Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 58: YETI
JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. This week we talk Yeti. Bigfoot, the abominable snowman and Sasquatch occupy a special place in our imagination. As proof, Animal Planet devoted a full hundred episodes to their series, Finding Bigfoot.
PROMO for FINDING BIGFOOT: Is Bigfoot out there? From Alaska, “sasquatches do exist,” to Oregon, “I definitely think she saw something,” to Florida, “I got something coming at me on the farm right now.” Each week, this expert team of true believers, “I've been tracking sasquatches for 25 years,” fans out across America, “we've devoted our lives to this,” and uncovers evidence, “These are the best prints I've seen in my life of elusive legend.”
JARED BLUMENFELD: Then, just a few weeks ago, I heard this startling news.
NEWS: Long live the legend of the Yeti. A tweet from the Indian army has gone viral as they claim that they've spotted a footprint from the elusive Yeti. The footprints were reportedly found in the snow near Mount Makalu base camp on April 9th and measured three feet by 15 inches. The army said the evidence has been handed over to experts for scientific evaluation.
JARED BLUMENFELD: As luck would have it, I happen to know the world's foremost Yeti expert, Dr. Daniel Taylor, whose most recent book is Yeti, the Ecology of a Mystery published by the prestigious Oxford University Press. Daniel's no ordinary Yeti expert. He's legit. Daniel's been knighted by the king of Nepal, decorated with the order of the Golden Arch by the Prince of the Netherlands, and awarded the first honorary professorship of quantitative ecology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Daniel received his doctorate and Master's in education from Harvard and his bachelors from John Hopkins University, and more than that, Daniel is one of my heroes. I've known him for more than 25 years and his creativity, drive, and curiosity never cease to amaze me. He's helped create some of the most important and largest national parks on the planet. He founded Future Generations University to help people learn community scale development by actually doing it. He's built and crashed his own plane and he never stops innovating. Establishing with the Chinese government and 80 universities, the Green Long March, he also created a program of mosque-based schools in Afghanistan. Daniel co-founded the Mountain Institute in 1972. When I met him, we worked together to protect the snow leopard habitat. I was 29 and my boss at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Brian Davies, asked if I could go to Tibet to see how Daniel's project was doing. Even though my son Markus has had just been born, I just couldn't say no. Sorry, Alex. I sit down with Daniel and pick up the trail from that adventure all those years ago. It was an amazing trip to like the rooftop of the world. I remember the first night, I stayed in this house made entirely of cardboard. It was like a hotel.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Yeah, it was a quick built Chinese hotel at the border between Tibet and the Tibetan region of China and Nepal, and I think they probably built that literally out of cardboard in a few days. And of course, the question we all were asking is what happens if the cardboard catches on fire because this house is over a cliff.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Yeah, it was amazing. And then I remember we were at some pass in this like 1970’s Toyota Land Cruiser and your dad, who was probably like in his eighties at the time was like, I know how to fix the vehicle. And he came out with a paperclip and was fiddling under the car and literally fixed the car with the paper clip.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Well, we all had to do that growing up as a boy in India because we had jeeps, and there were no jeeps in India, and so we had to make our own parts.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you spent some of your childhood in India. Your grandparents were medical missionaries.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: They went to India before the first World War and provided primary health care. In those days, there weren't any cars. So, they went every week to a new village in the jungle cause India at that time had one fifth of the population it does now. There was a lot of jungle. I then went to India and from 1947, just before Indian independence, began traipsing around in the jungle. I was two at the time. And so, I grew up there and then it was at age 11, that I first met the Yeti and then began searching out the back door for where the Yeti might be around the house.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Right. Did you say Yeti?
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: I said the Yeti, the Abominable Snowman. But we had all sorts of great wildlife in those days because we lived right where the Ganges River came out of the Himalyas. It's a very lush part of the Indian jungle. And so, tigers, leopards, snakes, all that good stuff. In the morning, we'd have to shake our shoes to get the scorpions out before you put your foot in it.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what is the legend of the Yeti?
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: That's the important question, really, Jared, because the Yeti fulfills, I think in our mythology of the wild place, very similar to what angels fulfill in religious life. These are beings that are half human, half something else. In the case of an angel, half divine. They are the means of our connecting to another world, and the Yeti to my view, after having spent now my 68 years studying it in various forms, is very similar to the bigfoot because we need some sort of intermediary. So, in Russia they have a Yeti. Mozart writes about the Yeti; he calls it the bird man in the Magic Flute, and so throughout literature, throughout cultures, we have these half-people, half-wilds, and the Sherpa people have the Yeti.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, you're traipsing around the jungle, you got your missionary grandparents, and you're out in the jungle. Like how did it even enter your vocabulary that you were going to be looking for the Yeti?
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Well, at age 11, the monsoon was raging, and I saw on the front page of the newspaper in India a footprint. And so, I picked up the newspaper, and it's an interesting footprint. I'd seen lots of wild animal footprints by that time growing up. And they said the footprint, there was an explanation from the primate curator at the British Museum, and he said, Oh, this is definitely the Langur monkey, and it's left its footprints, and a little bit of snow melts, and that's what these prints are. Well, I knew Langur monkeys, they stole my toys. They ran around on the roof of the house, and I knew for sure at 11 years of age that the curator at the famous British Museum was wrong. But I knew something was there. And this is the important thing. A footprint is something real. So, there is something real that makes a footprint. So, because my father is a scientist, my grandparents were medical people, we were coming to these things not as myths, but if there's a footprint, what is the real cause and the real maker of that footprint. So, it became a quest. And by 1983, I was able to explain it. But by that time, I had found my own set of footprints several times and been studying them. And I have a huge library of all the mysterious footprints and plastic casts. And the Yeti has been interesting.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, would villagers and Sherpas, they would say, these footprints are huge, and they can't belong to anything that we've seen before. What distinguished for people, the idea that it would be a Yeti footprint?
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Well, there are three Yetis, so we're going to have to take apart each one, and there is one Yeti that makes footprints. Now, the Yeti that the Sherpa people talk about is a legend the way Rumpelstiltskin is or Santa Claus or some of these legends that most people believe in the way we believe in a Santa Claus, but we also know that it's a mythical representation of Father Christmas happiness at Christmas and all the other overlays. Or the way a Hindu God might be. There's a Hindu God called Hanuman, which has got supernatural abilities and is that really a monkey? No, but it's a representation of an idea. So that's a second Yeti. The first one is the footprint and then there's the third Yeti, which is this hunger that I was alluding to earlier that people have to try to connect to the wild. And it's why I believe in the Yeti, even though I have explained the footprint as being another animal, because I want a connection between me and the wild, some sort of human connection. And as we enter this new age of the Anthropocene, when all of the planet has been reshaped by human actions, it's very interesting to me that if you do a Google search, you'll find three times the number of Yeti sightings now that we had reported in 1980, and we have more Bigfoot sightings now than we had 20 years ago. So, why are we finding more of these sightings? I think it's because of this hunger inside of us. We need this Yeti, this connection to the wild.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, recently, like in the last two weeks, there was a Yeti siting by the Indian army and every time that there's a Yeti discovered, people phone you. You're like the world Yeti expert.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Yeah. If you look up Yeti on Wikipedia, you'll see that my explanation is generally credited. My books are selling very well, but they answer and develop all these myths. But the Indian army one was really interesting. They were in the Makalu Baran National Park in Nepal. The Makula is the fifth highest mountain. It's immediately east of Mount Everest. It's actually part of the Mount Everest Massif that includes four of the world's six highest peaks. Makalu is the fifth, and it happens that the national park they were in, I was the one who led in the creating of that national park after I discovered the Yeti. The Indian army came down off the mountain and they found these gargantuan footprints, 35 inches long, and so immediately, 35-inch footprints, they said, oh, we found the Yeti and they released it. Well, when have we ever had a living being on this planet that had 35-inch footprints? The last time was when we had the dinosaurs walking around.
JARED BLUMENFELD: I think Shaq O’Neal may have 35-inch feet. I’m not sure how big Lebron James’s footprints are, but they could be that big.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Yeah, actually they're only size 18, and we're talking about something three times or maybe at least twice as big. Anyhow, the last time we had dinosaurs walking on this planet was quite some time ago, so to find 35-inch footprints, not only does it suggest one animal, but it suggest a population. Well, they're not dinosaurs. In the Makalu Baran National Park, I happened to know that very well because I founded the park and I've surveyed all the boundaries and I would have run into this population of dinosaurs. Anyhow, they have a picture of this footprint that the Indian army took. And I took a look at that. I know the site, and I know that part of the valley very well. I recognize the hill that it's on. Well, about 18 years ago, I was about five miles away from that spot and I found very large footprints also in the snow. Well, the important thing about Yeti footprints is that when you find them, you follow the trail. You don't just stick with the Yeti one footprint and photograph it. So, when I followed these footprints, who went maybe half a mile, and they went into the forest and then it went out of the sunlight and into the shade, and you could see much more clearly what was going on. It was a mama bear with a little baby cub following it and you know, if you've watched the cubs trying to run after their mother, they don't just run, they sort of hop like a rabbit. And as they go up and down, they all four footprints are going to come right down, boom and make a big print right on top of the mom's prints. And so, you get that 35-inch print and bunch of Indian papers and radio shows were calling me up. And the problem is, I'm sort of challenging the veracity of the Indian army and that's not a good thing to do.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what’s the weirdest call you've ever received about Yeti confirmation?
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: I got a call from the Guardian newspaper and said that Stormy Daniels just had released her new book. It was about to come out and they had an advanced copy and there was some reference in there to the Yeti and president Trump. And they asked whether I would comment, and then I said, if we're going to do this interview, you're going to introduce me as a scientist and that I have published from a reputable press, Oxford University Press, which is a peer reviewed press, and I am certainly not going to comment on President Trump unless I'm so introduced because I can sense that this interview is going to go perhaps in a strange place. Well, if you read this passage out of Stormy Daniel's account, she describes watching Donald Trump getting undressed and about to get into bed with her and says his pubes are like Yeti fur. Now Dr. Taylor, would you please tell us what Yeti fur is like? So, let's be very clear that I'm talking about Yeti here. And I said in this instance, they're going to be three types of Yeti here. There is one Yeti here of the animal that makes some mysterious footprints. Okay? There is another, which is the Yeti here of fake Yeti pelts that we've explained to be other animals. And then there's a third Yeti here, which is the stuffed animal that Walt Disney sells. But the real animal Yeti is a black bear, and so that is a bristly hair. But we're talking about bears now. We're not talking about human beings or the president. I had known nothing about that.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How did you discover that the Yeti was in fact a black bear? And then how did that evolve into you creating some of the world's largest natural parks?
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Well, Jared, as you know, you've been there, you've seen the parks and there really some of the most magnificent places on earth. I kept searching for this animal because there was definitely going to be an animal. So, I knew that there was some explanation there and the explanation that it was a bear had been first advanced in a serious scientific way in the 1930’s by a British mountaineer, by the name of Evans. But it had been substantially also repeated by several other people who had found prints alleged to be Yetis and they had followed them, and instead it was a bear. But the big question is, was the famous footprint from 1951 that was taken by Eric Shipton and what was that? Because it did not appear as though that was a bear that appears very hominoid like and so there remained this mystery.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Here is a clip from National Geographic's Yeti special on those first footprints.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SPECIAL: It was late in the afternoon on November the eighth, 1951, and Shipton and the expedition’s Dr. Michael Ward were working on a glacier a couple of miles from here, and then suddenly they came across a set of huge footprints that went away from them down the glacier, and it left them completely mystified.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Were all footprints bears or was there something else out there? It's very conceivable. There are vast valleys unsettled, especially in the 1950’s, and only until the 1970’s did really most of the Himalyas start to get settled. So, it happened that it, when I was in school and graduate school, I got to know the then Crown Prince of Nepal, and he also was very interested in this question. The Yeti is actually a Sherpa word that the mountaineers, especially British mountaineers brought back, especially after 1951. There were a variety of names used before that, like metoh kangmi, when the first British accounts came back in 1921. Anyway, when the British started using the word Yeti in England and around then the rest of the world in English, Yeti then has an entered the Nepali language. But it is actually a Sherpa word that went to England. So, in 1983, at the advice of the then King of Nepal, he said, well if it's any place in Nepal, it's going to be in the Barun Valley. So, I went into the Barun, and I described it in my book, Yeti: The ecology of a mystery.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And you brought your two-year-old son, Jesse.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Yeah, I took my two-year-old son and my wife.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Would that be safe to do?
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Well, I think it’s as safe as driving on the 101 here in California with all the crazy drivers you have. Yeah, there's some uncertainties, but I grew up in the jungle and so I feel pretty comfortable with that. And it's also a good way to raise your kids. You know, they start to learn about the wild. So, anyhow, we lived in the jungle for a couple of weeks, and one day, I found a bunch of Yeti footprints in the snow, and I got pretty excited and followed them and they were pretty dramatic, and they were sort of humanlike, like the Shipton prints.
And so, I came back with photographs and I asked one of the village hunters and he said, oh, that's a tree bear. Rukh Balu is the Nepali name for it. And I said, well, what's a Rukh Balu? Balu is the word for Bear. He says, well, we have two types of bears here. We have Rukh Balus and Bhui Balus, tree bears and ground bears. And I said, well, huh. I mean, you know, there's only one bear here in this jungle. We all know it's the Himalayan black bear. There's no, we have two bears. And this is a very, very talented hunter. And so, I then got fascinated and said, well, maybe there's a new species of bear and that explains these mysterious footprints. And so, I bought some skulls because they had skulls in the village. And then I got a permit to bring some back and checked them out at the Smithsonian institution. And they were Himalayan Asiatic black bears, what we call now Ursus Arctic thibetanus. And that took me several years and that was a lot of fun. There's a lot of adventures in skulls, finding skulls, losing skulls and the slides and all that sort of stuff. But it quickly became clear to me that I had the choice to make at the suggestion of his majesty and other friends. And they said the important thing is the habitat. Well, I didn't have any money, I'm not the World Wildlife Fund. So how do you create a national park if you don't have any money? So, we came up with an idea, which is where you got involved, Jared, which was to have the people manage the park rather than hiring wardens, which is the Yellowstone model. And so, around Mount Everest, we created on the first one on the Nepal side, the Makula Barun National Park, just east of Everest. And then we went into Tibet, which at that time had no national parks and no protected areas, and we created a very large park on the Chinese Tibetan side. Tibet is a province of China. And that was very successful. And at time the governor of Tibet was Hu Jintao who later became president of China. And he got very interested in this idea. Later on, as the president of China, he really started to push the environmental agenda. But my friendship with him began early on and we then ran a lot of environmental programs in China such as the Green Long March, which we did with 80 Chinese universities and 10,000 students. And it became the largest youth environmental movement in China for five years. But we also started creating national parks and nature preserves. And ultimately, I directly was involved in seven in Tibet. And one of those was Four Great Rivers that you were involved with Jared. And that's the headwaters, the Yangtze, the May, Lis, Olean, and the Brahmaputra rivers. The Brahmaputra gorge is four times deeper than the Grand Canyon in this country, and that park is the size of Washington state, 40 million acres.
JARED BLUMENFELD: At that time, habitat protection wasn't really in vogue, so it was kind of a big deal for him to work with you on this concept.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Well, first of all, this is the king of Nepal was a remarkably insightful person about the environment. King Birendra, he was later assassinated by his son and the crown prince, and killed seven members of the royal family and a massacre in 2001, but this was in 1983-1985, and the national park movement was just starting worldwide at that time, but everybody was following basically the Yellowstone model, which is you create a perimeter, you have to protect it. It takes a lot of money and the most important thing is to keep people out. And our idea was no, the most important thing is to involve people.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us a little bit about just what you discovered when he looked at the park ranger model, where they came from, how they were paid and those kind of issues.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Well, you look at the American Park Rangers and their uniform makes it pretty clear that you were the U.S. cavalry and the U.S cavalry in the late 19th century didn't have any work to do. They'd already shot out the Native Americans and dominated the West. And so, they had employment problems. So, when our national parks were created, the capital, we became essentially the national park service. Basically, they took the model that the military force that we had in the west, and they gave it a new job, which was managing the perimeter. But then the problem becomes, okay, we don't have the Native Americans anymore. We've locked them up in their own parks, and we call them reservations and we’ve created these other parks. But then there's a confrontation with the ranchers and the farmers who are outside the parks. And so, there it becomes the tradition in this country and in many, certainly in Africa and other parts of the world where the parks come into conflict with the communities. And so, you have in the middle of the night, you have people invading the parks, killing the animals with this crisis in Africa right now with rhinos and elephants. So, the idea that people are the stewards and people are vested in taking care of it. Let's come back to the Chinese situation. When we started in Tibet, there was zero protection. Today, 54% of the Tibetan region is protected and what we did was, we took an idea, which was new in the 80’s, which had been talked about in the literature, called biosphere reserves, and we did the first biosphere reserves in Asia. Now biosphere reserve has a strict conservation area, which is like our national park. Then it has a buffer zone where it can be used and then it has a multiple use zone, which is more like our national forest model in the United States. Well, we took that, and we created six zones in a biosphere reserve, not three. And they include farms, they include cities, they even include mining. And in each of those areas there is a conservation management plan so that it supports the larger landscape. And this allows the creation of these large areas such as we mentioned with four great rivers, which is 40 million acres. Now once you start to get half of the land of an area under conservation management as we have now in Tibet, which is very fragile land, because it's at high altitudes, in this case it's got one third less oxygen than sea level. Once you get that level of landscape being protected, you've begun to get an answer for the planet and that's what interests me. And I think that the much more interesting story than Yellowstone is the extraordinary conservation project called the Yukon to Yellowstone, which is a joint U.S. Canadian project that now runs from south of the Yellowstone way up into the Yukon. It's the largest contiguous protected area on the planet and it has been carefully built by a partnership of conservation activists. So it isn't just one NGO, one non-governmental unit, one government, as we have two governments in this case, we've got multiple parks services, we've got ranchers, we've got people who get in conservation easements, and so the grizzly bear for instance now has a secure corridor that that goes for 2,800 miles and other animals have this corridor so that in the climate change, species can move and adapt. We have to start considering the whole earth as a conservation area and we have examples in the work that we've done in the Himalaya. We've essentially protected the headwaters for almost all the Asian rivers: the Indus, the Ganges, the yellow, the Yangtze, and that's the beginning when you start to protect the headwaters, but you've got to take it all the way down to the sea in the estuaries.
JARED BLUMENFELD: One of the projects that you had in Qomolangma, the park around Everest, you worked out how much the rangers were getting paid, you worked out that the rangers generally weren’t from that location. They were brought in from somewhere else and then you gave back in benefits, you asked the community what they cared about.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: You're absolutely right. We did a survey and asked everybody in the community what they wanted and their priorities, and it turned out that the number one thing that people wanted was a reliable energy source. It's high altitude. The number two thing they wanted were roads because it was isolated. Tibet was at that time, you know, you had to ride a donkey, and the third thing that they wanted was health care. So, we started by creating village health workers. We called them pendebas, which is somebody from the village who we trained in basic health care and then that person gets involved and the village supports them. Then by having some sheep or something that the village is managing for that person and the person then can work. The pendeba can work full time in providing village health services and once the health starts to get under control, then we trained them in reforestation. At that time, trees weren't growing at 13 and 14,000 feet, but we developed some techniques whereby trees could grow so every community had some trees growing around it. They were growing the trees because they went up there and cut the leaves off to feed their animals in the wintertime. So, their local creativity was essentially, it was a hay field that was growing vertically on the tree. So, once you start to work with people like that and listen to their needs, then you can come up in a discussion with appropriate management plans. And this is very different than sitting down in the office in Washington, D.C., or here in Sacramento, and designing a park for people. But to get out there and design a park with people, you come up with not only different designs, but varying designs or you do something in one area and in another area, you do something else. And management by zones is what then allows the ecology of the area to be respected in a way that's appropriate to each area.
JARED BLUMENFELD: I remember you calling me saying, Jared, this bridge had blown up and that the villagers were responsible.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Yep. There was logging that was going on and the villagers saw that their forest was being taken away. And so, they waited until the trucks were all loaded down with timbers and then they destroyed the bridge and the Chinese army was caught with its pants down because the Chinese army trucks filled with the timbers. That was pretty embarrassing.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It just shows that you know, that they really, really cared about the pendebas and their health care, and they were getting, and they felt like it was in jeopardy.
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: So, the point is that you need to get people's participation to save the planet.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Daniel, you spent most of your life living on the top of a mountain in rural West Virginia. What's it like being an environmentalist in a red coal producing state?
DR. DANIEL TAYLOR: Well, most of my neighbors would call themselves environmentalists because the question is, how are you defining it? Now, politically, we may be in a different spot, but it starts with the love for the land. And I think the most important feature and the why I would call them environmentalists, is they will not sell their land. They do not see their land as something to make money off of. They see their land as something to love. That I think is a very good definition of being an environmentalist. If you love the land and you are taking care of it the best you can. So, they may be really poor, but that land has been in the family for four generations. They love their land and they are not going to sell it. So that's why I say they would call themselves environmentalists, and the reason is because they care as much about their land as any environmental activist who otherwise just comes out and rides a mountain bike around the land. I think that we have to start looking at things in circles. I mean, I think that this is really important. There is no cause and effect in this world that doesn't come back to you. And the question is, when these things come back, how do we make it better? So, I think that one of the exciting things for me is to see young people like scouts, like my grandchild, taking care of the environment. They're not throwing garbage out the window of the car the way we used to. They are recycling their supplies. They're thinking about their carbon footprints. There's a real similarity between a Yeti’s footprint and a carbon footprint. And I guess that's the way I'll come back to it, because the carbon footprint is the footprint that we humans have left on the earth. And the Yeti's footprint is a projection of the human footprint that we thought was the wild. But actually, what we've seen is the Yeti’s footprint is ourselves.
JARED BLUMENFELD: A huge thank you to my friend, mentor and true renaissance man, Daniel Taylor, for continuing to inspire me every single time we meet. I'd strongly recommend going to future.edu to learn more about Future Generations University and how they can help expand your view of the world. And finally, here's a clip from Animal Planet’s, “Finding Bigfoot,” on the sounds made by the Yeti’s American cousin, Sasquatch.
FINDING BIGFOOT: One of the more common vocalizations is often described as a high pitch scream, like a woman being murdered in the woods, sometimes they are long and drawn out. Sometimes they're short like this.
JARED BLUMENFELD: If you take away one thing from this week's episode, it’s that if you're in the woods and hear noise like the one we just heard, it's very likely someone is getting murdered. So please don't call Dr. Daniel Taylor, instead, dial 911. Next week, we talk with French environmentalists about yellow jackets and fromage. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, executive producer David Kahn, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, remember that myths are often more powerful than reality.