The Orang Pendek has always been a strange cryptid to me. A three-foot-tall hairy ape living in the dense jungles of Sumatra is not something that seems at all out of the realm of possibility. Locals insist it is real but elusive, but science does not recognize it and many expeditions to find it have turned up nothing. The easy answer to the Orang Pendek is that it is simply a siamang people are seeing. After all, the siamang is known to live in the jungles of Sumatra and is a three-foot-tall hairy ape. So, what makes the Orang Pendek something else? The answer is local knowledge. Local people who have lived in and around the jungles of Sumatra for their entire lives, for generations, know what a siamang is. And they insist this is something different. Who are we to disagree? Locals describe the Orang Pendek as being more bipedal than a siamang. Though they can certainly walk on two legs, the bipedal gait of a siamang is extremely awkward and very distinctive. Locals also say the Orang Pendek can be aggressive, which siamangs rarely are. These differences lead me to believe that locals are seeing something other than a siamang, so why has no one found any official evidence?
In 2014 I was trudging through the Vietnamese jungle looking for silvered langurs, a monkey absolutely known to be in the area. I spent weeks in that jungle. I never saw a silvered langur. Nor did I see a bush pig, a civet, a hornbill, or a macaque. Is it because they’re incredibly rare? Probably not. To be totally honest there could have been a Taco Bell in that jungle, and I wouldn’t have found it. Until you are there, the thickness of that jungle cannot be described or imagined. Sumatra is much the same way. Even the best expeditions (and let’s face it, no one has exactly spent years in there looking for the Orang Pendek), can easily miss a relatively small primate. There are forests in Africa that were only recently found to contain forest elephants, and that’s a much bigger animal! The dense jungles of Asia are one of the least accessible places on the planet, and one of the most likely to be housing an unknown species of primate.
Locals in Sumatra do not describe the Orang Pendek as a creature having special powers or mythology. This is another factor that leads me to believe it is a real creature. Many cryptids seem to live in the liminal space between animal and spirit, often making me wonder whether they are not mythological creatures we are misinterpreting as physical due to cultural differences. But locals describe the Orang Pendek the way they would any other forest creature. There are even researchers living in Sumatra who claim to have seen it and believe in its existence. So, siamang or unknown species? I say, a bit of both. I believe the Orang Pendek is a distinct animal from the known Sumatran siamang. Perhaps one that is more bipedal and possibly more aggressive. It may in fact be a new species of siamang, or perhaps even a new type of lesser ape. It’s likely living its life in jungles so dense we can barely scratch the surface of them. I sincerely hope I get to hear of its official discovery soon, but I also hope it isn’t discovered and put on the endangered species list in the same announcement.
I wonder how many cryptids really existed but went extinct before science could document them. With over a million species endangered, these guys probably are too. Thanks for the interesting post, Dr. Daisy.
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