Hunting for Malaysia's 'Bigfoot'
By Jonathan Kent
BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur
Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 February 2006, 14:13 GMT
The village of Mawai Lama in the Malaysian state of Johor is a sleepy row of wooden fronted shop-houses set back from the Sedili River.
Yet Mawai is one of the most intriguing places in Malaysia.
According to local historians, Mawai's original name was Mawas, and Mawas is the name locals give to a legendary creature known the world over as Bigfoot.
The people of Mawas certainly seem to believe in the creature from which their village takes its name.
Some, like Aji the boatman, say they have seen it.
"It was about 10 or 11 at night. I saw something, but I didn't know what sort of creature it was. But I can definitely see the eyes were red. And it made a noise, Woooooo!" Aji said.
"Maybe it was scared off by my headlight and I was scared by him so we both rushed off in different directions and later I came back and found the footprints," he said.
Hunt for food
Mawai lies at one end of the Panti mountains, a densely forested and steep-sloped ridge at the southern end of the Malay peninsular.
On the other side of the range is Kampung Batu Empat. A few weeks ago some unusual muddy footprints were found on the road nearby.
Vincent Chow, of the Malaysian Nature Society, had some photos.
"Based on what we've learned, this is the southern end of their migratory route and because the forests have become fragmented they're rather confined now," Mr Chow said.
Traces of the muddy prints were still on the road.
"They move around looking for fruits, sometimes they go looking for them in villages. They're also looking for a mate and for salt."
Prompted by the footprints and a recent spate of sightings, the Johor state government is planning a team to start looking for Bigfoot.
The reports of sightings are nothing new. Five years ago, while driving up Malaysia's main North-South highway, public relations consultant Eva Hawa says she saw a creature fitting Bigfoot's description crossing the road in broad daylight
"It was hairy, it was big, it was about six to seven feet tall. He moved right across in front of my car. He has a hunch and walked like a very old man," she said.
Factors which can be argued in favour of Bigfoot's existence include the legends from different parts of the world which seem to bear a degree of similarity to one another, despite having emerged separately. There are the sightings. And there is the fact that a giant ape, Gigantopithecus blacki, is known to have lived in Asia until around 300,000 years ago.
And there is the discovery, on the Indonesian island of Flores in late 2004, of skeletons interpreted by some anthropologists as belonging to a hominid population dubbed hobbits. There are still natural wonders to be discovered, even in this day and age, not least in the forests of South East Asia.
The primatologist Jane Goodall is one of those who expect Bigfoot to be found.
"People from very different backgrounds and different parts of the world have described very similar creatures behaving in similar ways and uttering some strikingly similar sounds," she said in a newspaper interview three years ago. "As far as I am concerned, the existence of hominids of this sort is a very real probability."
However, the doubters - and they are legion - ask why no giant ape remains more recent than a quarter of a million years old have been found. And as the forests and wilderness shrink, why has Bigfoot not broken cover and been definitively recorded?
One man who has no doubts is Abdul Rahman Ahmad, a former factory manager. His late brother was Johor's Chief Game Warden and had seen Bigfoot footprints 30 years ago.
When we arrived to visit him, Abdul Rahman was very excited.
"Four days ago my [workers] heard Bigfoot calling in the jungle. They've found footprints."
Early the next morning, accompanied by four of Abdul Rahman's Indonesian workers, we set off to find the site where the prints were spotted. As we trekked through the forest there was a crashing in the trees. We had disturbed a herd of wild water buffalo.
But when we got to the riverside where the workers said they had seen Bigfoot tracks, all we found was buffalo hoof marks. There was nothing. We pressed on. I was shown a branch "broken by Bigfoot", another stripped of leaves "by the ape man".
For almost three hours the Indonesians led us through the trees, through rivers and for all I know around in circles.
Finally we reached the first river at a point higher up than we had originally explored.
And there, beside the river, in the soft sand, were footprints.
They were distinctive, perhaps 20cm across and 40, perhaps 45cm long.
There was a bulge where a human corn might be, as though the foot had an opposable thumb rather than a big toe. There were three of them, some better defined, some more complete, than others.
All I can tell you is they were big, they were foot shaped and they were there.