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The animal has allegedly been seen and documented for at least one hundred years by forest tribes, local villagers, Dutch colonists and Western scientists and travellers. Consensus among witnesses is that the animal is a ground-dwelling, bipedal primate that is covered in short fur and stands between 80 and 150 cm (30 and 60 in) tall.
While Orang Pendek or similar animals have historically been reported throughout Sumatra and Southeast Asia, recent sightings have occurred largely within the Kerinci regency of central Sumatra and especially within the borders of Taman Nasional Kerinci Seblat (Kerinci Seblat National Park) (TNKS). The park, 2° south of the equator, is located within the Bukit Barisan mountain range and features some of the most remote primary rainforest in the world. Habitat types within the park include lowland dipterocarp rainforest, montane forests, and volcanic alpine formations on Mt. Kerinci, the second highest peak in Indonesia. Because of its inaccessibility, the park has been largely spared from the rampant logging occurring throughout Sumatra and provides one of the last homes for the endangered Sumatran Tiger.
Orang Pendek has yet to be fully documented and no authoritative account of its behavior or physical characteristics exists. However, witnesses report some characteristics consistently, so a likely picture of the animal can be conjectured.
Debbie Martyr - a prominent Orang Pendek researcher who has worked in the area for over 15 years, has interviewed hundreds of witnesses, and alleges to have seen the animal personally on several occasions—gives the following description:
...usually no more than 85 or 90cm in height — although occasionally as large as 1m 20cm. The body is covered in a coat of dark grey or black flecked with grey hair. But it is the sheer physical power of the orang pendek that most impresses the Kerinci villagers. They speak in awe, of its broad shoulders, huge chest and upper abdomen and powerful arms. The animal is so strong, the villagers would whisper that it can uproot small trees and even break rattan vines. The legs, in comparison, are short and slim, the feet neat and small, usually turned out at an angle of up to 45 degrees. The head slopes back to a distinct crest — similar to the gorilla — and there appears to be a bony ridge above the eyes. But the mouth is small and neat, the eyes are set wide apart and the nose is distinctly humanoid. When frightened, the animal exposes its teeth — revealing oddly broad incisors and prominent, long canine teeth.
Sightings by locals often take place in farmland on the edge of the forest, where Orang Pendek is allegedly seen walking through fields and raiding crops (especially corn, potatoes, and fruit). Locals with experience in the forests claim that Orang Pendek seeks out ginger roots, a plant known locally as "pahur" or "lolo", young shoots, insects in rotting logs, and river crabs. The Durian fruit is also thought to be a favourite of the Orang Pendek.
Orang Pendek and similar cryptids from this area of the world are also referred to as Uhang Pandak (local Kerinci dialect), Sedapa, Batutut, Ebu Gogo, Umang, Orang Gugu, Orang Letjo, Atoe Pandak, Atoe Rimbo, Ijaoe, Sedabo, and Goegoeh.
Witnesses from many different backgrounds have reported seeing Orang Pendek over the last hundred years.
The Suku Anak Dalam ("Children of the Inner-forest")--also known as Orang Kubu, Orang Batin Simbilan, or Orang Rimba—are groups of nomadic people who have traditionally lived throughout the lowland forests of Jambi and South Sumatra. According to their legends, Orang Pendek has been a part of their world and a co-inhabitant of the forest for centuries. Benedict Allen, author of Hunting the Gugu, writes that these groups frequently leave offerings of tobacco to keep the Orang Pendek happy.
In Bukit Duabelas, the Orang Rimba speak of a creature, known as Hantu Pendek (short ghost), whose description closely matches that of Orang Pendek. However, Hantu Pendek is thought of as a ghost or demon rather than an animal. According to the Orang Rimba, the Hantu Pendek travel in groups of five or six, subsisting off wild yams and hunting animals with small axes. Accounts of the creature claim it ambushes unfortunate Orang Rimba hunters traveling alone in the forest. Along the Makekal River on the western edge of Bukit Duabelas, people recount a legend of how their ancestors outsmarted these cunning yet dim-witted creatures during a hunting trip. The legend is often used to boast of the intellect and reason of people who live along the Makekal.
Local Indonesian villagers provide the largest source of lore and information on Orang Pendek. Hundreds of locals claim to have either seen the animal personally or can relate stories of others who have. While the conjectured physical description listed above is consistently reported by this group, other, less credible characteristics such as inverted feet or magical- or ghost-like behavior are also reported.
Dutch settlers in the early 20th century provided Westerners with their modern introduction to Orang Pendek-like animals in Sumatra. Two accounts in particular are widely reported:
I discovered a dark and hairy creature on a branch... The sedapa was also hairy on the front of its body; the colour there was a little lighter than on the back. The very dark hair on its head fell to just below the shoulder-blades or even almost to the waist... Had it been standing, its arms would have reached to a little above its knees; they were therefore long, but its legs seemed to me rather short. I did not see its feet, but I did see some toes which were shaped in a very normal manner... There was nothing repulsive or ugly about its face, nor was it at all apelike.
I saw that he had short hair, cut short, I thought; and I suddenly realized that his neck was oddly leathery and extremely filthy. "That chap's got a very dirty and wrinkled neck!" I said to myself. His body was as large as a medium-sized native's and he had thick square shoulders, not sloping at all... he seemed to be quite as tall as I. Then I saw that it was not a man. It was not an orang-utan. I had seen one of these large apes a short time before. It was more like a monstrously large siamang, but a siamang has long hair, and there was no doubt that it had short hair.
The most widely known Western researcher to have attempted to document Orang Pendek is a British woman named Debbie Martyr. Along with British photographer Jeremy Holden, she engaged in a 15-year project beginning in the early 1990s and funded by Fauna and Flora International. The scope of the project was to systematically document eye-witness accounts of the animal and to obtain photographic proof of its existence via camera-trapping methods. Debbie and Jeremy did not succeed in proving its existence (Martyr has since moved on to head TNKS's Tiger Protection and Conservation Unit), but they collected several foot print casts that appear to be from Orang Pendek and claim to have personally seen the animal on several occasions while working in the forest.
From 2001 to 2003, scientists analyzed hairs and casts of a foot print found by three British men—Adam Davies, Andrew Sanderson and Keith Townley—while traveling in Kerinci. Dr. David Chivers, a primate biologist from the University of Cambridge, compared the cast with those from other known primates and local animals and stated:
Hans Brunner, an Australian hair analyst, compared the hairs to those of other primates and local animals and suggested that they originated from a previously undocumented species of primate. Dr. Todd Disotell, a biological anthropologist from New York University, performed DNA analysis on the hairs and found nothing but human DNA in the sample. He cautioned, however, that contamination by people who handled the hairs could have introduced this DNA or that the original DNA could have decomposed.
Beginning in 2005, National Geographic funded a camera-trapping project in TNKS led by Dr. Peter Tse of Dartmouth College that attempted to provide photographic documentation of Orang Pendek. The project ended in 2009 without success.
Three possible explanations of Orang Pendek's identity are prominent: that all sightings can be explained as the mistaken identification of local animals; that witnesses of Orang Pendek are describing a previously undocumented species of primate; and that a species of early hominid still lives in the Sumatran jungle.
Many locals say Orang Pendek's feet look like those of a child, evidenced by foot prints they have found while walking through the forest. However, another local animal, the Sun Bear, is a possible source of these sightings. Bears in general are known for having feet that look quite human-like, and the size of a Sun Bear's are similar to those of a child. In addition, gibbons populate the forests in this area and are known to occasionally descend to the ground and walk for a few seconds at a time on two legs. Witnesses could possibly be seeing orangutans; however: 1) this species has long been thought to have died out in all but the northern regions of Sumatra and 2) witnesses almost never describe the animal as having orange fur.
Orang Pendek's reported physical characteristics differentiate it from any other species of animal known to inhabit the area. All witnesses describe it as an ape- or human-like animal. Its bipedality, fur coloring, and southerly location on the island make orangutans an unlikely explanation, and its bipedality, size, and other physical characteristics make gibbons, the only apes known to inhabit the area, unlikely as well. Many[who?] therefore propose that Orang Pendek could represent a new genus of primate or a new species or subspecies of orangutan or gibbon.
As far back as Mr. van Heerwarden's account of Orang Pendek, people have speculated that the animal may in fact be a hominid. In October 2004, scientists published claims of the discovery of skeletal remains of a new species of human (Homo floresiensis) in caves on Flores (another island in the Indonesian archipelago) dating from as recently as 12,000 years ago. The species was described as being roughly one meter tall. The recency of Homo floresiensis' continued existence and the similarities between its physical description and the accounts of Orang Pendek have led to renewed speculation in this respect.