Contemplating the Orang Pendek

5 February, 2012

Filed under: Everything else — admin @ 11:59 am

Over the past weeks, Paul and I have been having a most interesting discussion on the Orang Pendek. Paul Sochaczewski is an old friend of mine, and over the years, we’ve talked about much, planned to do about as much, and have managed to meet each other not very much. But we are muchly happy. One of our pet shared interests is Alfred Russel Wallace, which is what led to these discussions. You can check Paul out at

Orang Pendek? In the Malay language, this means short man, like the Orang Utan means forest man. Who is this short man then? Over the past hundred years, an unknown “short man” has been reported from the deep jungles of Sumatra and Borneo. Until now, no concrete evidence has been found to validate its existence. Those who have seen it obviously swear to its existence. Those who haven’t are understandably skeptical. Several scientists of repute (and some of doubtful repute too) have gone in search of the Orang pendek. They have used DNA testing, they have examined footprints, poked around piles of dung and set up cameras all over the place. Still, no Orang Pendek has ever been captured or found, dead or alive. No photographs exist.

The question I would like to explore here is this: Could such a creature exist today, and if so, what would they be like?

What do we know so far? The Orang Pendek is described as a small hairy man, standing about 1m tall. It walks on two legs and is covered with short long reddish or greyish hair. It is very shy, and runs away really fast when encountered. It has the face of a human.

It is seen in deep jungle as well as the forest edge, near shifting cultivation in the hills. All records of Orang Pendek come from Sumatra andBorneo. On Sumatra, most records come from the high mountain range that forms the spine of Sumatra, the Bukit Barisan range, while most records from Borneo come from the mountainous Ulu Temburong of Brunei and the Kayan Mentarang mountains of eastern Kalimantan.

It walks on two legs: This is the most important clue as to what the Orang Pendek is. Firstly, if it is bi-pedal, then it cannot arboreal, meaning it doesn’t live up in the trees like gibbons and Orang Utans. This makes it more suited to open environments, which is why it would develop bi-pedalism! It doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t climb trees.

If this theory was correct, then it would mean that Orang Pendek tend to live in the higher mountains, where the forests are more open and not the dense impenetrable forests of the lowlands. Anyone of you who has walked the montane forests will know the environment here is easy to travel through, without tangled undergrowth and creepers.

Finding food: The Orang Pendek is most likely a hominid, which is a bipedal animal more closely related to humans than apes. This would mean it is omnivorous. It also mean it would possess a highly developed sense of where and when food resources are found, and have the ability to capitalise on seasonal availability of, for example, their favourite fruits. It would therefore be reasonable to conclude that the Orang Pendek move over large areas to find food.

It is unlikely that Orang Pendek would be carnivorous. Walking, and running, on two legs in the forest is a very in-efficient way of catching prey. Go ahead and try catching a deer or a pig in the forest, and I suspect you would be persuaded to agree with me. If they were predators, then they would most likely live in packs, like wolves.

Social structure: A ground-dwelling hominid smaller than an Orang Utan, but bigger than any other primate, means that it falls within the prey-size for Sumatran tigers and clouded leopards. It would then have a social structure that provides adequate protection against predation. If they sleep in the open, like gorillas do, then their group size would be reasonably large, and for the tropics, I would guess at 20-30 individuals. It could comprise a single family group, or a permanent association of several smaller family units. If their group sizes were any smaller, it would not allow them to secure themselves against predation in the open.

If Orang Pendek lived in caves, then their group sizes would definitely be smaller, say 3-7 animals. This would allow effective use of natural features for shelter… any larger and this becomes impossible. It is highly unlikely that the Orang Pendek is a solitary creature.

Living in Kerinci Seblat: The vast majority of records of Orang Pendek come from Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra. At almost 14,000 sq. km., (for comparison, Taman Negara in Malaysia is 4,000 sq. km.) this is one of the largest national parks in Asia. It’s volcanic mountainous terrain makes the abundance of natural shelters (e.g. caves) a real possibility. This would be consistent with the other area where they are frequently reported, Ulu Temburong in Brunei, which is also very steep terrain. My guess would be Orang Pendek live in the higher altitudes of Kerinci Seblat where the rough, open shrublands may provide shelter for small family groups. Their food source is primarily elsewhere, lower down into the taller, more species-rich forests.

How large a population would there be? Using Kerinci Seblat, I would assume a home range of 20-30 sq. km per family group of five (the mean). Their home ranges will most likely overlap, say 3-5 groups overlapping. Let’s says that only 30% of the park is suitable habitat for Orang Pendek, which would be 4,500 sq. km. Divide that by 30 sq. km. per “range” and that’s 150 blocks. With each block able to support four overlapping family groups, it would give us a total population of 600.

This is merely an exercise, but regardless, it would be safe to assume that if Orang Pendek did exist in Kerinci Seblat, it would be a very small population spread over a wide area.

The Sumatra-Borneo Link: the fact that all records thus far have come from only Sumatra andBorneo is consistent with another ape, the Orang Utan, which also only occurs on these two large islands. We know that Sumatra and Borneo were connected before the last time sea levels rose and divided the great landmass that is Sundaland into the island archipelago that is today Malaysia and Indonesia. We also know that Sumatra and Borneo remained connected the longest. Long after the Malay Peninsula and Java were separated from Borneo, a land-bridge persisted where the Bangka straits is now. The islands of Belitung and Bangka are the last remaining stepping stones of this connection between Sumatra and Borneo. This is why Borneo and Sumatra share so many of its animals and plants. Now it appears it also shares the Orang Pendek!

Persistence of Hominids on Sundaland: the recent discovery, in 2003, of early hominids on Flores, called Flores man or hobbits, tells us that until just 12,000 years ago, there were hominids still living amongst modern-day humans. One of the oldest ancestors of modern humans was found on Java. Guess what we called him? Yes, Java man. It is clear that our little part of the world was just full of different types of man… different hominids possibly co-existing. Would it then be so surprising if there was one still living amongst us? Is this what Orang Pendek is? I have to admit, we cannot discount this possibility.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey of exploration with me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, as has Paul. Whether the Orang Pendek exists is not as important as is our curiosity about nature. Paul says ‘I want them to exist. I would be delighted if they exist, but I think they are in the same category as Santa Claus”. Tony says “I have to be skeptical, because when I stop asking questions, the world becomes a boring place. I don’t do boring!”


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