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.
"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.