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.