WHEN Arnoult Seveau arrived for the first time in Cambodia in January 1999, his objective was to look for the remaining sanctuary of the mysterious unknown bovid described by some German zoologists in 1994. He writes:
My objective was to localize specimens of Khting Vohr and suggest a protection and conservation program to the Paris Zoological Society.
The little information I had at that time showed the eastern provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri as the last likely refuges for the animals. The country had just obtained a state of peace and it was possible to travel almost everywhere in the countryside without any danger.
What surprised me was that everybody in Cambodia seemed to know about the Khting Vohr, which means in Khmer "spiral horned ox".
I travelled throughout the provinces for several months to collect information and testimonies. Most of the people I spoke to said that the mysterious ox was also called Khting Puoh, which means "snake ox" (feeding on snakes and that their horns were used to cure poisonous reptile bites). I was wondering whether a colonial hunter had written something about the Khting Puoh. Then I plunged with great passion into old French colonial era literature. The oldest mention of Khting Puoh I discovered dates back to 1870. The author wrote : "Khting Puoh is a wild ox with very sharp horns with which he can transfix the snake and eat it, according to the Cambodians."
I also discovered many references in other books but with unclear morphologic descriptions which led me to think that it could be a Gaur, male or female, or eventually the legendary Kouprey. One day, I found out that a French doctor, M. Dufossé, who had studied Cambodian fauna for years, had written in the 20's that the Khting Puoh was the local name given to the Gaur in Cambodia! Later, another old French source convinced me that the Khting Puoh was effectively the Gaur.
But about the name Khting Vohr, I didn't find any mention even in the most recent dictionaries. So I wondered whether Khting Vohr and Khting Puoh represented the same animal? Oddly enough, some of the people I interviewed in towns said that it was the same animal. But when I asked the same question in remote villages, the farmers or local hunters living close to the forest said that they were two very distinct animals. Those people often mentioned to me two or three additional khting names, which added to my confusion.
Incidentally, I discovered a Khting Vohr trophy in a market and also some single horns in Poipet. I had those horns in my hands and I wondered which animal they belonged to. Despite numerous interviews, nobody gave me a reasonable description of the mysterious wild ox. In fact, the Khting Vohr's description of aspect and color was different in most testimonies. I continued on my small bike my travels in the Cardamom Mountains with no conclusive results. In O'Soum village, a very old man who had spent his life in the forest told me that he never saw a Khting Vohr and, in his opinion, there was not this kind of animal in the area. Furthermore he claimed that with the horns like hooks the wild ox would be constantly impeded by branches and lianas in the forest and would have no chance of escaping from the tiger. Perceptibly, I felt that something was wrong. But what?
In France a friend of mine gave me four Khting Vohr trophies in a very good state, collected in 1925 in Indochina by his great-uncle. I couldn't afford the analysis so I decided to bring all this stuff to the Natural History Museum of Paris. I chose to work with the best bovid specialists. We spent an exciting time to think about the protocol of the analysis. For each step, we worked with the most competent laboratory treatment. After many analyses, which were not really sloppy as someone has suggested, the answer became clear. The six trophies, including the ones collected in 1925, were fake! They had been created from the skull and the horns of a domestic cow!
Then, could all the Khting Vohr horns collected be fake?
We had a serious look at the horn pictures published by the German and the Italian veterinarians. We have studied the keratin structure of the bovid horns for weeks, so we were confident of our new knowledge and the analysis of the pictures was easy. It was a huge surprise. All the horns seemed by significant details fake too! Some of them were created from buffalo horns.
Later, an Italian veterinarian admitted that his trophies and horns were phony. But there were still the two trophies collected by a rich American hunter in 1929 in south Vietnam and stored until now in a Kansas museum. The place were they come from was doubtful despite some American affirmations. As a matter of fact why can we read on a trophy's tie label "Cambodia"?
An American team has just published a long article about those trophies in the Journal of Zoology. It's a kind of synthesis of all the information already published on the Khting Vohr mystery (except our own opinion). Unfortunately, they still believe that their trophies are genuine. I have got a good colored picture of those two trophies stored in America. There is no doubt that they are counterfeits too. The American team has just decided to carry out serious analysis of the trophies. The result will prove soon that I'm right.
Now remains the main question: why and who made those Khting Vohr trophies? The correct answer is still on hand. I have met recently Cambodian people who told me how to make Khting Vohr horns from cow horns. Vietnamese researchers said that they knew about a fake horn tradition in the central highlands of Vietnam. Khting Vohr horns stored under the name Bo Sung Xoan (which means spiral horned ox) in the museum of Hanoi are known as fakes. The making of those fakes was probably prompted by profit. During the 40's, the small pieces of horns were sold in Cambodian markets for 5 riel each. Many families had a piece of Khting Vohr horn at home and used it to cure snake or insect bites. In traditional medicine, serow horns were used to set bone fractures and the albino buffalo's horn was searched for its healing power.
For me, the elusive Khting Vohr must be considered a myth. People who claim to have shot or seen the Khting Vohr years ago, most likely saw Gaurs or Kouprey. The aspect of those animals could change with the seasons and present a large sexual dimorphism. It was certainly an important factor of confusion.
Furthermore, I couldn't imagine that Dr Sauvel who identified the Kouprey and who spent 20 years in the Cambodian bush, never saw the Khting Vohr and never heard about it. More recently, Dr Pfeffer who spent five years in the 60's studying open forest ecology and the Kouprey's behavior never heard even once of the elusive spiral horned ox. It would be presumptuous to believe that all the hunters and scientists who traveled through the Cambodian bush were blind or foolish. For those who
brought trophies back home, it was probably a curious souvenir. In my opinion, they knew that those trophies had been created by hand.
Even if the Khting Vohr mystery is partly resolved, this incredible story is still fascinating for me. I'm still searching in French libraries and I'm trying to make some Khting Vohr trophies from cow horns myself. I think that there is no hope that someone has ever seen a Khting Vohr herd in the wild forest. But I'll never regret those months traveling among the beautiful natural landscapes of Cambodia on my red bike. I met really charming people, proud and hospitable. I wish that the natural beauty of the fauna and flora studied could be most carefully protected. Because this precious heritage is not ours. It is the property of the next generation: the property of the Cambodian children.
- Arnoult Seveau, Paris Zoological Society, [email protected]