In search of the myth of Yeti and its real footprints in the Himalaya

The Ecology of a Mystery
Book Excerpt 

[From the chapter 'Mysteries and Challenges: An Introduction']

This story traces an arc from my boyhood in the Himalaya, chasing monkeys from my toys, through launching two national parks surrounding Mount Everest. What connects monkeys chased from toys and national parks around Mount Everest is the Yeti.

About this mystery of the Yeti, Himalayan legends assert that an animal much like humans inhabits the snows around Mount Everest. Turning the legends to serious inquiry are footprints. Stories do not make footprints—thus, if footprints exist, the maker of those footprints must also exist. And footprints that keep being found in the same basic structure across more than 100 years mean the evidence is not that of one aberrant animal’s trail, for if the prints were made by a freak, after some years that individual would die and the distinctive tracks would stop being found. Moreover, the same basic footprint found in multiple sizes suggest a population that is reproducing.

This book clarifies what animal leaves these footprints. Various explanations were being advanced when I began the search. The prints might be made by an unknown wild man who for more than a century had eluded identification. They might be by an unknown animal but non-hominoid, related perhaps to the giant panda or gorilla with whom the footprints shared intriguing resemblance. A third explanation was the maker was known, but not yet recognized as able to make human-looking prints. And, of course, a fourth possibility—Yeti is a materialized spirit: not an animal, but a supernatural being, Science asserts, cannot, must not, exist.

Add your email ID below if you want to send you periodic newsletters about recently published excerpts.

Giving credence to the debate are always the footprints. That footprints were being found was never in doubt. Some ‘thing’ was making footprints. Still today, the mysterious prints continue to be found. Photographs are repeatedly taken. Thus, the Yeti is real, for imagined animals do not make footprints. Footprints are made only by real animals. So, as with Mount Everest, the Yeti is ‘there’, and as with those who sought to climb Mount Everest, I began a search to explain the footprints.

My search included discovering prints. It included tranquilizing a specimen of the footprint-maker and replicating in plaster of Paris the earlier unexplained footprints, especially the famous Shipton print from 1951. Solving that took from 1956 to 1983. I searched a 1,500-mile span of the Himalaya, the south slopes (India, Nepal, Bhutan) and the north slopes in China’s Tibet. In dozens of wonderful expeditions, I visited almost every valley system across fifty years through that swath of mountains; I learned a range of local languages.

But, to my surprise, solving the footprint mystery did not answer the ‘Yeti question’. While my discovery went worldwide in the news media in the 1980s, I realized the Yeti is a symbol of an idea as well as a real animal. My quest evolved. It investigated a concept greater than a Himalayan mystery: the question of humanity’s relationship with the wild. By ‘wild’ I mean life uncontrolled by humans, that which makes Nature alive. For, aside from being a footprint-making animal, the Yeti is also an icon of wild humans.

I grew up in the 1950s along the edge of India’s jungles. That was a wild from where animals attacked, an exciting world, and under my grandfather and father’s tutelage I learned to navigate in it. That wild, though, like the jungles, is almost gone, and the search I ended up finding is of a new wild still with us. Life’s threats now are human-made. You and me are what is dangerous for we reshaped the earlier wild to create a new—microbes our medicines do not cure, economies that are unpredictable, societies where people offer their bodies to carry bombs, a changing climate that changes everything.

Having left a Nature that once nurtured us but we could not control, we now enter a new reality which we also cannot control—one that gives true existential threat. Once we feared a natural wild, now what we should be fearing is a human-made wild. As the wilds change, the footprints of human existence show a consistent trail of our lives through the greater life that we never could control. This journey is the core dimension of being alive. In this glass-screen world we have now made, whose images may be real or ‘special effects’, beyond that glass screen, living in greater existence, rises a growing wild we did not intend and we most certainly have made.

For after explaining the footprints, and discovering vestiges of the old wild where the animal lives, my journey undertaken with many colleagues created national parks. We approached this not in the then customary mode of protecting species (in this case the Yeti and its jungle neighbours) but by finding a new approach with which national parks are managed. For if the nature of Nature has changed because of people, to live with this new, a new method is needed to ground human actions.

In Nepal and China’s Tibet, lands between Earth’s greatest human populations of India and China, was implemented a new way of living with Nature. Makalu–Barun National Park in Nepal, where the Yeti’s secret was unmasked, pioneered this approach. That informed a year later Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area; these two projects began a new preservation strategy for all of Nepal, led by Nepali scientists and officials, going beyond the   approach where the army ran the parks. In the Tibet Autonomous Region of China adjacent to the Yeti’s jungles, this approach trusted people even more. Qomolangma (Mt Everest) National Nature Preserve (QNNP) was established, then the largest protected area in Asia. The momentum went on with eighteen other parks across Tibet, some of which now are among the largest in the world. Together they can be said to protect ‘the highest place on Earth for the highest need for the Earth’.

A human-centred approach to conservation was then near heretical (even though articulated a few years before in speeches at the Third World Conference on Protected Areas in Bali). Major conservation organizations and distinguished scientists had talked about the idea but had not yet implemented it. The need for a new participatory relationship with the wild is not just for park creation but global. With a people-centred approach, protection can engage conservation at larger, true planetary scale, and at the same time lower cost. As evidence has grown across a quarter century since then, the human-centred approach has become the accepted way.

By 1985, we had plaster casts to match the unexplained footprints. By 1992, the trail had established the national parks and protected the heart of the Himalaya. That personal story I described in an earlier book, Something Hidden behind the Ranges (San Francisco CA: Mercury House, 1995). I have written the story of national park creation, especially its extension across the Tibet Autonomous Region, in two other books: Chapter 20 of Just and Lasting Change: When Communities Own Their Futures, 2nd Edition(Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). Also, Chapter 8 of Empowerment on an Unstable Planet: From Seeds of Human Energy to a Scale of Global Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Still, though, the Yeti kept drawing me on, not as animal but as icon and idol. Icon and idol are powerful because of the ‘I’—the I am who I am, the call of larger existence. This trail of Yeti was exploring issues out of the three-million-year cavalcade of humans who everyday separate from the old wild. So, in 2010 I went again on a continuing Yeti search; it was fifty-five years after my first. I walked in now-familiar forever-protected valleys we had mapped during the park creation decades. In these personal quests in now protected valleys, I found wild animals to be more numerous and wilderness more vibrant than when we ‘discovered’ the valleys.

Is the Yeti a masquerade—yes, of some ‘thing’ needing explanation. Is the Yeti a mascot—yes, of a symbol of our evolutionary missing link. So, is the Yeti still a mystery—again yes, of awe. For in these pilgrimages I was touching where the planet rises uniquely into the heavens, walking within the greatest wildness on earth. Discovering understanding there happened because I ‘went and looked behind the ranges, went worn out of patience, stole away with pack and ponies … and the faith that moveth mountains.’

Buy this book at Amazon.