Beasts in the Mist

If David Oren can find just one monstrous sloth he could save the world's largest rain forest.

By Marguerite Holloway|Wednesday, September 01, 1999
RELATED TAGS: BIODIVERSITY

Manuel Vitorino Pinheiro dos Santos had just shot four white-lipped peccaries when he heard it. The horrible soul-wrenching humanlike cry came from a tangle of vines about 50 meters away. "The moment you hear it, all your hairs stand on end," says Dos Santos. He dropped the peccary he was carving up, grabbed the lianas he had cut to lash the carcass to his back, and sprinted in the opposite direction, toward the nearby river. The second scream was farther away, but the trees still shook with the force of the noise. The third and fourth calls were muted, seeming to come from deep in the rain forest as the animal moved away. But Dos Santos waited in the water for an hour or so until he felt safe going back for his peccaries. "I just had a knife and no shells and didn't want to face the creature," he explains.

No one--not Dos Santos or any of the other villagers of Barra do São Manuel, a tiny settlement on the banks of the Tapajós River deep in the Brazilian Amazon, or anyone else in the vast rain forest--relishes facing it, with or without shotgun in hand. Covered in long red hair, standing more than 6 feet on its hind legs, emanating a stench so foul it disorients everyone in sniffing distance, the mapinguari is reputed to be the wildest, rarest, most mysterious and terrifying denizen of the rain forest. It is said to avoid water, to wander with roving herds of white-lipped peccaries and to protect them, to forage at night, to twist huge palm trees apart with its massive claws so it can feast on the soft insides, to have backward-turned feet, and to be generally immune to bullets. The mapinguari is also said to be another Bigfoot, a figment of the imagination of people like Dos Santos--and of a prominent scientist named David C. Oren, whose relentless quest to find one is growing as legendary as the beast itself.

It is to Oren and his mapinguari-seeking swat team that Dos Santos relates his encounter some two months later, standing in the same spot in the forest near Barra. It is late afternoon, and the already dim verdant light of the rain forest is waning. Everyone falls silent as Dos Santos tells his story. Even if nothing lurks behind the massive buttresses of a copaiba tree to one side of the clearing, the mind's eye can see the shadowy form of the mapinguari. The men have all heard the tales, although sometimes the creature is given a different name: capé-lobo (wolf's cape), mão de pilão (pestle hand), pé de garrafa (bottle foot), or juma. Dos Santos says the mapinguari he saw had the claws of a giant armadillo, the face of a monkey, and a nauseating smell, like garlic vine and fetid peccary.

Oren, an ornithologist and expert on Amazonian biodiversity at the Emílio Goeldi Museum in Belém, listens to Dos Santos's account and then suddenly cups his hands around his mouth, throws back his head, and yells, hoping to get the mapinguari to respond. No matter how many times a day he does this, it still induces involuntary shudders in the entourage. His loud high cry travels down the scale, ending as a low rumble. Silence. Then, a piercing sound. A Screaming Piha, a bird whose whistle resembles the catcalls of construction workers on lunch break, answers. But nothing else. The team--including Dionisio Pimentel, a technician from the Goeldi Museum, Tiago Xipaia, who has accompanied Oren and Pimentel to this region before, Dos Santos, and two other men from Barra, Sebastião Miranda and Luís Claudio Albuquerque Mendes--heads back to camp for a dinner of freshly shot peccary.

No one seems disappointed, though. Several villagers have reported seeing or smelling the beast in the last several weeks and, on their very first day in the forest, the men found a set of tracks: footprints about 11 inches long and 5 inches wide, set apart by a stride of 3 feet or so. The expedition is still young. And Oren, who has risked his scientific reputation because he has come to believe the stories of hunters and rubber tappers and others in the rain forest who say the mapinguari is quite real, remains cautiously optimistic. He knows what becomes a legend most: the one who hauls the legend in.

Oren did not always believe in mapinguaris. When he first came to study birds in Brazil more than 20 years ago, to do research for his doctorate at Harvard, Oren heard about the creature. He quickly classified it along with other Amazonian myths: the activities of the boto dolphin, blamed for all unwanted pregnancies because it assumes the form of a handsome man, penetrates village parties, and lures young women into the floral night; or the transformation of the curupira, a protean creature that appears as an animal or a hairy, ugly man and plagues hunters. Some of the mapinguari tales are just as fanciful: It is an old Indian whose hubris led him to seek immortality and who is now relegated to wandering the forest forever as a stinking, shaggy bicho (beast in Portuguese); it has a single eye, loves tobacco, and twists off the upper skulls of its human victims so as to suck up their gray matter.

But about 15 years ago, after repeatedly hearing mapinguari tales, Oren changed his opinion. "I was talking with a friend and he said, 'David, you are the biologist, I am the historian. What could this creature be?'" Oren recalls. "And it was when I first listened carefully to one of the stories that the light went on." In a Goeldi Museum monograph in 1994, Oren hypothesized that mapinguaris were indeed real--or very recently extinct--and that they were none other than the last extant giant ground sloths, Pleistocene survivors lying low in the tropics. These enormous creatures--relatives of today's two- and three-toed arboreal sloths but with higher metabolisms and thus greater speed--emerged about 30 million years ago and roamed the Americas, the Caribbean, and Antarctica. They were red-haired vegetarians with large claws that curled under and faced backward when they walked on all fours, they could stand on their hind feet like people, and some species had dermal ossicles, bony plates that made their skin tough. In paleontological time frames, the giant ground sloths had just disappeared yesterday. Overhunting or climate change or some combination thereof had wiped them out sometime between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. It seemed eminently possible to Oren that the greatest expanse of rain forest in the world--and one that is rich in ground sloth fossils--could still harbor such beasts.

Oren is not the first scientist to reach this conclusion. In the late 1800s an Argentinean paleontologist named Florentino Ameghino took an eyewitness story of a strange creature seen in southern Patagonia to be an indication of a living ground sloth. Although Ameghino never found the evidence he sought, his reasoning is described in detail by zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans in On the Track of Unknown Animals. The book, published in 1955, launched cryptozoology--the study of hidden animals--and captivated Oren when he read it years ago. Heuvelmans ends his chapter on Ameghino and the giant ground sloths with a tantalizing query about the Amazon: "Might they not still live in this 'green hell' and find it a heaven of peace?"

Stalking the wild-eyed mapinguari in that green hell is not the easiest way to spend one's time. The terrain is wet and dense and dark and infested with ticks, spiders, stinging ants, malarial mosquitoes, wasps, Africanized bees, stingless bees (that can nonetheless pinch heartily), chiggers, blackflies, whiteflies (which carry leishmaniasis), and the dreaded botfly. Oren has had his share of all of the above, but particularly the last one. His left heel has a dime-size scar surrounded by a web of what look like varicose veins. A botfly larva--which probably entered the skin through a mosquito bite hole--foraged around his foot for weeks, growing into an inch-long fly, eating out a new circulatory system and never staying still or putting up a breathing siphon as botfly larvae typically do. "It was the Jacques Cousteau of botflies," says Oren. "It had an Aqua-Lung."

Beyond braving the bugs and many other hardships, Oren and the team must cover as much ground as possible--sometimes walking as many as nine hours a day--trying to find tracks or traces of recent peccary passage. "It is like looking for a needle in a haystack without a magnet," says Oren as he sits in the dark of the camp, digesting white-lipped peccary, which was accompanied by an appetizer of yesterday's fire-roasted free-range curassow. The men discuss tomorrow's strategy: Now that they have found the site of Dos Santos's aural encounter, the team will try to find a watering hole that he also remembers and see if peccary or mapinguari tracks show up there. The huge prints the team found on the first day were a week old, according to Dos Santos. He and Pimentel followed them as far as they could, but the tracks just faded away.

This trip to Barra is Oren's sixth mapinguari foray since 1994, when he began looking in the field for hard evidence of the creature. "If you add it all up, it's less than four months actually," he says. He has received grants for this work from the Brazilian Boticário Foundation and a small film company; the rest of the time he relies primarily on his Goeldi salary, which includes the many research grants he gets from such places as the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. So far, the evidence Oren has gathered on these hunts--a clump of hair, several fecal samples from different areas, and some casts of footprints--has led to naught, fading like tracks in the forest. The hair proved to be that of an agouti, the fecal samples did not reveal any DNA aside from, in one case, that of a giant anteater, and the casts don't hold any scientific weight, as Oren readily points out, "because they can be easily faked."

The lack of tangibles is hard to overlook. "He is a kook," mutters one ornithologist, who doesn't want to give his name. Even some of the scientists who are supportive of Oren's quest have a hard time reconciling the paucity of mapinguari data with the rigor of his work on birds and biodiversity. "He is a top-notch scientist," says Roger Sayre of the Nature Conservancy. "But it is like all those things you see on tv: They throw out all those teasers, and it's like, 'Where is all the hard evidence, David?' "

Other scientists are willing to accept more on faith. "What a bankrupt world it would be if you refused to believe things existed until you actually had seen a specimen in a museum. I mean, there are lots of things we are prepared to believe exist without having seen them," says Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Kent Redford, citing subatomic particles and Madeleine Albright's accounts of NATO air strikes in Kosovo. "Why not a mapinguari? More power to David. And I hope he is right."

The strength of Oren's conviction comes from firsthand testimonies he has collected from more than 50 witnesses who have had run-ins with the creature. One witness is Mário Pereira de Souza, whom Oren visits for the third time on his way to Barra. De Souza lives in Itaituba, where he does odd jobs for the highway department. After Oren's gentle prodding, De Souza tells the story again--although it is clearly not his favorite memory. His encounter with a mapinguari took place in 1975, when he was working as a hunter for a mining camp along the Jamauchim River, which flows into the Tapajós, just south of Itaituba. De Souza said the long-haired creature screamed and came staggering toward him on its hind legs, swaying and unsteady. But what he remembers most, and the reason he claims he has never set foot in the rain forest again, was the stench. "The horrible smell entered into me and made me dizzy," he says. "I was not right for two months."

Oren's reliance on anecdotal stories makes many researchers uncomfortable. "I think it is a hoax," says Louise Emmons, a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. "If you know local people, they love to pull the neck of any gullible scientist." While Emmons is intrigued by Oren's hunt, she says the chances of such a thing being anywhere in the Amazon are minuscule because naturalists have been poking around there for centuries: "I've never heard anyone mention anything that is something we don't know about, particularly a large animal."

"I don't think he is being hoaxed. I think he is being courageous," counters Nigel J. H. Smith, a geographer at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has traveled widely in the Amazon collecting folktales and legends--including those of the mapinguari--which he describes in his book The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest: Stories From a Vanishing World. "We don't have to put local knowledge in a shrine, but there's a lot of natural history knowledge that scientists are too dismissive of. I mean, they found an extinct peccary down in Paraguay 25 years ago."

The Chacoan peccary is perhaps the best precedent for Oren's story because the creature was well known by locals, but it took scientists a long time to believe in it or to find the thing. "That was a mythical animal as well," recalls Phil Hazelton, a natural resources management specialist with the World Bank who helped find the creature. "We had this mythical peccary around, and it was terrifying in size and everything." It turned out to be a very large third species of South American peccary, thought to have gone extinct within the last few hundred years.

Even in a part of the rain forest just a half day's walk from a settlement such as Barra, it is easy to imagine that anything could stay hidden if it chose to. By the end of the first week of slicing and slogging through the tangled expanse, the frustration of Oren's team grows. Although they encounter giant armadillo holes, tapir tracks, and a troop of woolly monkeys--indications that hunting pressure is low and that the area has been largely undisturbed--the shaggy bicho emits no hair-raising cries, leaves no feces for collection. The men find one other set of large footprints--also about three times the size of those of a tapir, the largest creature in the rain forest--but they are even older than the first set. At one point, the group passes a tree gouged by the teeth and claws of an onça, or jaguar, a creature rarely seen even by people who spend their lives in the rain forest. "This thing is rarer than an onça," says Oren, as the team lurches off again, following a trail left by peccaries.

Why the mapinguari would run with smelly boars is unclear. Perhaps "it likes to eat the same kinds of things that white-lipped peccaries do," Oren muses. "Or I am wrong, and it is a horrible marsupial and it eats white-lipped peccaries. But I hope not because then it will eat us." Dos Santos argues that the reason for the association is quite simple: "It is the protector of the peccary."

This view of the mapinguari is one Nigel Smith believes underlies much of the folklore of the Amazon. The geographer maintains that stories about reprisal by the mapinguari or other threatening creatures ensure that forest communities don't deplete resources. "Many legends were conceived in order to entertain audiences with colorful and inspiring stories," he writes in The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest. "Indirectly, though, they also serve to relieve some of the pressure on animal and plant life."

This explanation may also hold a key to Oren's obsession, to the reason he braves ridicule and the intense hardship of these expeditions: He loves the rain forest, and he loves Brazil, a country that he just joined as a naturalized citizen. Oren talks constantly about finding the wide-ranging mapinguari so that huge tracts of land would have to be set aside to protect the creature. In the forest near Barra, mineral rights are held by the mining company CVRD, which could decide at any moment to raze the trees and strip the reddish earth. Finding the mapinguari here "would change all that," says Oren.

"David has chosen to devote his life to the animals and plants of the Amazon," notes Redford, who has known Oren since they were graduate students together more than two decades ago at Harvard. "So in a sense his conviction in the existence of mapinguari has as much to do with seeking a powerful symbol for the need to conserve the Amazon as it does with his conviction that this animal really exists. I think that part of the passion he exhibits toward this search is, in fact, passion toward a search for the ongoing survival of the Amazon rain forest."

Passionate as he is, Oren seems tired of the hunt for now. Back at camp one afternoon, in the final days of the expedition, he says he may give up, let someone else search the rain forest for the creature. The fact that he has come forward with his hypothesis is enough, he says; it makes it more likely that other rain-forest visitors will turn in a mapinguari if they kill one in the future. "If we are not successful this time, I really should get on with ornithology," he sighs. "You get recognized for the number of papers you produce, not for the number of wild goose chases you go on." That night the rain is torrential and the team huddles under a tarp in the dark, swatting at mosquitoes, relighting the candle after moths extinguish the flame.

Filled with rice and beans and manioc, the men are out of camp by 7:30 the next morning; clouds of blackflies follow them. As Dos Santos leads the way, Oren cups his hands around his mouth, throws back his head, and calls out again to the mapinguari, wherever it may be.

RELATED WEB SITES:

Giant Ground Sloth from the UnMuseum
Giant Ground Sloth from the Illinois State Museum
Ice Age Mammals

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