In the footsteps of the yeti: the hunt for Mande Burung

The discovery of two unidentifiable hairs in the far north-east of India has fuelled the belief that the yeti is more than a myth. Andrew Buncombe ventured to the Garo Hills to get to the bottom of the mystery

Amid the dense greenery of the jungle, throbbing with the hum of insects, the young boy lifts his arm and points: the creature was there.

It was sitting on a rock in the cleft of a cave, said the 11-year-old, and although he only saw it for a few seconds, he is adamant that it was like nothing he'd seen before. "Its face was like that of a monkey," Tengsim Marak recalled, as we stand and peer into the murkiness of the cave. "But the creature was much bigger than a human."

For generations, the people of the state of Meghalaya in the far north-east of India, have whispered stories about the Mande Burung, or the Man of the Jungle. At night, when darkness falls like a black cloak thrown across the forest, they sit and share stories of a creature living among the trees, half man and half ape, occasionally glimpsed through the foliage or more often heard, its strange call echoing across the rice paddies. It is said to stand 10ft tall and weigh up to 45 stone.

Forest department officials and most serious scientists have always dismissed the reports as tribal folklore and considered them a local variant of similar stories told elsewhere in the world about the yeti, Bigfoot or Sasquatch. Yet the story of the Mande Burung has an intriguing and, just maybe, remarkable twist.

Earlier this year, a group of amateur "yeti-hunters" from Meghalaya gave two hairs they say they discovered in a "nest" of the Mande Burung to a renowned British primatologist. Having examined the hairs, Ian Redmond said they were like that of no other creature known to live in these jungles. Even more teasingly, Dr Redmond said that under the microscope the hairs most closely resembled those of a human, a chimp, a gorilla or else the purported "yeti hairs" brought back by the late Sir Edmund Hilary's 1953 Everest expedition.

The hairs are now undergoing DNA tests. Dr Redmond was cautious about what the creature may be. The most mundane explanation is that it is an already-known species, but one whose existence in the jungles of Meghalaya had not previously been recorded. "We have not ruled out every known species but we have looked at those species known to live in that area," said Dr Redmond, a senior consultant to the UN's Great Apes Survival Project. Alternatively the hairs could belong to a previously unknown species. As Dr Redmond points out, just five years ago, a "new" species of macaque was discovered in the nearby state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Beyond these explanations, of course, there is the seemingly unthinkable.

Not surprisingly, the merest possibility that a yeti-like beast may be living in the jungles of India has triggered a huge buzz in the world of cryptozoology, the usually derided study of uncatalogued creatures.

Jon Downes, of the British-based Centre for Fortean Zoology, said he believed the creatures might be the last remnants of a giant ape called gigantopithecus, believed to have died out 300,000 years ago. "There are so many reports of yeti-like beasts across south and central Asia that I would not be surprised if there are still some pockets of these very, very rare and shy creatures," he said.

The enthusiasts who handed in the mysterious hairs said they found them in the West Garo Hills, a remote area in the west of Meghalaya populated by tribes who until the arrival of Christian missionaries a century ago were notorious head-hunters.

For the past 10 years, Dipu Marak (no relation to Tengsim) and his friends have been investigating reports of the Mande Burung, dashing off from their base in the town of Tura to interview possible witnesses and photographing whatever evidence may exist, such as the scratches on the bark of a tree or an area of forest where trees have been broken in a way that is different to the damage made by elephants or other known animals.

Though the group calls itself the Achik Tourism Society, Mr Marak insists they are not hoaxers seeking to draw in tourist dollars with tall stories. "We would welcome [more tourists] but we don't want to lie to them in the name of the Mande Burung," said Mr Marak, sipping Indian tea one recent evening in a small hotel in Tura. "I believe 100 per cent there is something. I will not say it is Mande Burung because we have not found it. But as long as there is no proof we will keep looking."

Mr Marak, who says he is a documentary filmmaker, unrolls a map of the Garo Hills. To the south lies the border with Bangladesh and to the west runs the broad Brahmaputra river. Most of the alleged sightings have taken place in the state's Nokrek Biosphere Reserve and the Balpakram National Park, but Mr Marak reaches over the map and points to a place close to the border with Assam. In the past few days they have learnt of a possible sighting in a remote village there. Tomorrow, at first light, his team is going to investigate and there is a spare seat in the truck.

The road through the Garo Hills twists its way past scenery painted a million hues of green. Coconut palms, banana trees and towering teaks line the narrow road. It seems as though the entire landscape has somehow overdosed on chlorophyll.

After two hours, where the road reaches Assam, there are paler shades as the hills give way to terraces of paddy fields. Women, bent double, work planting rice while men walk behind ploughs pulled by oxen. We pass young girls cycling with umbrellas held up against the blistering sun.

The half-dozen yeti-hunters are a friendly bunch. There is a policeman, a couple of teachers and a few younger men without jobs. They have all grown up hearing their grandparents tell stories of the Mande Burung and are passionate about discovering whether there could be any truth to them. "Everybody in Garo Hills believes in this creature," explained Galbraith Sangma, the policeman. He draws a distinction between the region's folklore and the reports of the creature living in the jungle. "There are many stories in our myths about elves or whatever, but the Mande Burung is not part of that folklore," he said.

The team members roll off a list of sightings. In 2003, Nelbison Sangma, a local hunter, said he had watched the Mande Burung from across a valley for three consecutive days. In 2005, at a village called Rongri, the creature was said to have entered a hut occupied by a widower and her young child. The creature had stamped out the fire and sat down but had not harmed the woman, who was too terrified to run. Another man told them how, as a boy, he had seen the severed hairy red arm of an unknown creature for sale in a remote market.

Today, the team is in search of a teacher in a remote village who – word had it – saw a creature matching the description of the Mande Burung in late May. After driving for three hours, we turn off the main road and head back into the mountains.

Ten miles later the road becomes increasingly difficult. Monsoon rains have created heavy mud and the boulders on the road seem impassable but we bump and barrel our way uphill in the lowest gear, the truck's engine roaring.

The track ends at a village called Tingba, set in a valley of rice paddies cut through by a briskly flowing river. Two team members set off to speak to the headman. When they return, they say the person we are looking for lived in another village, several hours away, but that there is a man in Tingba whose son had seen the creature.

We find Mohin Sangma and his son, Tengsim Marak, on the far side of the river. Mr Sangma is wearing little more than a loin cloth and his frame is small and wiry, his body not betraying a spare ounce of fat. The pair lead the way the way through the jungle, hot and humid and filled with blood-sucking leaches, cutting back the foliage with a machete. After 20 lung-bursting minutes they stop at a cleft set in the hillside. One team member sets up a video camera and films as Tengsim recalls what he had seen.

"The creature was on the rock. He was playing with a stone, hitting it against the rock. It was black," he said. "It was just a few seconds [that I saw it]. I was very scared."

Having initially been excited, the team now appears a little sceptical. Given the space in the cave, the creature would have had to have been quite small. Also, all the previous reported sightings of the Mande Burung suggested it was red, not black. The creature that the young boy said he had seen sounded more like the Asiatic black bear, known to live in the jungle. Some of the team climb down into the cave to search for clues. There is no shortage of spiders and bats but no evidence of anything else, be it a bear or something more remarkable.

Again led by the boy and his father, the team walk back to the village. The yeti-hunters are obviously disappointed but not down-heartened. One senses that much of their time is spent chasing shadows.

"We have to check out all the reports," said Pimpto Marak. "We are not going to give up until we find it."

It is getting dark by the time we reach the truck and soon the forest is enveloped in blackness. Occasionally we pass a village set amid the trees, hidden but for a glimmer of light from a cooking fire. As the truck bumps its way out of the jungle, back towards the world of electricity and paved roads, I ponder on the team's unlikely pursuit. It is a thrill to think there are still parts of the world where a large, previously undiscovered mammal might conceivably exist but surely it is a leap of faith to think there is more to the stories than just legend.

And then I remember something Dipu Marak had said the night before. I had asked whether there was something within the human psyche that found a need to believe in yeti-like creatures. After all, such legends existed in almost all indigenous communities of the world. "They can't all be right," I'd suggested. "No," he had replied, "but they can't all be wrong."

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