Searching for the Yeti

There is a Yeti animal. But explaining the animal mystery turns out not to explain the Yeti’s story.  
Gosainkund Himalaya
The author in an ice cave at 19,000 feet in Gosainkund Himalaya. Photo Courtesy: Daniel C. Taylor/YETI/Oxford University Press

As an 11-year old, I saw a footprint in a newspaper—it was called “Yeti,” the article said. The expert being quoted was a museum curator in England, and he said the footprint was made by langur monkeys. Others in that newspaper article said the footprint was made by an “Abominable Snowman”.

But even at 11 years, having by then spent hundreds of days in the Indian jungle, I knew the English museum curator to be wrong … and, I became excited. If there was a mysterious Yeti or Abominable Snowman, I wanted to find it. The unknowns of the Himalaya were literally out our back door.

And from that newspaper article in 1956 began my half century of travels across the Himalayan spectacular—searching for the Yeti. After 27 years, I found the explanation of what made the mysterious footprints in the snow. There is a Yeti animal. But explaining the animal mystery turns out not to explain the Yeti mystery. To understand that mystery I have been searching continually for 51 years; after finding the animal I led in starting a series of national parks. This search I have just now described in my new book Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery (Oxford University Press).

The Yeti animal is real, as I describe in the book, because it makes real footprints. (Spirits do not make footprints, neither do myths—so finding footprints means a real animal.) The Yeti idea, though, is also real because this equally real Yeti stands as an icon of the wild. An icon is an image of a great natural force, the same way that an idol also is a valid force … say an idol of Hanuman.

The Yeti symbolises the mysteries of the Himalaya. To understand the mysteries of the Himalaya, it is helpful to properly redefine the word Himalaya. When the British came on their conquest of the Indian subcontinent they were fascinated by the great mountains wanting to also conquer them. And as mountains have plural names (Alps, Rockies, Pyrenees, Andes), they gave the name Himalayas. But to the people of the subcontinent the Himalaya were “an abode of snow” (Himalaya). It was into the abode of snow that pilgrims went to for enlightenment, from where sacred waters flowed that nourished life on the flat plains, even where Hanuman scampered for medicinal healing. So, in my half-century quest, the place where I searched is called Himalaya rather than the conquest suggested by Himalayas.

yak herder

A yak herder leading Taylor over a 17,000-foot pass behind Mount Everest. Photo Courtesy: Daniel C. Taylor/YETI/Oxford University Press

I kept searching. First, discoveries were in the hills outside our home in Mussoorie, venturing off even into the Kulu Valley. I carried with me photographs of the mysterious Yeti footprints in the snow. Through the years of the 1950s, I talked with villagers and traders exchanging stories about the Yeti I had read in newspapers and books … and to my sorrow, they told me there was no such animal. But there was, I knew. Footprints had been made. Only real animals make footprints, and these footprints had been repeatedly photographed in varying sizes (indicating a population of Yetis, some monsters with 14-inch prints, some juvenile with 7-inch prints).

Like the glaciers of the Himalaya—finding these footprints was an enduring feature of my walking through the 2,896-kilometres wide region—the enigmatic unexplainable footprints in their varying sizes had been found for over one hundred years since the late 1800s. Sadly, we now know that the glaciers that have so long endured are melting due to the effluent of our human affluent because we are conquering Nature’s balances—this knowledge of the disappearing Nature became at first a greater discovery … then I found how as people we could rediscover Nature (and protect it).

My travels moved from the Indian Himalaya to Bhutan in 1961, entering that land on horseback before the roads were made. I was exploring and searching for the Yeti. The wise third king of Bhutan told me he thought the Yeti was a Blue Bear, an animal not known on the south Indian/Bhutanese/Nepali slope of the Himalaya. Indeed a quasi-mythical bear of northern Tibet, but mythical only because it had never been “scientifically collected,” yet still was a known bear because skins had been brought out of the mountains.

Even in the 1960s as I searched, the Himalaya was largely an unknown region. There were unknown valleys still, places with habitation to be sure, but where we did not know who the inhabitants were, or they of us. We were conquering the mighty summits for the first time during these years… and, interestingly, when mountain conquests were unsuccessful, often evidence of the mysterious Yeti was footprints found in the skirts of glaciers at their bases. Climbers unsuccessful in their conquests kept the mystery alive.

From 1968 through the 1970s and into the 1980s I was able to search the breadth of the Nepal Himalaya—and because I worked in the family planning programme, I had the use of a helicopter. So at times I would be left off in the most remote of mountain passes, then walk out. Yes, it became clear, multiple Yetis existed; the Yeti existed as an animal and icon.

Saldima Meadows in Nepal

A delegation arrives for the Makalu-Barun National Park planning meetings at Saldima Meadows in Nepal.
Photo Courtesy: Daniel C. Taylor/YETI/Oxford University Press

Then the answer became clear for the animal itself. It lived in trees. It was black not white. The mysterious footprint was actually an overprint of hind paw onto front. Indeed, I was able to tranquilise the animal—and with a specimen comfortably so sleeping, I was then able to imprint its feet into plaster to replicate all the most enigmatic mysterious footprints that had been found in the glacial snows across the earlier decades.

Does explaining the footprint explain the mystery? The Yeti is a call of the wild, calling from deep inside us. I found that I could call this physical animal (sometimes) to visit my jungle high camps (peanut butter seems to work best, placed on windy ridges to allow its aromas to waft through the forests). The animal is of the Himalayan forests—it becomes a snowman when it crosses a mountain to see what it can see (or eat, or have sex).

But, no, this is not the answer also. When I gave lectures in the 1980s around the world, and in illustrious halls such as at the Royal Geographical Society—even a learned audience did not want to know what the animal was that makes the mysterious footprints in the snow. It was OK to give hints, but please don’t tell us what the animal actually is.

Through the 1990s and continuing even unto now, what is calling is a hunger in people for the wild. The deeper identity to us humans for the Yeti is not an animal—it is a lost link to ourselves in the wild. Where have we as people come from? Today we live in a human-made world.

We have indeed changed the world, taking away much more than the jungle that once covered the Earth. Where the face of the Earth once prowled with wild animals—today, if the weights of all domesticated mammals is tallied up, it would comprise 65 per cent of all mammalian weight. Weighing all humans would total another 30 per cent. All the wild mammals left on Earth (not counting the seas) would total only five per cent. And, as becomes more evident with each passing season, humans live now in a manufactured environment. The effluent of our factories and our hunger for affluence (which makes others among us poorer) has had the larger consequence of remaking the very process of human existence into an idol of ourselves.

Yet the call by humans for a connection to the wild endures. This human-made journey of planetary change (which in our hubris we sometimes term “civilisation”) raises real questions with real questions about humanity and the wild. For today, as we wonder where we are going, we still seek to answer always from where we have come. The Yeti is a connection to our past, a missing link of the wild unknown, an identity we seek to discover.

Saldima Meadows in Nepal

A delegation arrives for the Makalu-Barun National Park planning meetings at Saldima Meadows in Nepal.
Photo Courtesy: Daniel C. Taylor/YETI/Oxford University Press

In the 1990s, I traveled into the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. “Discovering the Yeti” as an animal had made me famous. So, I used this credibility to work in partnership with governments to create new national parks. My objective was to preserve the mysteries of the wild.

Created were national parks where people, through local community government structures, managed the remaining wild remnants. It was a new approach to park formation—one without wardens but where local communities policed. Makalu-Barun National Park was created in Nepal just east of Everest—it was there that we first positively identified the animal that makes the Yeti footprints. Then came a series of national parks in Tibet, first along the slopes of Mount Everest (it was the Tibet side where the Yeti was first seen in 1921). So striking was the momentum—people wanted to protect the wild. So in just Tibet today there are now 18 preserves and 54 per cent of land area is protected. In Bhutan also national parks are being created. In India too, this momentum unfolded, especially among India’s greatest remaining wild treasure: Arunachal Pradesh—where four-fifths of the land is still jungle.

It was in Arunachal Pradesh that we were able to photograph for the first time in its wild habitat the world’s rarest leopard: the Clouded Leopard. (See National Geographic Magazine, September 2000.) Understanding the wild comes most authentically from living with it. The wild is a feeling, not Latin species names. For with the understanding that resulted in this remarkable photographing of the Clouded Leopard it was local rat hunters who helped find the leopard that scientists had been searching for across decades.

Discovering the Yeti, as described in detail in my book YETI, has many layers. Yes, it is a Himalayan journey. (It is also a whale of a lot of fun—and a tad more than a little bit dangerous.) It is also a pilgrimage such as have been made by many across the ages in the Himalaya, a pilgrimage to understand the connection of human life to the great beyond. Perhaps we call this Brahma, perhaps Gaia, Jehovah, or the great energy force the Chinese call Qi. All people are on multiple quests in life. A man with what was usually a 30-kilo backpack, living simply with rice and dal, and walking across half a century, learns a lot—and he meets many interesting Yetis.

But the Yeti that leaves compelling human-looking footprints—which is a real wild animal that can indeed be very dangerous to humans, at times tearing off their faces—this Yeti connects us to a wild past and also leads us to an understanding of how we can find wildness in the lives we lead today… even if that be in human-made cities.

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    Daniel C. Taylor is a Harvard alumnus and the author of YETI. He is currently the President of Future Generations University. In recognition of his conservation work he has been honoured by the King of Nepal, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands.

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