Cambodia's National Animal Never Existed, Scientists Say

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
November 3, 2006

The national animal of Cambodia probably never really existed, a team of researchers says, at least in the scientific sense.

Since 1960 the Southeast Asian nation has claimed the kouprey—an ox with spectacular crescent-shaped horns and a dewlap under its chin—as its national symbol.

But after conducting genetic tests, a team of researchers from Chicago's Northwestern University has concluded that the animal was most probably not a unique species at all.

The researchers, led by Northwestern biologist Gary J. Galbreath, sequenced the genes of two wild oxen called banteng and compared them with a previously published DNA sequence of the kouprey.

"We're not sure what the kouprey was," Galbreath said. "What we're doing is opening up debate on this issue, a debate which hasn't really occurred in about half a century.

"There are five or six explanations for our data, but the explanation that fits the data best is that [the kouprey is] a domestic ox that went wild. We think the kouprey is almost certainly extinct, whatever it was."

History of a Hybrid?

The story of the kouprey seems to begin in 1940, when the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology put on display what it described as a new species of ox.

The exhibit featured a mounted specimen of an animal shot in 1937 in what is now Cambodia. It was a bull ox, weighing almost a ton. A press report at the time described the creature as "the first new genus of large living mammals to be discovered since 1900."

The kouprey became so famous that in 1960 it was named the national animal of Cambodia, and over the years there have been vigorous efforts to preserve its diminishing numbers.

By 1996 it had been declared critically endangered, with an estimate of fewer than 250 left in the wild.

But the newspaper, and the conservationists, may have spoken too soon.

Continued on Next Page >>


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