A hairy, six-foot monster that howls and stinks like death is rumored to live in the semi-darkness under the leafy canopy of the Amazon jungle. The Amazon Indians have a legend that this creature stalks the forests like a tropical Abominable Snowman. Like Bigfoot, it has never been captured or clearly photographed.

These creatures are called ?Mapinguari,? or giant defenders of the forests, by the Indians. One local hunter named Joao Batista Azevedo says he saw a Mapinguari 20 years ago after a 45-day canoe ride from the nearest village. ?I was working by the river when I heard a scream, a horrible scream,? the now 70-year-old Azevedo says. ?Suddenly something looking like a man came out of the forest, all covered in hair. He was walking on two legs and thank God he did not come toward us. I will always remember that day.?

Amazon ornithologist David Oren takes such stories seriously. Since 1988 he has been on a quest to find one of the creatures and has led several expeditions into the depths of the world?s largest rain forest to hunt for it. ?It?s still being sited regularly. Several people think they came face to face with the Devil in the forest,? he says. He believes there are dozens of them living there.

Oren?s theory is that the creature could be the world?s last living giant ground sloth — a distant relative of existing tree sloths — that was thought to have become extinct more than 10,000 years ago. Other scientists scoff at this idea and the National Geographic Society has refused to fund his expeditions, so he pays for them himself.

Paul Martin, professor of Geosciences at the University of Arizona, is the leading expert on the theory that humans were responsible for the extinction of such animals as the giant ground sloth, and he is skeptical of Oren?s theory. ?I think he is 13,000 years too late. This sure does sound like the hunt for a Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster,? he says. ?The part of me that is completely romantic is rooting for David Oren. But where the science part of me is concerned I don?t give him a chance.?

Oren argues that a kind of giant ground sloth could still be alive in the Amazon because the forests offer huge, remote areas providing the isolation necessary for them to survive. The Amazon?s rain forest is thick and impenetrable, and covers an area larger than all of Western Europe. It?s home to up to 30 percent of the world?s animal and plant life. Scientists say giant ground sloths were once abundant in the Americas, as evidenced by fossil finds of the creatures in places as far apart as Patagonia in the south to the northwest United States. The sloth could have moved to the Amazon to escape hunting and the encroachment of man on its natural habitat elsewhere.

Claudio Padua, a doctor of ecology who teaches at the University of Brasilia, is one of the few scientists who believes Oren, because the Amazon is still hiding thousands of undiscovered species. ?It would be the find of the century, it would have an extraordinary impact,? says Padua. He notes that 10 new species of monkeys were discovered in the Amazon in the last decade. ?As a scientist I accept that everything is possible until there is proof to the contrary,? he says.

Oren is originally American but now has a Brazilian passport. He first came to the Amazon in 1977 and worked for the Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belem, one of Brazil’s foremost Amazon research centers, mapping the biological makeup of the Amazon. He has since taken up a post with U.S. environmental group Nature Conservancy in Brasilia, thousands of miles from the Amazon, making it very difficult for him to hunt the Mapinguari.

In June, just after leaving the Amazon area, he wrote his 2nd article about the Mapinguari, presenting all his evidence. ?When I wrote the 1993 paper, I had never interviewed anyone who had claimed to have killed one of these supposed animals,? he says. He has now talked to seven hunters who claim to have shot the animal and another 80 people who have seen it. ?What they describe: a creature approximately six feet tall when standing upright; a very strong, unpleasant smell; extremely heavy and powerful build; capable of breaking thick roots with its footsteps,? according to his article. However, the hunters who say they shot one of the creatures did not keep any fragments of it, but threw the parts away due to the strong stench.

Oren says the creature has long coarse fur, four large teeth and that it moves on two or four legs. It also has an ?extremely loud, roaring vocalization … similar to a human calling loudly, but with a growl at the end.? Oren says he once yelled into the darkness and it howled back to him. The smell, described by some witnesses as a mixture of feces and rotting flesh, is most likely a defense mechanism.

Oren has a clay mold of a footprint, about an inch deep, with three large toes. The toes face backward because the creature walks on its knuckles, he says. He has pictures include a photo of 8 claw marks on a tree, about a foot long and an inch deep.

Says Martin, ?I?d be thrilled out of my mind if he succeeded, it would be in my wildest dreams.?

To learn more, read ?Mysterious America? by Loren Coleman, click here.

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