Also known as the Cambodian forest ox, the kouprey (a word meaning “forest bull” in Khmer) is one of the most mysterious mammals in existence. It was not known to Western science until 1937, and since then, has only been seen a handful of times. It’s a gray forest ox with frayed horns and a long dewlap hanging around its neck. The horns split when the animal is about three years old, and continue growing distinctly thereafter. This fraying is believed to be the result of their being used for digging into the ground or thrusting into tree stumps. The kouprey inhabits low, rolling hills with patches of dry forests, located near denser monsoon forests, living in herds of up to twenty, grazing in open areas during the day and entering the forest for shelter from predators and sunlight.
The kouprey’s range is centered in northern and eastern Cambodia, and it has also been known to exist in eastern Thailand, southern Laos, and western Vietnam. However, it has proven to be amazingly elusive, often confounding attempts to capture or photograph it. Much of what we know comes from the only field study of the species, conducted over two months in the 1950s by Charles Wharton, who even managed to film it. Prince Sihanouk designated it as the national animal of Cambodia in the 1960s, partly due to its mystique. It may also prove to be one of the most genetically valuable animals on Earth, because of clues it may hold to disease resistance and general ability to survive in extremely harsh conditions.
The kouprey has always been rare. However, the destruction of its habitat because of slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, and warfare, along with hunting and disease, has affected it tremendously. By 1970, there were fears that the species might have become extinct due to the savage fighting that occurred during this period in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. But it has been observed since in several locations. Though the animal has not been seen since 1988, its tracks and skulls have been spotted, leading many to believe that some koupreys still do exist — though probably only about 100 to 300 of them. Some high-profile efforts to spot them in recent years have yielded lots of press but little results.