Excitement is mounting in Malaysia over claims of "Bigfoots" lurking in its southern jungles, with wildlife experts on the hunt for the mythical beast and a telephone hotline set up to report sightings.
Bigfoot fever erupted last month when some fish farm workers claimed to have spotted three of the beasts -- two adults and a youngster -- on the edge of a forest reserve in southern Johor state.
Their improbable tale was lent some authority soon after when an Orang Asli -- an indigenous ethnic group known for their expertise in the jungle -- also said he had stumbled across one of the legendary ape-men.
"He saw the creature which was hairy and brownish in color, it was about 12 feet [4m] tall," said Johor National Parks director Hashim Yusoff.
"It was not aggressive, but the Orang Asli was startled by the creature and ran away," he said.
"My personal feeling is that there is a possibility it could be what we call in Malaysia the `mawas' ... more of a primate," Hashim said.
"But we don't deny the sightings," he added, insisting that the Orang Asli "do not lie."
"We've got to prove it and we've got to do it scientifically," he said.
Wildlife authorities have embarked on a quest to verify the claims, and are considering mounting camera traps to capture images of anything roaming the jungles.
After a month of fruitless searching and interviews with people living near the forests, a telephone hotline has now been set up for members of the public who claim to have seen the beast to relate their stories, Hashim said.
"Our main aim is to identify the information source, whether it is credible or not," he said.
The Malaysian press has given prominent coverage to reports of sightings, including some which date back decades, and printed photographs of supposed footprints -- vague impressions in the mud and leaves on the jungle floor.
Johor is home to large tracts of jungle, including its famed Endau-Rompin National Park, and unconfirmed sightings of large creatures surface periodically there.
Former zoologist Amlir Ayat said this week that he had come close to finding proof of the existence of Bigfoot five years ago after villagers claimed to have shot a huge hairy creature in the jungles of neighboring Pahang state.
"The creature fell to the ground with a great thud and the villagers took to their heels. Later, when they returned to check if it was dead, they found the body still lying there," he was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times.
Amlir said he was only told of the shooting a year later. He and the villagers mounted a search for the remains of the creature but found none.
"By then, loggers had moved into the site and cleared the ground," he said. "The evidence was gone."
Vincent Chow, an advisor to Johor's Malaysian Nature Society who has been lobbying the government to look into the claims, dismissed the skeptics who insist the "sightings" have been manufactured to lure tourists to Johor.
"There's a lot of excitement, a lot of people are coming in with their own stories," he said.
Sightings of mythical ape-like creatures have been reported in wilderness areas all over the world. They are known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch in the US and Canada, and yetis in the Himalayas.