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'."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.