The subject of the orang pendek has fascinated me over the years. From the description, it clearly isn’t the same species as the North American bigfoot, but for some reason it really stimulated my curiosity. Maybe it was the remote location and the possibilities of what could be living in those jungles. Maybe it was the fact that a professional conservationalist, Debbie Martyr, had seen orang pendeks on more than one occasion. Whatever the case, when I found we had the opportunity to visit Sumatra to look into the mystery of these small unknown apes, I was thrilled. When I found that we would be accompanied by cryptozoologist, Adam Davies, I was even more excited.
I had been introduced to Adam Davies a few years back when I made an appearance on a radio program with Adam, Linda Godfrey, and Nick Redfern. It wasn’t a face-to-face introduction, but one where I called into the program from my phone (and actually from the Chehalis Indian Reservation in Washington where I was on a sasquatch expedition at the time). I had been in occasional contact with Adam since, and now we would get the opportunity to do field work together for the first time.
Adam had been to Sumatra looking for the evidence of the orang pendek on six other occasions before this, and I was thankful for his experience. The jungle is no place to camp without a guide if one has never been. Everything in the jungle has evolved to survive against staggering odds, and that means things avoid being eaten, or are really good at eating other things. The animals are sometimes ferocious predators, such as the Sumatran tiger, or are poisonous little things that sting or bite. The plants themselves are often deadly with their venomous sap, or pokey thorns that break off under the top layer of one’s skin. No matter how you cut it, the jungle is a dangerous place, and to go it alone would not be wise. I was thankful knowing that Adam would be my guide on this trip.
Our expedition was to be in and around Kerinci Seblat National Park. Mount Kerinci is an active volcano, and the slopes of this mountain, along with many of the adjoining mountains in its range form the national park. The park is home to many rare animals, and large mammals abound here. Endangered species that range here include the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhino, Sumatran elephant, Sunda clouded leopard, Malayan tapir, Malay sun bear, and the Sumatran muntjac, a newly-rediscovered species thought to be extinct since the 1920’s. Gibbons are common, and numerous species of monkey live in the thick jungles. Over 200 species of birds make the park their home, and over 4000 species of plants have thus far been identified, including the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldi.
Our first witness was Pak Entis, a potato farmer who saw an orang pendek just a few months prior to our visit. His encounter frightened him deeply, and some interesting details came from our interview. The color of the creature was similar to my own hair color, a lighter brown. Its behavior upon being seen is telling as well. It let out a long scream/howl (which Pak Entis was kind enough to imitate on camera for us) and ran away with its arms held outwards and upwards. It took the path of least resistance to get to the thickest foliage possible, then plowed right through it. These creatures might be small, but they are bulky, and thick bushes are not obstacles for them as they use their bulk to plow right through them. I thought we were lucky to speak to Pak Entis because of how recently he saw the orang pendek. Later, this thought would become much more important, but read more about that below.
The day after our relatively uneventful night investigation, Adam Davies and I set out for our solo camping trip, though on this occasion we had several local porters with us. Our destination was a campsite on the far end of Lake Gunung Tujuh, or the Lake of the Seven Peaks. Gunung Tujuh is a lake made by rain water filling in the caldera of Mount Tujuh, one of many volcanoes in the area. Though the lake was only a 5 km walk, it was one of the most strenuous 5 km I had ever trodden. The heat of the day and the oppressive humidity would have made it unpleasant enough, but adding to that was the fact that trails in Sumatra apparently don’t have switchbacks. These trails go straight upwards with few, if any, twists or turns. That means one is hiking up slopes in excess of 45 degree angles most of the time, using roots and rocks as foot and hand holds. The trail is hardly more than an eroded mudslide, and getting any traction without these handholds would be next to impossible.
Once we reached the lake, our porters went off to barter with local fishermen for the use of their hand-hewn canoes. These canoes were about ten to fifteen feet in length, and just wide enough to sit down in if I put my feet in front of my rear end and didn’t sit cross-legged. All of the canoes were many decades old, and I was told by one of our guides that some were over 80 years old. We loaded our gear on the watercraft and started the 2.5 mile paddle to the far end of the lake where only a handful of fishermen make occasional camps in the jungle.
Even getting into the forest canopy from our lakeside campsite was difficult. Using our parangs (Sumatran machetes), we cut a tunnel through a wall of brush for nearly 100 yards just to get to a place where one could walk. This brought endless leeches down upon our heads, and all of us walked away from the trip with numerous leech scars and seeping wounds. The good news is that leech bites don’t really hurt, but they can be very messy. When a leech attaches itself to you, it puts it secretes an anesthetic and anticoagulant enzyme on you so you don’t feel anything and the wound seeps blood and doesn’t clot up. Eventually, the leech has its fill and falls off, grossly engorged with blood onto the forest floor. After the anticoagulant stops being administered by the leech to the wound, the bite scabs up like usual. If one pulls off a leech while it is sucking, it can continue to bleed for many hours and sometimes days. It’s a bloody, messy affair, and one that I’d happily not experience again.
When under the jungle canopy, the air temperature drops five or ten degrees, and the light dims dramatically. Ferns, mosses, fungi, and countless plants grow literally everywhere. Many species seem familiar from the houseplant section of the local nursery. The sounds of birds fill the air, and an occasional sound that clearly isn’t a bird breaks the monotony.
On our many excursions into the jungle, we followed animal trails used by all the creatures who live there. Once, I spied a small monkey, probably a macaque and hardly larger than a squirrel, running across a long into the undergrowth. At one point, we also glimpsed several gibbons high in the trees. They quickly left our area, but as they went away we could only see the tree tops moving as they passed. We certainly heard many gibbons, and I managed to obtain a good recording of their vocalizations. We found the vocalizations to be encouraging, as gibbons have been observed giving their alarm calls when orang pendeks are nearby. Click play below to hear a recording of the gibbons.
On one of our treks, we found footprints of about the right size and shape for an orang pendek. They were found on a saddle between two valleys where most animals would use the easiest route to travel. Following these prints led us to a log where whatever it was rubbed against a log. Adam and I dutifully collected numerous hair samples from the log. The hair was short, perhaps one or two centimeters in length, and light colored. Soon thereafter, we temporarily lost the trail of whatever it was we were tracking, but soon picked it up again. We discovered that the tracks were those of a tapir, which meant that the hairs were most likely from the same animal. Nonetheless, we submitted the hairs to Dr. Byran Sykes for DNA analysis. During the last week of October, 2013, we received word from Dr. Sykes that our hunch was correct, and the hairs were indeed tapir in origin.
One night on the trip, we had some very intriguing action. We were doing calls from camp (wandering in the jungle at night would be a very dangerous thing to do in a tiger preserve) and we received call backs from the northeast. It sounded very much like the short “whooo” howl I was doing. The recorder was running, but the foreground noise really got in the way of much being heard on this recording. Still, two or three short vocalizations can be heard in the background of the recording. Only a short while after that, something pushed over a tree from that same area. Could this have been an orang pendek? I’d have to say yes, possibly. Both of these behaviors have been reported before from the orang pendek and other apes. If this recording is of an orang pendek, then it is the only one in existence to my knowledge.
The expedition to Sumatra was an amazing experience, but this expedition provided an opportunity for some real science and follow up. When I rejoined the rest of the Finding Bigfoot team, I discovered that nearly all of the witnesses they spoke to had seen orang pendeks within the last six months or so. That isn’t even really the case with bigfoot witnesses in North America. I thought to myself that perhaps the local Sumatrans are seeing orang pendeks more frequently than we realize, but the locals are too busy farming and staying alive to care much about what scientists know about. After all, the general attitude about the orang pendek from the people who live there is that they are a perfectly normal creature that lives there, much like gibbons, tigers, or anything else.
I decided to test my hypothesis with an experiment. After leaving Sumatra, Adam and set up a project with his contacts in Kerinci. I purchased a digital camera and shipped it to them in October/November of 2012, and asked that if they heard about one of their neighbors seeing an orang pendek, that they go out and look for footprints. It was less than a month before we got a hit (December 3, 2012), and beautiful photographs of orang pendek footprints in the mud were sent back to us. With that almost immediate success, I made a deal with them to have them make footprint casts of any future footprints they found. Before long we were notified of another sighting on January 12th, 2013. This sighting produced an excellent cast. As the months wore on, new sightings were reported, new footprints were found, and data in the form of casts have been accumulated. In less than a year, more than a dozen footprint casts have been collected, whereas before this project, only two footprint casts were in existence to my knowledge.
So, in conjunction with my Sumatran field notes, I am proud to announce the Orang Pendek Project (OPP). The OPP is the first and (so far) only collaborative effort between researchers on three continents to gather data supporting the hypothesis that orang pendeks are unknown species of primates living in Sumatra (and quite possibly elsewhere). I have started making web pages under CliffBarackman.com devoted solely to the OPP, and will be featuring data as it comes in and is analyzed. I will announce new finds and updates on my official blog, Facebook, and Twitter pages as they happen and when results are posted. Please share the information I present freely so as to facilitate the discovery of the orang pendek. The academic recognition of the species will not only possibly preserve this rare species, but will also help preserve the unique habitat in which they live.
Enjoy the photos below from the Sumatran expedition.