Nikolai Valuev is 7 ft tall and weighs almost 146 kg. A few months ago, the Russian heavyweight boxing champion, nicknamed the “Beast from the East” was on an unusual expedition. His mission was “to try and find the yeti and talk to him about life”. Valuev returned from the expedition without having his heart-to-heart chat, much like countless others who have been trying to locate the elusive snowman known by various names - Mehteh or Meito Kangmi in the Himalayas, Bigfoot or Sasquatch in the US and the Snow Person or Almasty in Russia.
Why is the creature - if it indeed exists - so coy? Even though the search for the yeti has been going on for almost a century and there have been numerous reports of possible sightings, purported hair samples and supposed footprints, conclusive proof has never been found.
In November last year, there was a flicker of hope when organisers of the International Yeti Conference in Russia’s Kemerovo region claimed they had found nests built by the creature. In fact, they went to the extent of claiming they were “95% certain of finding the yeti at long last”. However, much of the evidence, according to scientists who attended the conference, turned out to be doubtful, and possibly planted to increase tourism to the region. “The markers in the forest, footprints and nests in the cave, which were shown to conference participants were rather questionable,” says Jeff Meldrum of the department of biological sciences of Idaho State University, one of the conference attendees.
This may make it yet another dead end in the search for the creature, who has often been touted by enthusiasts as the possible missing link in the human evolution chain. Many biologists have already dubbed the search as futile, pointing out that all the upright walking mammals have been discovered and classified a long time back. Brian Regal, historian of science at Kean University says that even though yetis have a certain evolutionary plausibility - and we might find out tomorrow that they exist - it seems very unlikely, based on the evidence available. “I would argue they are so hard to find because they are not out there to find,” he says.
Many yeti searchers are not convinced though - especially the hobbyists and cryptozoologists. However, cryptozoology - the search for animals whose existence has not been proved - is debunked as “pseudoscience” by biologists, who believe that it relies heavily on anecdotal information and less on an academic approach. Cryptozoologists who have been hunting for the yeti tend to believe that it could be related to the Gigantopithecus blacki , a giant ape that lived in India and China half a million years ago. British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, who has travelled extensively in search of the creature says that he “found hair, saw tracks and a hand print”. He also claims that in Sumatra, one of his associates spotted another elusive animal, the orang-pendek, an upright walking ape thought to be related to the larger yeti of mainland Asia. But conclusive proof of the yeti has eluded him.
It is this frustrating lack of proof that has dimmed public enthusiasm for the yeti’s search over the years. Even though claims like that of the Russian researchers rejuvenate interest levels momentarily, their debunking ensures that the yeti moves one step further into the category of mythological creatures. However, unlike other legendary animals like dragons or unicorns, the yeti’s evolutionary plausibility holds the tantalizing prospect that it might just be out there - a point that even dyed-in-the-wool sceptics like Delhi-based Sanal Edamaruku, president of the India Rationalist Association, agree with. “There is nothing absurd about the idea that there could be an undiscovered living being roaming on snowy mountaintops, as it does not contradict reason or science like say, the existence of ghosts does.”
As of now though, the yeti seems more like a ghost - a product of the imagination - rather than a real live creature. Unless of course, the next set of claims manage to prove otherwise.
Looking high and low
• The first yeti footprints were reported in 1925 by NA Tombazi, a Greek photographer
• In 1951, similar footprints were discovered by British mountaineers Eric Shipton and Michael Ward on the southwestern slopes of the Menlung Glacier between Tibet and Nepal
• A number of expeditions have hunted for the yeti, most notably in the 1950s. None of them reported face-to-face encounters, although inhabitants of remote mountain villages have often claimed to have seen the creature
• In his book, On the Yeti Trail, Kathmandu-based journalist Madan Mohan Gupta published accounts of women who had allegedly been abducted by the creature and had even had children with it
• Monks of many Tibetan monasteries also believe the yeti exists. Two such monasteries, Pangboche and Khumjung, even have scalps purported to be that of the yeti’s, although their veracity is disputed by scientists