A Change of Guard

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Monday, 10 October 2011

The mystery, and impact, of the kouprey

Sunday, October 9, 2011
By Bob Henke
Glens Faills Post Star
See video of the kouprey here.

Sometimes folks get more concerned about the process than the result. Consider the lady we saw in the Hannaford parking lot today. Her large SUV was plastered with bumper stickers admonishing folks to love their mother (earth), not drill for oil in Alaska, lower dependence on foreign oil, fight global warming and save the manatees.

She drove into a spot beside the handicap place. She got out, decided she had parked too close to the line, got back in and moved the vehicle over so as not to encroach on handicap access. In a short time, she was back, pushing a cart overflowing with plastic sacks of groceries. She popped the hatchback to reveal a whole pile of re-useable tote bags. After putting each plastic sack of groceries into its own reusable sack she drove off jabbering on her cell phone ... after leaving her cart directly in the center of the handicap parking spot.

I am sure the lady I watched thought she had a pretty good bead on a number of issues. She had absorbed information, without a great deal of questioning, and felt she was applying it. It was, however, missing the mark by a wide berth and she did not even know this. This got me to contemplating the plight of a particular endangered species, the kouprey.

Most Americans are unaware of this animal because it is not one of the charismatic species the environmental protest industry uses to solicit donations; however, it could have a profound impact on the modern world.

The kouprey was first described in 1937 by Achille Urbain. The kouprey was ‘discovered' from a set of horns mounted as a hunting trophy in the house of Dr. Sauvel, a French veterinarian living in Cambodia. Shortly thereafter, a live calf was secured by Urbain and transported to the Paris Zoo.

Here it grew from a small tan calf into a large gray bull with large curving horns that it persisted in driving into the ground, tearing huge furrows in its pasture. Like Brahma cattle, it developed a large dewlap under its chin and neck which nearly dragged the ground. This animal was darkening as it matured and was nearly black when it met an unfortunate demise, dying from poisoning when it consumed some of the material chucked over the fence by tourists.

Although in 1960, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia designated the kouprey as the country's national animal, Sihanouk had never seen one. There is some feeling that the animal is distinctly unlucky and is to be avoided. This could be believed if one examines the recent attempts to study the kouprey.

The majority of our knowledge comes from a two-month field study in 1957. Since that time the continual warfare in the area has kept any sort of wildlife research to a minimum. One researcher, Le Vu Khoi of the University of Hanoi, achieved the most success. A short while ago, Khoi managed to see a kouprey as it emerged from the forest in Western Vietnam.

This was the first sighting in more than 30 years and, as luck would have it, it happened just as the sun went down making photography impossible. Tremendous efforts in the same area have yielded no trace of the "stealth bovine." The lack of a photograph to document the sighting caused no lament for Khoi has been one of the luckier researchers in this forbidding area.

In 1957, Charles Wharton got a single photograph after working in the area for nearly a decade. The safari crew was stricken with various sicknesses and ailments from the beginning. Wharton's diaries indicate he spent approximately two hours a day searching for kouprey and the rest ministering to those on sick call. After Sihanouk declared the kouprey a national treasure, Wharton was called back to try and capture some for a captive breeding program. They caught five but were accosted by communist troops. Two of the kouprey died and the other three escaped.

Nate Thayer, an Associated Press correspondent traveling with Khmer Rouge units, was impressed by the guerrillas' reverent talk about the kouprey. He undertook to find such an animal and his associates complied, feeding him a tasty cut one evening. Later a reported sighting sent a crew in search of a live specimen, a mission that came to a halt when the guide was blown up by a land mine.

At about the same time, Ha Dinh Duc, also of the University of Hanoi, was on the search. One of the most intrepid of searchers, Duc has yet to see a live specimen, although in the course of 20 years of searching he has broken bones and been shot off the back of his elephant by communist soldiers. His final trip was ended when he contracted cerebral malaria.

In spite of this, you can read a great deal of information about the kouprey on the internet. There is even a UN action plan for its survival. We are told the kouprey lives in the thicketed forests of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It was probably never plentiful, living as it does in a particularly restricted ecological niche, but at present it is thought to number no more than 100 to 300 individuals. The calves are born brown, changing to an overall gray as they age. They live approximately 20 years. Females remain gray with lyre-shaped horns up to 16 inches long.

Bulls develop wide spreading horns nearly twice that length which arch upward and forward. The ends of these horns also develop a splintered fringe about a third of the way down from the practice of digging into the ground because of a tremendous need for salt to assist them in surviving the tremendous heat, so they spend much time digging fresh dirt and consuming it to extract the sodium. Unfortunately, most of this is pure conjecture based on a single animal that lived 70 years ago.

Maybe we need a bumper sticker ...

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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