A statue of the Mapinguari in Rio Branco, Brazil.
Perhaps it is nothing more than a legend, as skeptics say. Or maybe it is real, as those who claim to have seen it avow. But the mere mention of the mapinguary, the giant slothlike monster of the Amazon, is enough to send shivers down the spines of almost all who dwell in the worldâ€™s largest rain forest.
The folklore here is full of tales of encounters with the creature, and nearly every Indian tribe in the Amazon, including those that have had no contact with one another, have a word for the mapinguary (pronounced ma-ping-wahr-EE). The name is usually translated as â€œthe roaring animalâ€ or â€œthe fetid beast.â€
So widespread and so consistent are such accounts that in recent years a few scientists have organized expeditions to try to find the creature. They have not succeeded, but at least one says he can explain the beast and its origins.
â€œIt is quite clear to me that the legend of the mapinguary is based on human contact with the last of the ground sloths,â€ thousands of years ago, said David Oren, a former director of research at the Goeldi Institute in BelÃ©m, at the mouth of the Amazon River. â€œWe know that extinct species can survive as legends for hundreds of years. But whether such an animal still exists or not is another question, one we canâ€™t answer yet.â€
Dr. Oren said he had talked to â€œa couple of hundred peopleâ€ who had said they had seen the mapinguary in the most remote parts of the Amazon and a handful who had said they had had direct contact.
In some areas, the creature is said to have two eyes, while in other accounts it has only one, like the Cyclops of Greek mythology. Some tell of a gaping, stinking mouth in the monsterâ€™s belly through which it consumes humans unfortunate enough to cross its path.
But all accounts agree that the creature is tall, seven feet or more when it stands on two legs, that it emits a strong, extremely disagreeable odor, and that it has thick, matted fur, which covers a carapace that makes it all but impervious to bullets and arrows.
â€œThe only way you can kill a mapinguary is by shooting at its head,â€ said Domingos Parintintin, a tribal leader in Amazonas State. â€œBut that is hard to do because it has the power to make you dizzy and turn day into night. So the best thing to do if you see one is climb a tree and hide.â€
David Oren and his sloth theory also made Discover magazine in 1999.