Motley crew moves out on jungle mission
Phnom Penh Post
(The following is four separate stories on The march 1994 hunt for the Kouprey in one issue of the Phnom Penh Post: The analysis; the factual overview; the scientific report; and the editorial)
Friday, 22 April 1994
By Nate Thayer
Nate Thayer documents the human side of The Great Kouprey Chase
When the hunter in possession of the cow skull was asked to point out on the map where he had found it, his reply should have given us an idea of what we were getting ourselves into. " I don't know where on the map," he said cheerfully," but we call it 'the place of the dead foreigner'."
And when local villagers pointed us in the direction of a Khmer Rouge controlled town to interview the village chief, we probably should have suspected something when our man emerged from his hut in full Khmer Rouge uniform save the American bomber pilot's leather jacket, speaking a language entirely unknown to our interpreter.
This trip was the culmination of six previous field surveys since 1991 in which dozens of villagers and hunters were interviewed and other data collected on the beast's possible whereabouts. These early exploratory trips pinpointed the Kouprey as living pretty much in the middle of some of the most forbidding terrain anywhere, never under any government control and inhabited for decades by a variety of guerrilla groups fighting a series of governments. This was an area, it seemed, where beast and man went mainly to hide. And in this lost province with no road, water or scheduled air access to the rest of Cambodia, with a population of 60,000, of which only two percent are ethnic Khmer. The remainder are a collection of 10 distinct cultures.
It became increasingly clear that the reason why no one had sighted The Cow in three decades was because no one was fool enough to launch an expedition to go where the beast had sought refuge in. But we decided to try anyway.
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.
While they were very friendly, the population of the last village before we disappeared for eleven days in the jungle did not, logically, believe for one moment that we were who we claimed to be or that we were doing what we claimed to be doing. They had seen this movie before. Armed foreigners trekking through their village was a concept they were familiar with. Pieces of downed American warplanes piled in the village, which they had gathered from their jungle to salvage as scrap, testified to this.
Of our 26-man team, 18 (12 soldiers and six elephant drivers) had lived their entire lives in Mondolkiri province. Also, none had been anywhere near where we were going.
Our four trackers were former guerrilla soldiers of FULRO, the anti-communist "lost army" that operated out of these jungles for 17 years until late 1992, when they were discovered by the United Nations and received political asylum in the US. They were more than happy to leave factory jobs in North Carolina for a couple weeks to trek through their old haunts. Each had seen the cow in recent years and said it tasted really good.
The journalists thought the trip was a great idea until we actually started. It became clear to most, after the first day when we walked 12 hours and 30 km with no water, that this was a really stupid idea. 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. Others moaned about the lack of helicopter support. Others failed to see the humor in sleeping at recently abandoned Khmer Rouge basecamps.
Our group communicated with each other in Khmer, Lao, Thai, English, French, Rade, and M'nong. We ate lizards and American military rations bought in Phnom Penh.
But despite the surface madness of it all, the focus remained on the extraordinary array of wildlife and beauty of the region.
We saw scores of wild animals, none of which seemed remotely concerned by our presence, such as rare Banteng and Gaur. Lizards could be picked up by hand mildly puzzled by our interest in them. Fresh tiger tracks were seen regularly along our path. Rains would bring out symphonies of strange night insects and thousands of frogs, whose din would require shouting for us humans to communicate with each other. Elephant bones missing the tusks spoke of poachers.
When eventually one of our teams confronted an armed Khmer Rouge fighter, who shared the mountain where we saw what appeared to be Kouprey tracks, the guerrilla soldier stared at us with apparent shock. The poor man was very confused. He retreated.
We regrouped at a small stream where our forward teams had set up a camp. After trying, and failing, to come up with a plausible idea of how to explain to the probably now terribly nonplussed guerrilla unit that we were just looking for a cow, we decided not to push it. We are not sure if any Kouprey saw us. But if one did, its extremely likely that its first thought was that our entire team would actually be better off locked up in a zoo-and hopefully as far away as possible from the endangered cow section.
Jungle trek evidence resurrects the Kouprey
By Michael Hayes
Friday, 22 April 1994
THE remote northeastern jungles of Cambodia's Mondolkiri province is home to one of the largest populations of Asia's rarest and most threatened wildlife, a two-week 150 km jungle field survey completed this month has determined.
The Cambodian Kouprey Research Project, a non-profit all-volunteer organization launched to document the existence of one of the world's rarest animals, has concluded that the Kouprey still lives in the isolated forests of the country's northeast.
There has been no documented sighting since 1967 of the bovine, declared Cambodia's national animal by His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk in 1963. It was only documented as a species in 1935, and has been the subject of a series of international efforts to save it from extinction in recent decades.
The field study, completed in early April, culminated more than a year of efforts with the full support of the Royal Government and Mondolkiri provincial authorities.
First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh has taken a keen interest in the project and loaned his personal plane to ferry equipment and expedition team members from Phnom Penh to Sen Monoram, Mondolkiri's provincial capital. Corporate support was also received in the form of a grant from the British company Enterprise Oil.
While no sighting of the rare forest ox was achieved, other data collected suggested that less than a dozen still exist in a small 25 square kilometer region of Mondolkiri.
The study also concluded that a large number of other endangered animals also exist in the area. These include one of the largest populations of Asian elephants and Sumatran tigers in Asia, as well as a number of other birds, bovines, and reptiles.
The area surveyed by the expedition is devoid of any permanent human settlements, although widespread evidence was found indicating that hunters pass through the region regularly and are posing a major threat to the survival of the wildlife present. Bones of poached elephants, wild cattle, forest pigs and other species were identified by the team.
The Cambodian Kouprey Research Project is the brainchild of American journalist Nate Thayer. Plans are underway for a second expedition to the region in May.
Vet: Ten head of Kouprey in Mondolkiri
Friday, 22 April 1994
Leading vetenarian Maurizio Dioli analyses the findings of the expedition.
From March 27 to April 7, l994 the Cambodian Kouprey Research Project undertook an expedition in Mondolkiri Province in an attempt to ascertain whether or not Cambodia's national animal, the Kouprey (Bos Sauveli) existed there. Based on an analysis of the trip's findings, the major conclusion of the trip is that it is almost certain that a very small population of Kouprey (less than 10 head) are still surviving in the area surveyed.
What follows is a brief report on the trip, the methodology undertaken and a summary of the trip's findings. Because of the uniqueness of the Kouprey and the fact that divulging the precise location of rare endangered species almost always results for a number of reasons in an increased mortality of that species, the exact location of the sighting area is not being released beyond that fact that it was in a remote corner of Mondolkiri Province.
Because of the extreme rarity of the Kouprey it was decided that a classic systematic survey of areas in which Kouprey have been known to exist was not appropriate. Rather, an approach focusing on first hand, reliable sightings during 1992-93 were collected from hunters, poachers and Khmer Rouge guerillas. Based on these sightings it was possible to pinpoint a particular area of a few square kilometers where the probability of encountering the Kouprey was high.
An aerial survey of the area in question was not considered since the Kouprey, like many other wild bovid, retreats to thick patches of forest during the day (especially during the dry season) and therefore is not visible from the air.
Using a field survey method, the team hired six elephants to transport equipment and provisions to set up a base camp from which foot patrols were undertaken to survey the surrounding region. The survey routes were chosen to allow close inspection of wildlife meeting points: salt licks and watering holes. Priority was also given to preferred grazing areas of wild cattle: open areas and open dipterocarps forest where old grasses have been burnt and palatable, freshly sprouted grasses were common. Dry open areas with burned grass and dry dipterocarp forest were not surveyed accurately. Overall, during a nine day survey period, more that 150 kms were covered by foot.
The survey area consisted of gently undulating hills with a general elevation of 200-300 meters above sea level. Vegetation was largely open deciduous dipterocarp forest, with thicker forest along river beds or in the hills. Wide open areas of grassland were also present. Salt licks, termite hills and mud holes were a common feature. Generally it was determined that water was readilly available at numerous waterholes and in scattered pools in dry river beds.
All of the survey area indicated signs of periodic burning. It is interesting to note that it seems that the majority of burning was caused by "cold fires", i.e. fires started as soon as there is enough material to catch fire at the beginning of the dry season. The area was devoid of any permanent human settlements and several days walk from the nearest village but signs of hunters and Khmer Rouge patrols were encountered repeatedly.
While the objective of sighting and photographing a Kouprey was not achieved, the survey succeeded in individuating an area inhabited by a relatively large number of three different species of wild cattle.
The analysis of numerous fresh footprints, grazed grasses and excrement indicate unequivically that the survey area is populated by two species of wild cattle: a large size bovine, the Gaur; and a medium size bovine, the Banteng (both animals were actually sighted). Water buffalos were not
present in the area and sightings have never been recorded by trackers familiar with the region.
The interesting and exciting discovery was a series of footprints that by their shape and dimensions could not be attributed to either the Gaur or the Banteng. These footprints fit the description of Kouprey tracks described by Wharton after his survey in 1957.
They were as wide as they were long, rounded and their dimensions ranged from 90x90 mm to 110x110 mm.
Estimates of herd population sizes of the three species of wild bovids in the survey area are difficult to determine. After an overall analysis of footprints seen and including sightings made by the team's guides over a previous ten-year period, it is estimated that there are approximately 40-50 Banteng, 10-15 Gaur and six-eight Kouprey living in the area.
Several skeletons of wild cattle were found during the survey. In most cases the removal from the skull of the frontal bones supporting the horns and clear signs of knife markings on many other bones strongly suggest poaching as a cause of death.
Proof of the existence of numerous other animals was also achieved with a complete list provided below.
- As stated initially, it is almost certain that a very small population of Kouprey (less than 10) is still surviving in the area surveyed.
- All of the wild bovid are almost exclusively nocturnal in their feeding habits.
- Large numbers of dried footprints indicate that many wild cattle live in the area during the wet season and are not migrating to other areas.
- Hunting for trophies and meat with automatic weapons is confirmed and is severely threatening the existence of the remaining populations of wild bovid.
- Burning still plays a major role in maintaining open forest areas and in providing wild cattle (grazers) with an important source of food during the dry season.
Maurizio Dioli is a veternarian by training and spent ten years in East Africa which included extensive field work tracking and identifying wildlife in the region.
Phnom Penh Post
By Publisher Michael Hayes
Friday, 22 April 1994
T HE most ambitious effort in more than four decades to document the existence of Cambodia's national animal, the Kouprey, has determined, with a high degree of certainty, that the world's rarest bovine does in fact exist in small numbers in remote corners of Mondolkiri province.
More importantly, the Thayer Expedition has documented categorically the existence of other species in signifacent numbers including the gaur, banteng, barking deer, wild pig, Asian wild dog, red headed vulture, whooly-necked stork, red junglefowl and peacock, all of which are rapidly approaching "endangered species" status throughout Asia.
While the Kouprey was not actually sighted by the Thayer expedition, evidence collected from animal tracks and recent sightings indicates that the Kouprey is alive and extremely endangered with perhaps as few as six to 10 animals surviving precariously in virtually uninhabited jungle areas in one of the Kingdom's most isolated districts.
Based on this new information, the Royal Government has a unique opportunity to act quickly and definitively to safeguard an important national symbol, a step that would not only guarantee the survival of the Kouprey but which in the long run would be of immense benefit to the nation.
His Majesty The King, the Royal Government, the recalcitrant Khmer Rouge and all friends of Cambodia must act now to save the Kouprey. To wait even one minute longer would be sheer folly.
To the point, the government needs to declare the northeast corner of Mondolkiri Province as a national reserve or wildlife park and take whatever measures necessary to protect the animals which still exist there.
The animals in Mondolkiri are rapidly vanishing from their shrinking enclaves. However, Cambodia, unlike many other nations in this part of Asia, still retains significant populations of rare species which stand head and shoulders above what exists elsewhere regionally.
The most saleable argument, among many, for safeguarding this wildlife is the long-term potential for engendering revenues as a result of the worldwide interest in wildlife tourism, of which the Kingdom is still well-placed to take advantage. In a nutshell, people all over the world are willing to spend thousands of dollars to see rare wild animals in their native habitat.
The opportunity for a bold expression of visionary leadership is waiting to be grasped. The Khmer people will only reap the benefits of such action for centuries to come.
What better reason is there to grab (gently) the cow by the horns? And, more to the point, which Khmer will go down in history as the individual who had the foresight to protect for eternity one of the Kingdom's most treasured national symbols?