course, merely a theory. On hearing my description of the cigau, palæontologist Darren Naish noted how similar it sounded to a group of fossil cats called Homotheres, related to the more familiar sabre cats, but having smaller canines. Fossils of these animals, sometimes called scimitar cats, have been found in nearby Java. The Homotheres were believed to have died out 10,000 years ago. But perhaps a relic population survives in Sumatra…

Despite none of our hair samples being those of an upright-walking primate unknown to science, I believe more strongly than ever now that such a creature inhabits Western Sumatra. I believe it is most likely a descendent of the Miocene ape Sivapithecus, and is related by way of the early Pleistocene Lufengopithecus to both Gigantopithecus (best candidate for the larger yeti) and the modern day orang-utan.

It should be noted that a similar creature has been reported on the Malayan peninsula, where it is known as mawa; Borneo, where it is known as batutut; and in the valleys and foothills of the Himalayas, where it is called teh-lma (a type of small yeti as opposed to the man-sized meh-teh and the classic, giant duz-teh).

What is certain is that both the orang-pendek and the cigau may not be around for much longer. Four out of the five sites where orang-pendek have been reported in western Sumatra are now deforested. I hope to return with a bigger and better-equipped party, and try once more to prove the existence of Sumatra’s cryptids before the last of the wilderness is lost to loggers and poachers.

Postcript: An email from Debbie Martyr tells us that a golden-brown orang-pendek has been seen close to Renah Pematk in Kerinci. It had been blamed for killing three dogs. A group of locals has set out to catch it, and Gunung Tuju is crawling with people with cameras…

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In Search of Orang-pendek
Image: Centre for Fortean Zoology
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In Search of Orang-pendek
An artist’s impression of orang-pendek by Mark North of the Centre for Fortean Zoology.
  In Search of Orang-pendek
Jon Hare and Dr Chris Clark pause for a photo opportunity deep in the jungle.
  In Search of Orang-pendek
A somewhat exhausted Richard Freeman in jungle explorer mode.
In Search of Orang-pendek
Jon Hare stands by a tiger statue in the foothills of Mount Kerinci.
  In Search of Orang-pendek
Examining plants said to be a favourite food of the elusive creature
In Search of Orang-pendek
Sahar measures a possible orang-pendek footprint
  In Search of Orang-pendek
The lake of Gunung Tuju, site of many fortean mysteries, including a djinn, waterspouts and various disappearances…


In Search of Orang-pendek
An impressive specimen of the rhinoceros beetle
 
Author Biography
Richard Freeman is one of Britain’s few professional cryptozoologists. He worked as a zookeeper before reading zoology and has worked at the Centre For Fortean Zoology since 1996. He is currently finishing a book on dragon legends worldwide.

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