Moving Mountains The long view: JHU researcher who once debunked a beloved Abominable Snowman myth now fights to keep development from gettings its footprints all over Asia's wild places.

February 05, 1996|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

FRANKLIN, W.Va. -- Back when Daniel Taylor-Ide was 11 years old, he grabbed his BB gun, dashed out of his parents' vacation bungalow and began to stalk the Abominable Snowman.

For most boys, this impulsive big-game hunt might have turned into a couple of hours harassing squirrels. But young Daniel was different. The son of a medical missionary working in India, he was vacationing with his family on the slopes of the 5-mile-high Himalayas. And he was tenacious: that impulsive decision to track the snowman launched a quest that lasted 30 years.

Returning repeatedly to the mountains in the next few decades, he skied over snowfields, climbed into its subtropical valleys and rafted surging rivers until he figured he had cornered the truth about the elusive creature, known as the yeti to Sherpa villagers.

About a decade ago, Dr. Taylor-Ide, a senior associate researcher with Johns Hopkins University's School of Hygiene and Public Health, made headlines when he concluded that the yeti's huge, human-like footprints were made by a species of bear.

Now, at the age of 50, he still returns to the Himalayas twice a year. Not to hunt the snowman. But to help preserve the mythical creature's vast, craggy habitat. Dr. Taylor-Ide is president, guiding spirit and visionary-in-chief of Future Generations, a conservation group that, with a membership of 50 and budget of $400,000 a year, aids Asian governments in setting up nature preserves the size of small nations.

Working mostly over the Internet from the springhouse behind his West Virginia home, Dr. Taylor-Ide's goal is sweeping but simple: to shield one of the wildest stretches of landscape on Earth from the booming economies of Asia. And his group hopes to do this while raising the living standard of the people who dwell among the peaks.

In the late 1980s, this lean, intense and impatient man helped the government of Nepal to establish a nature preserve called Makalu-Barun, (pronounced mah-KAH-loo BAH-roon) covering an area the size of Rhode Island.

Makalu is the world's fifth highest peak, and the Barun Valley, near Everest, is an exotic corner of the world, home to three species of leopards. In Tibet, a region of China, Dr. Taylor-Ide helped set up the Qomolangma (pronounced chomo-LOONG-ma) Nature Preserve, a park the size of Massachusetts. Four of the world's six highest mountains, including Mount Everest, lie within its boundaries.

For the past three years, Dr. Taylor-Ide has been working on creating a 30-million-acre park in southeastern Tibet, which would be the third-largest such preserve in the world.

Called the Four Great Rivers Nature Preserve, the park encompasses gorges formed by the headwaters of four of the world's largest rivers -- the Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze. These rivers help slake the thirst, carry the cargo and flood the rice paddies of 20 percent of the world's population, which lives downstream.

"Where the rivers come together, they form one of the largest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet," he says. "We're focusing on trying to preserve this biological core while Asia is booming."

Future Generations also hopes to persuade the governments of China, India and Myanmar to create a new nature preserve abutting the planned Four Great Rivers preserve. The combined area would be about the size of Italy, he says.

And it all started with the yeti.

When Dr. Taylor-Ide talks about the snowman, he says, people laugh and shake their heads. But they listen. "There is something in each of us that associates and resonates with this mythical pre-human," he says. "When I give a lecture, I can feel it. It's palpable."

The reason, he says, is hard to explain. But it's easy to feel.

"I think if you slow down for a few minutes, you'll sense it inside of yourself. Everybody does," says Dr. Taylor-Ide, a mountain-climber, skier, river runner, pilot, small-plane builder and exotic-dog breeder. "Everybody has their own sort of bond with wildness. We've spent most of our past as wild animals. For only 5,000 years out of the past 3 million have we had civilization."

Unmaking the myth

In the 1950s, European climbers reported discovering huge footprints, and hearing tales of the yeti from villagers. Some scientists speculated that it was a new species of primate, an evolutionary branch of the hominid family descended, like man, from the apes. Somehow, they figured, it had adapted to living in the cold thin air of the world's tallest peaks.

Skeptics, though, long suspected that the footprints were made by a lowlands bear that occasionally climbed into the snow looking for food. Maybe, they said, the animal ran in such a way that its hind paws landed in the impression made by its front paws, creating the illusion of a two-legged creature.

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