It's official! The existence in Cambodia of a rare, wild ungulate (that means 'hoofed
animal' for the uninitiated - like cow, goat or antelope) is still open to debate.
Officials from the Government's Wildlife Protection Office came across two sets of alleged Khting Vohr horns in Kampong Thom. The one above with a false ceramic head added on may be real.
And debate there is aplenty around the subject of the Khting Vohr, especially since
a recent news story by Agence France Presse (AFP) which says reports of the existence
of some kind of goat-like animal with bent horns were nothing but a cleverly fabricated
hoax, similar to that of the Piltdown Man.
"I personally feel that the animal does exist," says Hunter Weiler, Cat
Action Treasury Project Officer, who with David Ashwell wrote a paper on the elusive
animal for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1999. "It
may be extinct but let's not jump to conclusions - maybe there are a few still out
In their report to the IUCN Weiler and Ashwell wrote that "it is certain that
it existed in the past and it may still exist in small numbers - It is highly improbable
that the population of this species exceeds 2,500 mature individuals and is most
likely below 250."
It's the IUCN that produces the 'Red List of Threatened Animals' which includes the
Pseudonovibos spiralis or Khting Vohr, its status having been recently upgraded from
'endangered' to 'critically endangered' as a result of the Weiler/Ashwell assessment.
AFP's story cites research by French naturalist Arnoult Seveau who spent several
months in Cambodia and travelled 10,000kms searching for the animal. After examining
sets of horns alleged to be from Khting Vohrs and determined to be fakes, Seveau
concludes the animal "is simply a forgery, their regularly ringed horns having
been carved from domesticated cattle sheaths and then artificially deformed."
Weiler calls Seveau's analysis "incredibly sloppy science" and says he
"can't believe they would write the species off based on six sets of [fake]
Sun Hean, Deputy Director of the Wildlife Protection Office (WPO) is another believer.
He says reports from rangers working with the WPO's Tiger Conservation Project (TPO)
in Preah Vihear indicate the elusive creature is still in existence.
"The TCO in Preah Vihear reported in September that a hunter saw five [Khting
Vohrs] near Phnom Marik in Kulen District," says Hean. He says separate reports
by villagers from the same area confirm the sightings.
There was a flurry of activity on Dec 14 when a set of horns were discovered in Kampong
Thom. Hean and several WPO staff dashed off to examine them only to learn that another
set could be procured. Initially, they were optimistic that some hard evidence had
finally been discovered.
Digitized images of the horns were emailed to researchers around the globe and with
comments coming back a more cautious tone has set in.
Officials from the Government's Wildlife Protection Office came across two sets of alleged Khting Vohr horns in Kampong Thom. The ones are now deemed bogus.
"The [horns] with the fake head are maybe real,"says Hean. "The second
ones are probably fake."
Others, however, are waiting for more definitive proof. Colin Poole, Country Program
Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) notes that "there are
all kinds of myths surrounding [the Khting Vohr]. Are they real animals or not, nobody
knows for sure."
Poole explains that the word 'Khting' is Khmer for 'gaur' and that Khmer culture
includes references to Khting Siluh (leaf-eating), Khting Pos (snake eating) and
a third reported to have an oily skin.
"It exists in the Khmer psyche but the jury is still out," says Poole.
He also wonders why American Charles Wharton and Frenchman Pierre Pfeffer, who spent
years in Cambodia in the 50s and 60s tracking down wild animals like the Kouprey,
made no mention of the Khting Vohr in any of their reports.
"It's a fantastic mystery and from that point of view it's really interesting,"
Jack Hurd, Manager of World Wide Fund For Nature's Phnom Penh office also remains
to be convinced.
"We only have interview information from hunters," says Hurd. "So
we have no way of saying for sure whether this animal exists or not."
Weiler believes hard evidence already exists. He cites a set of horns in a Kansas
museum that were taken from an animal killed in 1929 in Vietnam. For years the horns
were believed to be from a kouprey but that more recent scientific analysis indicates
they "represent a new species".
Furthermore, a 1999 Mitochondrial DNA analysis conducted on horn fragments from the
region lends credence to the existence of a distinct "goat-like" species.
For WPO's part efforts will continue to document the existence of the animal. WCS
will conduct camera trap surveys in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in the coming
months, an area with reports of Khting Vohr sightings.
If a live "wild goat" is ever actually found then the real battle begins.
Says Poole: "God help us if we find it because then we have to figure out how
to conserve it."