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Search for the kouprey: trail runs cold for national animal

Search for the kouprey: trail runs cold for national animal

This life-size statue of a kouprey installed near Wat Phnom in 2005 is probably the nearest anyone will ever get to seeing the real thing.

A recent study by wildlife researcher Lic Vuthy has reiterated dire assumptions about

the existence of Cambodia's fabled national animal - the kouprey.

In The Existence of the Kouprey in Cambodia, published in the Forestry Administration's

annual report, Vuthy analyzed more than six decades of reports and field studies

to discern the status of the semi-mythical forest ox once described as "Southeast

Asia's version of the Loch Ness monster."

His findings - although hardly surprising - are enormously unfortunate. Vuthy concluded

that the last proven sighting of a kouprey was in 1983, and that the species completely

vanished some time during the late 1980s.

The report echoes the opinions of international wildlife experts who have been skeptical

about the animal's survival for many years.

"It is highly likely and probable that kouprey are biologically extinct in the

wild," said Hunter Weiler, adviser to the Department of Forestry and Wildlife.

"The best case scenario is that there is a handful of individuals scattered

around, dying one by one. I think the kouprey is probably gone, but you can't confirm

a negative."

But Vuthy's grim report, which represents the least positive government-sponsored

assessment to date, has been disputed within the Forestry Administration and by a

government that has been reluctant to tackle an indelicate question: what does a

country do if its national animal becomes extinct?

"Lic Vuthy's report does not have enough information," Forestry official

Chheang Dany told the Post. "I believe the kouprey is still alive. In fact,

we have just sent a team of 30 experts to Rattanakkiri to investigate. They will

complete their study by August."

"Most people in the government don't want to believe that the kouprey is gone.

It's an emotional and political decision, not one based on fact," Weiler said.

"It's kind of like the abominable snowman and a lot of other things - there

is a lot faith and ingrained belief behind it but no cold, hard evidence."

Mystery and mishap nothing new

Controversy, mystery and mishap are nothing new for the elusive kouprey. Since it

was identified by Western science in 1937, the species' tragicomic history has included

heavily armed expeditions, a billion-dollar genetic jackpot - and heart-pounding


The search for the stealthy mammal has lured journalists, scientists, big game hunters

and adventurers. Over the years, the infrequent forays into the kouprey's war-torn

region have been met with disease, land mines, gunplay and, for the most part, frustration.

In Quest for the Kouprey, a definitive 1995 article on the subject, author Steve

Hendrix wrote "the most painful of all [has been] the excruciating near-successes

of fresh tracks, second-hand reports and botched captures. To show for it all, science

has amassed a kouprey collection amounting to little more than a couple hundred pounds

of bones and a few feet of grainy film footage."

"It's a bit like looking for the Yeti or Bigfoot, this animal," British

biologist James MacKinnon said after his own efforts to locate a kouprey. "First,

it was just extremely rare and then it was shrouded in mystery through 30 years of

warfare. It's become sort of a symbol of conservation in Indochina."

The most successful kouprey specialist was the late Dr Charles H Wharton, a US conservationist

better known for his book Natural Environments of Georgia. A World Wildlife Federation

report claims "The best, most complete field data on the kouprey was obtained

by Charles Wharton in field work in the 1950s." But Wharton's 2003 obituary

in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution made no mention of his pivotal role in one of

Cambodia's greatest mysteries.

In 1951 Wharton led a 90-man group - including 60 government soldiers-on a two-month

excursion in the Choam Ksan and Koh Ke areas of Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces.

He caught on film six separate groups of kouprey -the only existing footage.

Wharton estimated that there were roughly 400 to 500 head of kouprey west of the

Mekong, 200 to 300 in Lomphat wildlife sancutary and 50 in the Samrong district of

Kratie province.

According to wildlife experts almost everything known about kouprey behavior stems

from Wharton's visits and the resulting 1957 film The Forest Cattle Survey Expedition

to Southeast Asia - a tour de force of nature documentaries.

The 1994 Thayer Expedition led by journalist Nate Thayer, inset right, earned a cover story in the August 1994, Soldier of Fortune magazine titled "Hell on the Ho Chi Minh Trail," above.

According to Vuthy's report, after accepting the film from Wharton in 1964, Prince

Norodom Sihanouk "designated the kouprey as Cambodia's National Animal and declared

Kulen Prum Tep, Lomphat and Phnom Prich as wildlife sanctuaries for kouprey conservation."

The same year, Wharton launched an unlucky mission to capture live kouprey for captive

breeding. He was able to capture five, but lost them all: two died and three escaped.

"It's amazing the bad luck, the problems that have surrounded the kouprey,"

Wharton said in an interview with International Wildlife magazine. "It's almost

like the thing has some sort of an ancient spell over it that man is not to learn

about or capture this animal."

Turmoil between the 1960s and 1980s halted kouprey expeditions. In 1982, a group

was spotted near the Thai border, but according to Vuthy the search effort was called

off after a land mine critically injured the group's guide.

The most eccentric hunt

The most eccentric - and heavily armed - hunt for the animal came in 1994. Former

Post reporter Nate Thayer led a motley band of 26 mercenaries, armed soldiers and

journalists - including Ker Munthit of AP, Michael Hayes of the Post and British

photographer Tim Page - into Cambodia's remote northeast.

In a subsequent Post article Thayer wrote "After compiling a team of expert

jungle trackers, scientists, security troops, elephant mahouts and one of the most

motley and ridiculous looking groups of armed journalists in recent memory, we marched

cluelessly into Khmer Rouge-controlled jungles along the old Ho Chi Minh trail."

The two-week, 150 km field survey - called the Cambodian Kourpey Research Project

- made no sightings of kouprey but estimated optimistically that evidence suggested

a herd of fewer than a dozen still existed in a small region of Mondulkiri.

"There were several early casualties from heat prostration and other manifestations

of badly-out-of-shape bodies addled by long histories of drug and alcohol abuse,"

wrote Thayer, who funded the $30,000 expedition.

The last kouprey survey was led by Weiler in January 1999, along the Sre Pok river.

Again the trip yielded no evidence of kouprey but did result in a film, Search for

the Kouprey.

"To my knowledge, that was the last kouprey-specific expedition," Weiler

said. "I personally think, and many NGOs agree, Kouprey searches are a waste

of time and money. Any areas it was in in the past or might still be have been surveyed

within the last decade and are looked over almost monthly."

Key dates in the hunt for an elusive beast

1937: The kouprey (Bos sauveli) species is "discovered" by the director

of Vincennes Zoo in Paris after a calf captured in Preah Vihear province grows into

an animal unknown to Western science. It is the last large mammal on earth to be

given a new classification until 1992. The only kouprey studied in captivity, it

starves to death during the World War II German occupation of France.

1940: Harvard University published a report that defines the kouprey as genetically

separate from all other known mammals and belonging to its own genus. The report

claims that the kouprey is a Pleistocene ancestor of domestic cattle.

1951: US biologist Dr Charles H Wharton leads a 90-man expedition into Cambodia and

studies a dozen different groups of kouprey on film. The brief observations form

the basis of modern knowledge about kouprey behaviour. Wharton estimates 500 kouprey

exist in the wild.

1964: Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who kept a kouprey in the Royal Gardens

as a child, declares the kouprey Cambodia's national animal, and designates sanctuaries

in Preah Vihear, Ratanakkiri, and Mondulkiri. Also in 1964, Wharton leads a disastrous

mission to capture kouprey for captive breeding; his crew captures five and then

loses them all - two die and three escape.

1965-1967: World Wildlife Fund (France) former president Pierre Pfeffer makes five

extensive expeditions to Indochina, during which he observes several herds of around

15 kouprey and obtains the only still photograph of the animal on record. These are

the last recorded kouprey sightings by a scientist.

1975-1979: A wild-meat supplier tells a government researcher that, during the war,

he killed six kouprey from a population of 30 in Preah Vihear.

1982: A small herd of kouprey is spotted along Cambodia's border in Thailand. A massive

search is forced to turn back when a tripped landmine injures the guide and the follow-up

government expedition concludes the kouprey returned to Cambodia.

1988: An International Workshop on the Kouprey Conservation Program is held in Hanoi

during January, attended by researchers and donors from around the world. Workshop

guesstimates suggest 27 kouprey remain in Vietnam, 40 to 100 in Laos, and fewer than

200 in Cambodia. An action plan, prepared and published by two major wildlife conservation

groups, calls for surveys in all three countries.

1989-90: Surveys take place in Daklak Province and in southern Laos, with negative

results. University of Hanoi biologist Ha Dinh Duc conducts a search along Cambodia's

border with Vietnam but the work is cut short when the group comes under fire from

Vietnam exiles. Duc is shot from the back of an elephant but survives with wounds

to the face and chest.

1994: Journalist Nate Thayer leads the first full-scale ground hunt for kouprey in

eastern Cambodia, which is unsuccessful. At the same time, the Cambodia Wildlife

protection office and several NGOs sponsor an aerial survey for kouprey in eastern

Cambodia. A total of 5,238 sq km is surveyed, involving 34.7 hours flying, but no


1995: Noel Vietmeyer, a National Academy of Science specialist in finding economic

value in tropical fauna, tells International Wildlife Magazine "[The kouprey]

is the holy grail. It's probably the most genetically valuable species on earth...

Here's an animal with thousands of years of survivability in the harshest habitats

built into it, one that could improve the lot of half of the domestic cattle on earth,

maybe all of them..."

1999: Wildlife Protection Office international adviser and kouprey enthusiast Hunter

Weiler conducts an official expedition to Eastern Mondulkiri with the Wildlife Protection

Office. Documented on film, it results in a movie, Search for the Kouprey, but no

kouprey sightings are recorded. He prepares a paper on the status of wild cattle

in Cambodia, which states, "The author reluctantly concurs with the local officials

and hunters - the kouprey is finished."

2000-2006: Extensive general wildlife surveys involving camera trapping are carried

out in the kouprey's former range. The surveys, conducted by the Wildlife Protection

Office and Ministry of Environment, find no kouprey.

2001: Deputy Director of the Wildlife Protection Office Men Soriyun publishes Status

and Distribution of Wild Cattle in Cambodia in Tigerpaper. Regarding kouprey, he

concludes "it is highly unlikely that any breeding population still occurs and

the species should be considered effectively extinct in the wild."

2004: The Cambodian government officially redesignates the kouprey the National Animal.

2005: A full-size statue of a kouprey is placed near Wat Phnom. Former forestry administration

researcher Lic Vuthy releases an exhaustive review of all available kouprey reports,

including interviews with ex-hunters, and concludes that the last credible first-hand

reports of kouprey sightings in Cambodia occurred in the 1980s. All subsequent reports

have been second and third-hand anecdotes.

2006: Hunter Weiler tells the Post further grants of funds for kouprey-specific surveys

"open the door for wasting scarce conservation money on all sorts of half-baked

safaris to go out anywhere in former kouprey range... with little realistic possibility

of finding anything."


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