Women in Cryptozoology: Debbie Martyr

Posted by: Loren Coleman on January 17th, 2008


How does a former editor of a south London newspaper find herself in the deep rainforest of Indonesia, studying one of the most discussed primate cryptids in the world? She decides one day that she is going to go there and study them, that’s how.

debbie martyr

Debbie Martyr.

Cryptozoologists, hominologists, and Bigfoot researchers have been receiving important data through correspondence from Debbie Martyr in Sumatra for years.

Martyr’s decision to actually go to live in the midst of the rainforest follows the tradition of women placing themselves in the field to study great apes, popularized by Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), Dian Fossey (gorillas), and Birute Galdikas (orangutans). In a new phrase coined by Galdikas, these three women are now known as “Leakey’s Angels,” as they all responded to paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey’s call to study primates in their natural environments. Galdikas first used the term in her 1995 book, Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo.

Debbie Martyr is following the same tradition, with a cryptozoological slant, and is thus definitely one of “Leakey’s Angels,” in my book.

I have been in touch with Debbie Martyr for over two decades. Due to my writings on the Orang Pendek in my 1989 Tom Slick book, Debbie contacted me to ask for a wee bit of help. The fact I was a full-time researcher and an adjunct professor at a university and had published about the Orang Pendek, she wrote me, would assist her in getting a visa as a journalist.

Martyr needed the visa to enter Indonesia to study the unknown primate. Such a letter had to be written to the government there, giving some historical justifications for research on these as-yet-undiscovered new primate species. Needless to say, I was delighted to write the document to get her into the field. I’m sure others wrote letters for her too, but if, in some small way, I got this fine researcher out there, I must say, I’m more than overjoyed by the results.

Pendek field drawing

The field drawing of the Orang Pendek based on Martyr’s and others’ sightings.

Debbie Martyr, from the late 1980s onward, has been the most important single person actually in the field, involved in the pursuit of the Orang Pendek mystery. She has interviewed hundreds of witnesses, and has seen the animal personally on several occasions. Indeed, four months after Martyr traveled to the area mountains near the dominant Mt. Kerinci, in September 1989, she saw her first Orang Pendek. She then saw it again about three weeks later, and again, it was on Mount Tuju. As she recalled: “I had a camera in my hand but I froze, because I didn’t know what I was seeing.”

debbie drawing2

Another Martyr-data-generated drawing.

Naturally, as well, Debbie Martyr’s ability to talk to those who have had the experiences and send the information out has been significant.

Take for example a typical sighting that Martyr relayed out of the jungle to several of us in 2001, and the intriguing details within her casual report.

A forestry ranger named Aripin, who worked in the Sungai Penuh region of Mt. Kerinci in Jambi, Sumatra, and an Orang Pendek skeptic, reported he saw an Orang Pendek on January 25, 2001. According to Debbie Martyr, writing from on site with Project Orang Pendek, her sense of Aripin’s description was that “it can’t have been anything else” but an Orang Pendek.

The color reported by Aripin was described as consistent with the dark brown color morph of the Orang Pendek, whereas the second color morph has a honey-toned golden shade to the hair, which Debbie Martyr considers as only slightly more common.

During the period of this 2001 sighting, a young post-graduate student researching the behavioral ecology of siamang then told Martyr that he heard a (non-siamang) extended wailing call, which Martyr identified as “that of an Orang Pendek.”

Martyr wrote at the time:

What is interesting [about Aripin’s sighting] is I am fairly certain the animal was not moving terrestrially this time but just above the ground. Our team did a good sweep of the area and found no footmarks where the animal was moving. From their description of the way it was moving, I think it was actually brachiating just above ground level, maybe a foot or so at most, not least because of the heavy movement of saplings, described by our research team.

Only Aripin got a reasonably good view of the animal, and that being partial and from behind (about 80 % of all informant reports are of the animals already in fast retreat and so the animals are seen momentarily from behind). The good thing is that Aripin is extremely levelheaded and cautious [as well as a past skeptic], which is also unusual for an Indonesian forestry ranger. He is very interested in animals and, of course, knows his bear from his pig-tail macaque.

Martyr older

But, believe it or not, Debbie Martyr, who will be 52 in 2008, is a bit of a skeptic herself, and not a “true believer” in everything hairy and unknown, as some might think. In an interview four years ago for Fortean Times, she told cryptozoologist Richard Freeman the following:

I don’t believe in the Abominable Snowman. My father was in Tibet and saw what he was told were Yeti tracks, but they turned out to be bear footprints. They are just too big. I think three-metre-tall (10ft) apes are too big. Maybe there has been exaggeration through fear. I don’t believe in things like Bigfoot. The Yeren in China might exist. Orang-utans lived in China in the Pleistocene. It could be speciation in the orang-utan. The forests of Assam might be a good place to look as well.Debbie Martyr, April 2004.

Needless to say, however, Debbie Martyr considers the Orang Pendek a factual reality, because, when all is said and done, she’s seen them with her own two eyes.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

13 Responses to “Women in Cryptozoology: Debbie Martyr”

  1. PhilsterUK responds:

    Fascinating. I love the new sketches they look much more like Homo floresiensis than other Pendek drawings I’ve seen. It’s brilliant to hear there’s a primate specialist actually in the field out there dedicated full time to finding it. I’d love to see more professional scientists out in the field looking for Bigfoot, Yeti, Yeren and Yowie. Then we might see more of a change of heart of the greater scientific community.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. Artist responds:

    Go Debbie, Go!

  3. red_pill_junkie responds:

    Apart from the sagital crest, what’s interesting is the arms’ length of the creature. They don’t get past the knees like in an orangutan.

  4. mrbf2007 responds:

    Ms. Martyr is a very important figure in the Orang Pendek search, and very knowledgeable on the subject. I would like to see her and a team perhaps indeed get that all-important evidence to prove there is an unknown hominid race living in the jungles of Sumatra. Jeremy Holden and Adam Davies seem to also be very committed to the hunt for these creatures, and it was great to see these elements combine to take up the search for the O.P. Excelsior to Ms. Martyr and Mr. Holden and Mr. Davies!!!

  5. semillama responds:

    Personally, I don’t think Orang Pendek, if it exists, is homologous to H. floresiensis – The prints seem more in line with a primate evolving bipedalism independently, and not in the line of Homo. The foot morphology of our genus has been pretty stable for hundreds of thousands of years.

    I also find it interesting that she doesn’t think Sasquatch exist, even though there’s more hard evidence for Sasquatch (in terms of quantities of good prints, eyewitnesses, the P-G film, Snookum cast, etc.) than for Orang Pendek. I think there’s some researcher bias at work there. She thinks the Orang Pendek exists because she’s seen it. Well, lots of credible folks have seen a sasquatch as well – what makes their observations less qualified than hers?

  6. PhilsterUK responds:

    I can appreciate a non believer scientifically minded person not believing till further evidence comes forward. After all, that’s what most of the world requires. She claims to have seen the OP FOUR times! That’s going to make you believe. It won’t be long before we all believe in bigfoot. Keep the faith.

  7. Smug responds:

    “I had a camera in my hand but I froze, because I didn’t know what I was seeing.” This statement kills me, it also makes my highly skeptical. I’ve looked into the sightings and am convinced they are a mix of people seeing gibbons and young orangutans throughout the years. And the footprints could be explained by sun bears. I hope I am wrong though.

  8. MattBille responds:

    Thanks for a good recap of some of the most promising work being done in cryptozoology.

  9. HominidWA responds:

    Before we canonize Debbie Martyr, it should be remembered that she needs to actually confirm and study these alleged short hairy primates before we place her in the lofty ranks of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. Interviewing many witnesses is not, IMO a strong qualifier. I could go on, however, I’ll stop there on this one.

    Another disappointing factor, is that Martyr, who is supposedly on the cutting edge of undiscovered primate research, goes right ahead and states that she doesn’t believe Bigfoot exists! Yes Debbie, you’re probably right, only cute little hobbits are around, everyone else who studies or has had a sighting of a similar creature that’s taller, well, that’s just not gonna fit the bill. Tall isn’t cute or “Lord of the Rings” like is it?

    What Martyr forgets, is that in a media exposure position, it would benefit cryptid research worldwide by making the call for worldwide investigations. Instead of saying “I don’t believe in things like Bigfoot” (actually you do Debbie) it would have been more professional to state, “there seems to be enough trace evidence to warrant further investigation on these types of creatures all around the world.”

    That, IMHO, is lack of vision. To me, Martyr has a ways to go before anyone should be calling her an angel of the great Leaky, and Bigfoot, may have a ways to go, if convincing researchers that study similar creatures that he may actually be a player in this exciting cryptological game.

  10. DWA responds:

    Some interesting comments here.

    Smug says: ““I had a camera in my hand but I froze, because I didn’t know what I was seeing.” This statement kills me, it also makes my highly skeptical.”

    It shouldn’t. Not that alone, it shouldn’t. I had an encounter with a grizzly in Alaska once during which the fact that a camera was dangling around my neck never once occurred to me. I’ve seen many other animals that I knew I would lose in the time it took me to get a camera up. I wanted to SEE it, not lose it in the act of getting what would likely be a crappy pic or none at all. People who think that a statement like that disqualifies a sighting, well, they have never had a sighting like that.

    Smug also says “I’ve looked into the sightings and am convinced they are a mix of people seeing gibbons and young orangutans throughout the years. And the footprints could be explained by sun bears.”

    From what I have seen of the information available – particularly the WWF “identikit” sessions that yielded the above pictures of the orang pendek – I think that any known animal can be pretty effectively ruled out. This is just like sas and yeti with me: a pretty intensive look at the data will tell you that either these animals exist, or everyone’s deliberately lying (or deliberately perpetuating a legend, which I guess isn’t quite the same as lying). There are no other reasonable alternatives. The animals being described are, quite clearly, not organgutans, not gibbons, not sun bears. The descriptions are way too consistent with one another, and way too inconsistent with anything known to exist. Sound familiar, sasquatch fans?

    Several other folks talk about Martyr’s skepticism about yeti and sas. Couldn’t agree more. This falls into the same category as mainstream scientists’ skepticism: Martyr hasn’t examined the data on the yeti and the sasquatch anywhere near enough to have an informed opinion, and her statements pretty clearly indicate that. Stick to what you know about, Debbie. People who follow glass cryptids shouldn’t throw stones.

  11. MattBille responds:

    Seeing something startling and forgetting the camera is not, by itself, surprising. Recall that Tim Dinsdale said the best Nessie sighting he ever had occurred when he had mounted film and still cameras on his boat a foot from his hand, and he just stared at the animal and never moved.

    I don’t understand the attacks on Martyr as unscientific or closed-minded because she rejects sasquatch. Everyone who is, in some way, in our business has an opinion (whether published or tightly guarded) on most of the major cryptid categories.

    I don’t presume to speak for Martyr, but I assume that, like myself, she has great difficulty accepting that giant apes have inhabited North America throughout the period of human habitation without leaving a single bone or other substantive relic in human possession. (The tracks, reports, and casts, while intriguing, fall far short of what we SHOULD have by now. Would you call Alan Rabinowitz, discoverer of several new mammals, closed-minded because he holds that opinion?)

    It’s not closed-minded: it’s an opinion, subject to change if new facts come in. One reader’s comment that orang-pendek can be explained without a new species is likewise just that: an opinion.

    I think we should salute Martyr for the conservation and cryptozoological research she’s doing and agree that there are different opinions regarding the orang-pendek, Nessie, sasquatch, or what have you.

  12. Loren Coleman responds:

    I appreciate Matt for following up here with these balanced comments, for I meant to say something in this regard.

    Indeed, Debbie’s whole point with the “camera freeze” moment was to document how unfamiliar you can be with what might be a rare form of wildlife in an area until you know what you are seeing. She certainly has noted she knows what they look like now, and she’s ready for any Orang Pendek that comes in camera range again.

    With regard to her skepticism of Sasquatch, I find that no reason to harshly view her sense of the Orang Pendek or her personality. It merely demonstrates the human phenomenon that one tends to respect and accept those things one happens to know the best.

    Debbie Martyr’s current work in preserving the habitat of Orang Pendek and tiger is outstanding. The world is a little better off with a Debbie Martyr out there in the jungle!

  13. DWA responds:

    I don’t think that anyone’s saying (at least I’m not; maybe I should just speak for myself) that Martyr’s being unscientific or closed-minded.

    Just ignorant of the evidence, that’s all. Just going off half-cocked in an area she knows nothing about. Which are not the same things.

    It just strikes me as odd that someone in her position would say what she does. Again, I think that anyone who dismisses the sas like that shows in his or her reasoning a lack of acquaintance with the evidence. At least I’ve never read any such opinion that failed to so show.

    If your reason for accepting an animal as real is, simply, that you have seen it, it seems at the very least presumptuous to form an opinion on an animal of similar status without considering the possibility that witnesses as reliable as you have done the same.

    You may find the sas “difficult to accept” given what you know. Heck, so do I. But the evidence forces me to keep as open a mind on Bigfoot as I do on orang pendek.

    It’s just that if you aren’t as well acquainted with the evidence as I, you wouldn’t feel that way. That’s all.

Sorry. Comments have been closed.

|Top | Content|

Connect with Cryptomundo

Cryptomundo FaceBook Cryptomundo Twitter Cryptomundo Instagram Cryptomundo Pinterest


Creatureplica Fouke Monster Sybilla Irwin


|Top | FarBar|

Attention: This is the end of the usable page!
The images below are preloaded standbys only.
This is helpful to those with slower Internet connections.