The Malaysian state of Johor is organising an official search for one of its most famous and elusive inhabitants: the legendary apeman Bigfoot.
Local authorities are planning to allow scientists to set camera traps deep in the rainforests in an attempt to verify recent purported sightings, which enthusiasts claim prove the existence of the fabled primate.
The hairy hominids are known by a variety of names around the world: bigfoot, sasquatch, yeti or the abominable snowman. But Malaysia, where tribal people call the creatures siamang, mawas, or hantu jarang gigi, ("snaggle-toothed ghost"), will be the first country openly to endorse an official attempt to track them down.
Johor's chief minister, Abdul Ghani Othman, said the state was prompted to seek physical evidence of the animals after a spate of sightings late last year, when an outsized footprint found in the mud at one wildlife reserve - measuring 45cm, equivalent to a man's size 20 shoe - and broken branches overhead suggested that, if the animal reared up on its hind legs, it would measure between 8 and 10ft tall.
Malaysia has been gripped by Bigfoot fever since November when, just weeks before the release of Peter Jackson's epic King Kong in Kuala Lumpur's cinemas, three labourers digging a fish pond said they glimpsed a Bigfoot family of three on a river bank in Kota Tinggi reserve.
They dropped their tools and fled but returned with an educated colleague to inspect and photograph the enormous footprints. A clump of brown fur, drenched with sour-smelling sweat, was also said to be recovered from the site, along with scattered fish bones.
Last August, a frog catcher from the Orang Asli tribe claimed he encountered an auburn-haired tropical yeti scratching itself on a tree. Hamid Mohd Ali, 31, stopped about 30ft short of the creature which was twice his height.
"I could see its teeth but I did not wait to find out if it was smiling at me or whether it saw me as its meal," he said. "In this year alone, four villagers have claimed to have seen it and we think this is because of the shrinking jungle."
And while the Johor authorities have, unsurprisingly, been accused of hyping the Bigfoot mystery in a bid to entice wealthy eco-tourists from abroad, the theories are backed by some wildlife experts.
Jane Goodall, one of the world's most distinguished primatologists, is an unashamed Bigfoot and yeti enthusiast. "You'll be amazed when I tell you that I'm sure that they exist," she said in one interview. "The existence of hominids of this sort is a very real probability."
KUALA LUMPUR: 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 colour, it was about 12 feet (four metres) tall," said Johor National Parks Director Hashim Yusoff.
"It was not aggressive, but the Orang Asli was startled by the creature and ran away.
"My personal feeling is that there is a possibility it could be what we call in Malaysia the 'mawas' ... more of a primate," he 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."
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 neighbouring 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.