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Elusive Forest Ox remains so!

The kouprey—its name derived from the Khmer language for forest ox—is one of the least known, rarest, and maddeningly elusive mammals in the world. In fact, no one can say with certainty if any still exist. This might seem hard to believe given the relatively small range of habitat and that it can tip the scales at nearly one ton.

In the end, its ability to not be found may be the reason that some of these shy beasts may one day be found. One can hope that out there, somewhere, some small herds of this big bovid may be peacefully grazing, living their kouprey lives.

Paint me a Forest Ox
First, the basics.

How tall are they?
At the shoulder, the kouprey stands at 170 cm to 190 cm—about 5½ to just over 6 feet tall.

Are they long?
They run from 210 cm to 220 cm (or in the 7 foot range).

Are they heavy?
Yes. A kouprey can weigh between 680 kg and 900 kg. That's like 1,500 to 2,000 pounds American.

What about the tail?
About a meter long—that's over 3 feet. And on the other end, males have a long dewlap that can grow to be 40 cm or about 16 inches long. In some of the older ones it can nearly touch the ground.

And the horns?
Depends on which sex. The horns of the female are curved much like a lyre and can grow as long as—well—the male's dewlap. The horns of male kouprey are more substantial. Their headgear arch forward and upward, similar to a yak. They tend to fray just below the tip because of the animal's habit of plowing through the earth and sticking the horns into tree stumps. They're twice the size of those of its mate.

That covers the basic dimensions, what about the color?
At birth, kouprey are brown and gradually turn grey as they mature. The legs and undercarriage remain lighter colored than the rest. As the males get older, they further alter coloration to black or dark brown.

Anything else?
Yeah. Both sexes have notched nostrils. Weird.

Dinner with the Koupreys (and some after dinner remarks on taxonomy)
Like most members of the genus Bos (wild and domestic cows and oxen), the kouprey's main diet consists of various grasses. It also eats sedges. Nearby waterholes and salt licks are also important for the animal.

Sneaking in a bit about the scientific classification. It is usually designated Bos sauveli, the species name coming from a veterinarian in Cambodia, a Dr. R. Sauvel. It was a set of interesting trophy horns hanging in his home and a gift to a zoo that led to the "discovery" of the kouprey back in 1937 (more on the history later). It is included in a subgenus called Novibos which some scientists view as a full-fledged genus, calling the kouprey a distinct species because of anatomical features.

The lack of study and knowledge of the animal make it difficult to be sure. Some researchers believe it is not so much a separate species (at this time) as a cross between domestic cattle and regional bovids (bantengs, guars, zebus). Others think it may have been domesticated centuries ago and later became feral. The kouprey plays its species cards very close to its rather large dewlap.

Home, work, hobbies
Currently (if any kouprey are still out there) this forest ox might inhabit the very south of Laos, the mountains of eastern Thailand and the edge of western Vietnam. Primarily, its population is thought to center in the plains of northern Cambodia. It has been thought that animal may have ranged into southern China at one time.

Its habitat is the low, rolling hills in mostly open country that have areas of dry forest that lies next to areas of denser monsoon forest. During the day, it grazes in the open areas and retreats to the forest to escape the heat of the sun. This can double (triple?) as a means of avoiding predators and a source for food when it the grass becomes too dry. During the rainy season, less time is spent in the forest because of the flies. They are more active in the cooler late afternoon, choosing to wait out the heat by bedding down in a circular pattern. They can move up to 15 km (around 9 miles) in the evening. Migration hasn't been studied, though some think kouprey may travel to higher elevations during the rainy season.

Kouprey live in loosely cohesive herds of about 20. They are primarily made up of females and calves. The older males tend to form small bachelor herds, though both sexes mix during the dry season.

LOVE & death
Mr. and Mrs. Kouprey get together in April and are greeted by a brand new elusive calf (usually just the one) eight to nine months later (December to January). The mother and calf will stay away from the herd for up to a month before rejoining. They live about 20 years.

Looking for Mr. Kouprey
As alluded to above, the kouprey is a relatively recently acknowledged species—rare for a large ungulate. It wasn't identified until 1937. The previously mentioned veterinarian had sent a calf from Saigon to the Vincennes Zoo in Paris. Originally thought to be a guar, the zoo director was surprised to find it was growing into something else. This might seem to be the find of the century (at least, at that moment in the century) but sadly, no. The calf starved to death three years later during the German occupation of France. It would not be the last time war plays a role in the history of the kouprey. That calf is the only one ever studied in captivity.

So World War II happened, putting a crimp in the study of this new animal. After the war, research could begin again. In 1951, the most important research on the animal took place. Charles Wharton went on a photographic expedition deep into Cambodia. Already the politics of the region were making it hard work. Wharton traveled with 90 Cambodian soldiers. They would traverse bridges that had been rebuilt for him by rebels. Wharton said that two-thirds of the time were allowed for wandering around searching (which was often fruitless) and the other time had to be spent dealing with keeping the soldiers fed and supplied or dealing with sickness—the deep forest and jungles of the area and its oppressive heat added to the struggle and frustration.

It wasn't in vain. He managed to get some film of about a dozen different kouprey herds. Then the "security situation" became a problem and the expedition had to be abandoned. It is Wharton's work that year that makes up most of the information we have on the animal.

Wharton wanted to return. Meanwhile, in 1964, Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk made the kouprey the country's national animal (he once kept a calf on his palace grounds). A glance at the date should signal just how difficult this was going to be. Wharton wanted to bring captive kouprey back to breed and study. He was to be frustrated at every turn. Five animals were caught. Two died. The others escaped. He pressed on, learning from his mistakes. Success was imminent when war once again intervened. Activity along the Ho Chi Minh trail was increasing and there were reports of soldiers preparing to overrun the border. He was urgently told to get the hell out of there.

As the wars and political unrest in the region raged on, kouprey research was at a standstill. Some attempts were made and a French conservationist managed to get a single still photograph of one. There was a report of a herd crossing into Thailand from Cambodia in 1982. A search was mounted only to fall apart after the guide became severely injured by a landmine.

Cut to the late 1980s. An Associated Press reporter, Nate Thayer, was traveling with Khmer Rouge soldiers. They would talk about this forest ox. It led to (unintentionally) the closest thing to contact since Wharton—he was served some by the soldiers. Thayer became focused on getting a picture of this beast that the soldiers spoke of in reverent tones (presumably between bites). In 1994, he led the last large scale search for the kouprey, taking an elephant train and 26 armed men into an area with pockets of rebel activity and littered with the debris of war. Sadly, the only thing to come of it was a possible track and a cover story for Soldier of Fortune magazine.

There was local searching as well. It has been equally futile. Ha Dinh Duc, a biologist from the University of Hanoi, set out on his own expedition in 1990 (also utilizing elephant transportation and soldiers). He ran into a group of armed men which led to gunfire and Duc being shot off the back of his pachyderm (he and three of his party were wounded, none killed). A year later he tried again. this time he came down with cerebral malaria. It might just be more dangerous looking for kouprey than being one in a war zone.

Numbers
That brings us to today. The kouprey hasn't been observed (as in "confirmed") since 1988. Skulls occasionally turn up in markets and tracks are found. There are anecdotal reports of sightings but nothing official, nothing on film. It has been thought that the kouprey may never have existed in large numbers and the best estimate of pre-1938 (when it was estimated at 800) numbers is around 2,000. The last estimate (1988) with the least speculation put the population at 100 to 300. An aerial survey in 1994 found nothing. As of 2003, it is assumed there are fewer than 250 left and it is thought they may now be extinct except in Cambodia.

The small range, slash and burn agriculture, unrestricted local hunting, skulls and horns taken for trophies, and the decades of war and its ravages (including soldiers hunting for food) have very possibly wiped out the last of these forest oxen. But the kouprey is a hardy beast which has survived under these precarious conditions despite the difficulty. In fact, its ability to survive the conditions of its habitat make it genetically significant as the animal could lead to important advances and immunities (it is thought to be immune to rinderpest) for domestic varieties of cattle.

So it just might be possible that somewhere deep in the forest and jungle, some kouprey are grazing, ever alert and ready to remain elusive. And alive.

Sources:
"Animal Info - Kouprey" http://www.animalinfo.org/species/artiperi/bos_sauv.htm
"kouprey" http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9046155
"Kouprey" http://www.ultimateungulate.com/Artiodactyla/Bos_sauveli.html
"Kouprey (Bos sauveli)" http://www.panda.org....
"NWF - International Wildlife Magazine - Kouprey" http://www.nwf.org/internationalwildlife/kouprey.html

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