Samnang the lucky southern serow lords it in his enclosure at Phnom Tamao Zoo.
When Samnang, a shy and generally sweetnatured southern serow, wandered out of the
deep woods and into a village, did he know he was on the narrow path to love?
If so, it was a romantic move for the elusive forest goat. And although he may become
the butt of some jokes, just days after arriving in the Prasat Bakong commune of
Siem Reap province in the early hours of December 19, Samnang leaped from the frying
pan and into the mating pen.
"The southern serow is generally a solitary animal living in densely forested
mountain areas," said Nick Marx, spokesman for NGO WildAid. "For one to
wander into a residential area is very unusual."
Originally taken as a harbinger of bad luck by local villagers, the shaggy, long-eared
beast was intended for sale when it was seized by police and delivered to Phnom Tamao
Zoo and Wildlife Rescue Center. His live handover to the zoo has been heralded by
environmental experts as a positive sign that rural attitudes about wildlife may
be shifting to conservation, rather than consumption.
For in the past, Samnang - Khmer for "Lucky"- may have been misnamed. In
Cambodian folklore the serow is prized for the potent properties of its flesh and
blood, which are said to enhance strength and vitality.
According to Khmer legend, a beverage made from seeds extracted from the animals'
droppings is a hale digestive tonic. Its urine is gathered for traditional rituals
and its saliva is a well-known cure-all.
Another semi-mythical remedy, reportedly popular with military men, is said to ease
arthirits in the elderly. The recipe requires that all four hooves of the animal
be boiled with 60 green papayas for 16 days. But, at $200 per hoof, the $800 price
tag is enough to make most Cambodians stiff.
"People often come now and put their hands and feet into the cage so the serow
can lick them," said Sok Sithol, the keeper of the zoo's four serows. "It
is a Khmer belief that if a serow licks a wound it will heal."
Sithol said he receives numerous requests for serow dung by those who trust in its
The belief that the serow, and its byproducts, can make its consumer physically more
powerful probably stems from the animal's renowned courage, Marx said. According
to Marx, serow will often stand their ground even when outnumbered, rather than flee.
Take, for example, another of the zoo's serow named Noddy who arrived at Phnom Tamao
in a gruesome condition after being mauled by wild dogs at a very young age.
"After he recovered, whenever he saw a dog, rather than run he would get ready
to fight, even though he was still quite young," Marx said.
He added that serows are similar to mountain goats but more heavy set, particularly
in the front part of the body, making them quite powerful for their size.
A member of the goat - or capra - genus, the serow has been listed as "vulnerable"
for some years by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Hunting
and trapping are a constant threat in all but the most heavily protected forests
of Southeast Asia.
That Samnang entered a human settlement on his own prompted WildAid's decision to
care for him at the Wildlife Rescue Center rather than risk re-release.
"Releasing animals back into the wild is difficult as there are currently no
safe areas for re- release in Cambodia for many species," said Nev Broadis,
who has worked at Phnom Tamao for several years.
Illegal hunting and cruel snares are rife in rural areas, and animals that have lost
their fear of human contact are even more at risk, Broadis said.
"In some areas people are becoming more educated about conservation issues,"
Broadis said. "But in many rural communities people are poor and do not get
the concept of keeping animals in the wild just because you can. It's easier to see
the immediate value - its meat or sale price - rather than long-term value."
Standing over a meter at the shoulder, and shawled in a shaggy, blue-grey mane, Samnang
could have walked straight off the pages of a child's story book. With a wet nose,
quizzical look and long straight horns, he is a large and stately male.
Fittingly, he's just been fixed up with a new girlfriend named Nelly. The couple
was gleefully locking horns in a spacious enclosure on December 24 where they will
be part of a breeding program along with the two other serows already in captivity.
"Although it is not safe to release Samnang, we are hoping that we may in future
be able to release his young," Broadis said.
Sithol, who has worked with serow for the past four years, has forged close bonds
with the mild-mannered herbivores.
"I like them because they are very passive and affectionate. They always lick
my hands and feet," Sithol said.