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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Motley crew moves out on jungle mission impossible

Motley crew moves out on jungle mission impossible

Nate Thayer documents the human side of The Great Kouprey Chase

When the hunter in possession of the cow skull was asked to point out

on the map where he had found it, his reply should have given us an idea of

what we were getting ourselves into. " I don't know where on the map," he said

cheerfully," but we call it 'the place of the dead foreigner'."

And when

local villagers pointed us in the direction of a Khmer Rouge controlled town to

interview the village chief, we probably should have suspected something when

our man emerged from his hut in full Khmer Rouge uniform save the American

bomber pilot's leather jacket, speaking a language entirely unknown to our

interpreter.

This trip was the culmination of six previous field surveys

since 1991 in which dozens of villagers and hunters were interviewed and other

data collected on the beast's possible whereabouts. These early exploratory

trips pinpointed the Kouprey as living pretty much in the middle of some of the

most forbidding terrain anywhere, never under any government control and

inhabited for decades by a variety of guerrilla groups fighting a series of

governments. This was an area, it seemed, where beast and man went mainly to

hide. And in this lost province with no road, water or scheduled air access to

the rest of Cambodia, with a population of 60,000, of which only two percent are

ethnic Khmer. The remainder are a collection of 10 distinct cultures.

It

became increasingly clear that the reason why no one had sighted The Cow in

three decades was because no one was fool enough to launch an expedition to go

where the beast had sought refuge in. But we decided to try anyway.

After

compiling a team of expert jungle trackers, scientists, security troops,

elephant mahouts, and one of the most motley and ridiculous looking groups of

armed journalists in recent memory, we marched cluelessly into Khmer Rouge

controlled jungles along the old Ho Chi Minh trail.

While they were very

friendly, the population of the last village before we disappeared for eleven

days in the jungle did not, logically, believe for one moment that we were who

we claimed to be or that we were doing what we claimed to be doing. They had

seen this movie before. Armed foreigners trekking through their village was a

concept they were familiar with. Pieces of downed American warplanes piled in

the village, which they had gathered from their jungle to salvage as scrap,

testified to this.

Of our 26-man team, 18 (12 soldiers and six elephant

drivers) had lived their entire lives in Mondolkiri province. Also, none had

been anywhere near where we were going.

Our four trackers were former

guerrilla soldiers of FULRO, the anti-communist "lost army" that operated out of

these jungles for 17 years until late 1992, when they were discovered by the

United Nations and received political asylum in the US. They were more than

happy to leave factory jobs in North Carolina for a couple weeks to trek through

their old haunts. Each had seen the cow in recent years and said it tasted

really good.

The journalists thought the trip was a great idea until we

actually started. It became clear to most, after the first day when we walked 12

hours and 30 km with no water, that this was a really stupid idea. There were

several early casualties from heat prostration and other manifestations of badly

out of shape bodies addled by long histories of drug and alcohol abuse. Others

moaned about the lack of helicopter support. Others failed to see the humor in

sleeping at recently abandoned Khmer Rouge basecamps.

Our group

communicated with each other in Khmer, Lao, Thai, English, French, Rade, and

M'nong. We ate lizards and American military rations bought in Phnom Penh.

But despite the surface madness of it all, the focus remained on the

extraordinary array of wildlife and beauty of the region.

We saw scores

of wild animals, none of which seemed remotely concerned by our presence, such

as rare Banteng and Gaur. Lizards could be picked up by hand mildly puzzled by

our interest in them. Fresh tiger tracks were seen regularly along our path.

Rains would bring out symphonies of strange night insects and thousands of

frogs, whose din would require shouting for us humans to communicate with each

other. Elephant bones missing the tusks spoke of poachers.

When

eventually one of our teams confronted an armed Khmer Rouge fighter, who shared

the mountain where we saw what appeared to be Kouprey tracks, the guerrilla

soldier stared at us with apparent shock. The poor man was very confused. He

retreated.

We regrouped at a small stream where our forward teams had

set up a camp. After trying, and failing, to come up with a plausible idea of

how to explain to the probably now terribly nonplussed guerrilla unit that we

were just looking for a cow, we decided not to push it. We are not sure if any

Kouprey saw us. But if one did, its extremely likely that its first thought was

that our entire team would actually be better off locked up in a zoo-and

hopefully as far away as possible from the endangered cow section.

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