Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kouprey ever more elusive

Kouprey ever more elusive

Kouprey ever more elusive

Groundbreaking genetic research on the lineage of Cambodia's national animal, the

kouprey, has found stunning scientific evidence that further befuddles the bizarre

history of the semi-mythical forest ox.

For one thing, it's no forest ox. Nor is it likely to be the genetically unique ancestor

of Pleistocene cattle, as a Harvard University team determined in 1940.

In fact, the large bovine the national Academy of Science once proclaimed as "...the

Holy Grail. It's probably the most genetically valuable species on earth," may

very well turn out to be descendent of a Cambodian farmer's odd-looking ox that wandered

off into the woods.

A three-man team of wildlife experts, conducting research in remote areas of Cambodia

and DNA labs at Chicago's Northwestern University, have identified genetic sequences

in proven kouprey DNA that question whether the animal is a natural species, or the

product of interbreeding between wild and domestic Asian cattle.

The resulting article "Genetically solving a zoological mystery: was the kouprey

(Bos sauveli) a feral hybrid?" published recently in the Zoological Society

of London's prestigious annual report Journal of Zoology, is being heralded as a

crucial clue in one of the centuries greatest zoological mysteries.

Since the kouprey was "discovered" by the director of Vincennes Zoo in

Paris in 1937, answers about of the ancestry of the kouprey have been as elusive

as the beast itself. The last recorded kouprey sightings were believed to be in the

late 1960s by Pierre Pfeffer of the World Wildlife Fund. Since then, scientists have

been left to study what naturalist writer Steve Hendrix called in 1995 "little

more than a couple hundred pounds of bones and a few feet of grainy film footage."

But by analyzing Mitochondrial DNA and haplotypes of kouprey and the banteng, the

team was able to look further into an earlier evaluation of the kouprey as "suspiciously

intermediate between banteng oxen and domestic zebu in its structure."

According to wildlife reports, banteng are a naturally wild cow but have been domesticated

in Asia for thousands of years. The zebu is another common form of ancient domesticated


"Recent breakthroughs in DNA analysis have allowed scientists to learn a lot

more in a short period of time. This is work that has not previously been done,"

said Hunter Weiler, an international advisor to the Cambodian Wildlife Protection

Office who co-wrote the report with Gary Galbreath and F C Mordacq.

Feral hybrid

"We got some DNA sequences from kouprey and actual banteng DNA and subjected

them to cutting edge analysis. It appears that the kouprey is part banteng, and likely

evolved not as a wild cow but as a cross between banteng and domestic cattle."

The would make the kouprey, as it was rediscovered in the wild, a "feral hybrid."

According to Weiler, a feral animal is a domesticated animal that has relegated to

a wild state.

"It's probable that the kouprey was a domestic cow that then became feral,"

Weiler said. "The banteng interbred with other forms of domestic cows and produced

offspring that were reared in captivity and interbred. In Cambodia, cattle are turned

loose to wander around the forest for parts of the year so this may be a village

animal that wandered off, lived in the forest and reverted to a wild state. Domesticated

animals can change into totally different animals when they exist in a different


Although the report concludes "The most probable explanation is that the kouprey

was not a natural species, but rather a self-perpetuating feral form with banteng

and zebu (and conceivably B. taurus) ancestry, carefully phrased academic wording

leaves the door ajar for further research.

"We're not going so far as to say we've proved it, but we're reasonably certain

that we're on the right track with the new evidence that we've found," said

Weiler. "This article is meant to basically inspire debate and further research.

I think this is significant, new hard evidence, but we're not at the bottom of the


For Weiler, who for years has said the kouprey is probably extinct, the findings

do nothing to deflate the myths surrounding the animal.

"Even if it is a hybrid, even if it is extinct, from a scientific point of view

it adds to the mystique."

Men Phymean, chief of Wildlife Protection Office of the Forestry Administration said

on July 27 that he had no knowledge of the report.


  • Typhoon Noru brings flash floods – 16 dead

    An official warned that that the 16th typhoon of the season, Noru, had brought heavy rains to areas the Mekong River and flooded thousands of homes in the provinces bordering Thailand. As of September 27, the death toll from the flooding had risen to 16. National Committee

  • Siem Reap drain canal now ‘mangrove’ promenade

    A more than half a kilometre long stretch of canal in Siem Reap has been covered and turned into a promenade to attract visitors, said Ly Rasmey, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, on September 16. The new pedestrianised

  • Angkor wildlife, aquarium park still to open October

    The Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium complex about 30km southeast of Siem Reap town with initial total investment of more than $70 million is reportedly still on track for an end-October opening. The park is located on a 100ha plot along National Road 6 in Kbon village, Khchas

  • Defence minister reaffirms Kingdom’s staunch support for One-China policy

    Minister of National Defence General Tea Banh has reaffirmed Cambodia’s unwavering support for the One-China policy. Tea Banh was speaking at the September 20 ceremonial handover of 117 vehicles and other military equipment donated by China’s defence ministry, held at Phnom Chumreay International Military Training

  • Deaths due to ‘lifestyle’ diseases rise in Kingdom

    The Ministry of Health has called on people to pay closer attention to their health to protect themselves from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which it said have caused high rates of deaths in the country. Ministry secretary of state York Sambath made the call at a

  • Textile industry minimum wage now $200

    The official minimum wage for workers in textile-related sectors including garment, footwear, and travel goods for 2023 was pegged at $198, with Prime Minister Hun Sen stepping in to add $2 to the total, making it $200 per month. The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training made the announcement