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Media Article # 263
Article submitted by Mike Doherty
Tuesday, December 18, 2001
Howling Amazon Monster Just an Indian Legend?
By Axel Bugge
BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Imagine this: a hairy, six-foot monster, howling and stinking of death, crossing your path in the semi-darkness under the canopy of the mighty Amazon jungle.
Among Amazon Indians, legend has it that such a creature stalks the forests like a tropical Abominable Snowman -- never photographed or captured.
The animal species called ``Mapinguari,'' or giant defenders of the forests, by the Indians, is also known to the thousands of hunters that brave the forests every year. One such person, Joao Batista Azevedo, says he saw a Mapinguari 20 years ago after a 45-day canoe ride from the nearest village.
``I was working by the river when I heard a scream, a horrible scream,'' the now 70-year-old Azevedo told Reuters by telephone from his remote Amazon village. ``Suddenly something looking like a man came out of the forest, all covered in hair. He was walking on two legs and thank God he did not come toward us. I will always remember that day.''
Veteran Amazon ornithologist David Oren takes such stories very seriously. So much, in fact, that since 1988 he has been on a quest to find one of the creatures in the name of science and has led several expeditions into the depths of the world's largest rain forest to hunt for it.
``It's still being sited regularly. Several people think they came face to face with the Devil in the forest,'' he says of people like Azevedo who have helped guide him on his search. He believes there are dozens left.
Oren's theory is that the beast could be the world's last living giant ground sloth -- a distant relative of existing tree sloths -- that became extinct more than 10,000 years ago.
That belief has cost him dearly, he says, in the often conservative scientific community where reputation is everything. The National Geographic (news - web sites) Society turned him down and he has funded his expeditions largely with his own money.
Paul Martin, a Meritus Professor of Geosciences at the University of Arizona and leading expert on the theory that humans were responsible for the extinction of such animals as the giant ground sloth, is one skeptic.
13,000 YEARS TOO LATE?
``I think he is 13,000 years too late. This sure does sound like the hunt for a Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster,'' Martin said. ``The part of me that is completely romantic is rooting for David Oren. But where the science part of me is concerned I don't give him a chance.''
Oren argues that a kind of giant ground sloth could still be alive in the Amazon because the forests offer huge, remote areas providing the necessary isolation to survive. Thick and impenetrable, the Amazon's continuous forest covers an area larger than all of Western Europe and is home to up to 30 percent of the world's animal and plant life.
Scientists say giant ground sloths were in abundance across the Americas, evidenced by fossil finds of such creatures in places as far apart as Patagonia in the south to the northwest of the United States.
The beast could have moved to the Amazon to escape hunting and encroachment of man on its natural habitat elsewhere.
Claudio Padua, a doctor of ecology who teaches at the University of Brasilia, is one of the few scientists prepared to believe Oren because the Amazon is still hiding thousands of undiscovered species.
``It would be the find of the century, it would have an extraordinary impact'' if found, said Padua.
He points out that 10 species of monkeys were discovered in the Amazon in the last decade. ``As a scientist I accept that everything is possible until there is proof to the contrary,'' he said.
FOREMOST RESEARCH CENTER
Generally a well-respected scientist, Oren is originally American but now carries a Brazilian (news - web sites) passport. He first came to the Amazon in 1977 and for years worked for the Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belem -- one of Brazil's foremost Amazon research centers.
While he plugged away mapping the biological makeup of the Amazon, his fame may be best-connected with the Mapinguari.
Oren moved this year from Belem to take up a post with U.S. environmental group Nature Conservancy in Brasilia, thousands of miles from the Amazon, making it very difficult for him to hunt the Mapinguari. So has he lost his belief?
Not at all, he says. Indeed in June, just after leaving, he wrote his second scientific article in a decade on the beast, presenting all his evidence.
``When I wrote the 1993 paper, I had never interviewed anyone who had claimed to have killed one of these supposed animals,'' he wrote in the newsletter of the World Conservation Union's Edentate Specialist Group.
He has now talked to seven hunters who claim to have shot the animal and another 80 people who have seen it, he says.
``What they describe: a creature approximately two meters (six feet) tall when standing upright; a very strong, unpleasant smell; extremely heavy and powerful build; capable of breaking thick roots with its footsteps,'' the article says.
Most likely a defense mechanism, the smell is described by some witnesses as a mixture of feces and rotting flesh.
Oren says the beast has long coarse fur, four large teeth and that it moves on two or four legs. It also has an ''extremely loud, roaring vocalization ... similar to a human calling loudly, but with a growl at the end.''
In fact, on his expeditions, Oren says he himself yelled into the darkness and it howled back to him.
In his Brasilia villa, Oren keeps more evidence that includes a clay mold of a footprint, about an inch deep, with three large toes. The toes face backward because the creature walks on its knuckles, he says.
A series of pictures includes a photo of claw marks on a tree, eight of them about a foot long and an inch deep.
But there are big holes in the story. For one, the hunters who say they shot it did not keep any fragment of the creature, apparently throwing the parts away due to the strong stench.
Oren remains convinced though, arguing that the story needs to be widely published to ensure that if one is shot again its remains are inspected by scientists.
And despite the skepticism of many, there's no doubt scientists are fascinated by Oren's hunt.
``I'd be thrilled out of my mind if he (Oren) succeeded, it would be in my wildest dreams,'' said Martin. ``We (humans) resonate with these large animals, so everybody in town is going to feel the emotion of such a find.''
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