Wildlife expert Lic Vuthy has released an analysis of more than six decades of reports and field studies on the legendary kouprey -- Cambodia's national animal. Vuthy's aim was to discern the status of the semi-mythical forest ox once described as "Southeast Asia's version of the Loch Ness monster."
Vuthy concluded that the last proven sighting of a kouprey was in 1983, and that the species may have completely vanished sometime during the late 1980s. The report echoes the opinions of wildlife experts who have been skeptical about the animal's survival for many years. But, not everyone is convinced.
"It is probable that kouprey are biologically extinct in the wild," said Hunter Weiler, advisor to the Department of Forestry and Wildlife. "But the best case scenario is that there is a handful of individuals scattered around, dying one by one. Its extinction is not confirmed."
In fact, Vuthy's report 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?
"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."
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, billion-dollar jackpots and heart-pounding peril. The search for the stealthy mammal has lured journalists, scientists, big game hunters and adventures. 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 US conservationist Dr Charles H. Wharton. 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."
In 1951 Wharton led a 90-man group -- including 60 Royal Government soldiers -- on a two-month excursion in the Choam Ksan and Koh Ker areas of Preah Vihear province. 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 sanctuary and 50 in the Samrong district of Kratie province.
In 1964, King 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 a 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."