The Yeti and the Indian Army: How Science and Wonder Can Come Together

It was an improbable coming together of two worlds when in April the pragmatic Indian army sent out a tweet saying that it had sighted a mythical beast of snow. With photos of 32 inch long footprints, the army said it had evidence of the Yeti near Makalu-Barun national park in Nepal. The Yeti straddles the worlds of both folklore and scientific enquiry.

The Yeti straddles the worlds of both folklore and scientific enquiry.

The Yeti is supposed to be an ape like creature that lives in the high altitude Himalayas, walking on two feet. Hergé, who created Belgian detective Tintin, wrote a comic where Tintin goes looking for a Yeti in Tibet. In the book, not only did the creature exist, it was also intelligent and considerate. And others have referred to it as the ‘abominable snowman’, its elusiveness making it a monster.

Be that as it may, there is still no proof the Yeti exists and so an incredulous press and twitterverse laughed off the army’s claim. A Nepal army spokesperson was reported as saying the footprints may have belonged to a bear. In fact, earlier studies of genetic material thought to be Yeti’s have also belonged to brown bears. Yet despite this scepticism, there is something of merit here. And that is the capacity to experience scientific curiosity and feel a sense of wonder for nature.

Yet despite this scepticism, there is something of merit here. And that is the capacity to experience scientific curiosity and feel a sense of wonder for nature.

By itself a claim such as this cannot stand without modern science; for the answer to scientific curiosity is science itself. The army has said it has further proof which it has handed to subject experts. This should be taken to its logical conclusion. One of the methods is the environmental DNA process, wherein a swatch or sample from the pugmark or footprint can be used to ascertain which animal it belongs to.

Through this incident, two important aspects emerge. Firstly, it shines a light on how wild nature can awe and move us, because places like the mighty Himalayas are still unknowable. If not the Yeti, the Himalayas have their own grey ghost: the snow leopard. An animal not of fictional myth or legend, but certainly legendary. The Makalu-Barun area is conserved for this agile big cat which prefers the high-altitude, snowy mountains of Central Asia and the Himalayas. And in the Indian East Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh, exciting camera images from late last year have shown another big cat in the snow: a tiger, found in Dibang valley, more than 3000 metres above sea level.

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It’s not just forests– the Himalayas also have tigers in the snow. Photo by me.

None of this should lead to complacency. A just-released report by the United Nations backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), has found that a staggering one million wild species are threatened with extinction. Sourced from 15,000 scientific publications and reports, the findings stress over 75% of Earth’s land area is significantly altered. The reason is human led – our pressures on Earth have altered the destinies of both ecosystems and their wild inhabitants. Alarmingly, it also finds that 20% of endemic (region-specific) species have seen a decline in major biomes. While more details are awaited, many other studies show how threatened the Himalayas are by human pressures and planetary warming.

This leads us to the second aspect: science and wonder should work together for the betterment of all, especially since time is running out. A wondering curiosity can fuel more discoveries, and set unwavering conservation goals. But perhaps because of the grimness of present reality, we seem to like mythologies more than what is extant on Earth.

A wondering curiosity can fuel more discoveries, and set unwavering conservation goals.

The Game of Thrones, arguably the world’s most watched TV show, is stuffed with mythical creatures like fire breathing dragons. A fire breathing dragon which never lived may be more exciting than a real life Indonesian komodo dragon, which like the dragons in the show, can lay eggs without mating. And I would argue it’s far more important to preserve what we have, while still enjoying a good story.

A fire breathing dragon which never lived may be more exciting than a real life Indonesian komodo dragon, which like the dragons in the show, can lay eggs without mating.

IMG_20190521_173951
Drogon: do we like mythical creatures more than the ones we have on earth? Image: uncredited.

Myths fuel our fantasy, but science-led conservation can keep magical places alive, possibly providing discoveries for future myths. Conservation of what exists today should be immediate and scientific. There’s no time to lose. Because whether the Yeti exists or not, we owe it to him or her to save its habitat – the very seed for future stories.

Cover Image: Hergé.

This first appeared in my column for Times of India on the edit page. 

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