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Yok Don Park
Bos sauveli Urbain, 1937

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Taxonomy To the top

Campbell was probably the first to report the existence of the kouprey in 1860, following by Dufossé in 1918, and Vittoz in 1933. The species was first scientifically described by Achille Urbain in 1937 from a young male kouprey captured in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia. This kouprey was sent alive by René Sauvel to Vincennes Zoo in Paris, where it lived for about five years. Classification of the kouprey has long been uncertain. While some authors believe the kouprey was a genuine species, others suggest that it may have been a feral cattle, or a hybrid between wild and domesticated cattle. However, on the basis of description of a fossil kouprey skull from north-eastern Thailand (Vithayanon and Bhumpakphan, 2004), most authors are now in agreement that the kouprey was a real species. This kouprey skull seems to date from the late Pleistocene or early Holocene age which would be inconsistent with the hypothesis that the kouprey originated from hybridization between the banteng (Bos javanicus) and zebu cattle (Bos indicus) (Galbreath et al., 2007). Thus, genetic similarity between kouprey and banteng could result from Pleistocene introgression of banteng populations by kouprey mtDNA (Hassanin and Ropiquet, 2007). The kouprey was a member of the subgenus Bibos (Hodgson, 1837) with the gaur and the banteng, and it was at one time elevated to a genus.

Distribution To the top

Until the 1900’s the kouprey inhabited primarily the plains of northern and eastern Cambodia (Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri, and Mondolkiri provinces). At this time a few individuals were also probably present in the very south of Laos, the mountains of eastern Thailand and the edge of western Vietnam. Why the distribution of the kouprey seems to have always been so limited in comparison to the extensive ranges of other Asiatic species of wild cattle is unknown. However, the prehistoric distribution range of the kouprey stretched at least to north-eastern Thailand (Vithayanon and Bhumpakphan, 2004).

Description To the top

Adult kouprey were lighter in build than adult gaurs or bantengs. Adult males reached 170 to 190 cm tall, with a body mass ranging from 600 to 910 kg. Kouprey were sexually dimorphic. The horns of adult males were curved, and they turned slightly forward and inward. The horns of the female were typically lyre-shaped with upward spirals, which made a complete turn in old females (Wharton, 1957). In males, the horns begin to shred near the tip at around seven years of age; this phenomenon of horn-shredding was very spectacular in old individuals (Sauvel, 1949). Apparently the cause of this horn-shredding resulted from the habit of male kouprey of plunging their horns into the ground, especially in order to dig in mineral licks (Edmond-Blanc, 1947; Wharton, 1957). Bulls had a grey to black pelage depending on their age, with greyish sides and white socks. Females were greyish-brown, with less marked socks but they also had a dark stripe on their forelegs. Calves were distinctly reddish in colour, turning grey when about four to five months old. Adult males presented a pronounced dewlap. Both sexes had notched nostrils, long legs and a long tail.

Ecology To the top

Many details of the ecology of the kouprey — its name derived from the Khmer language for forest ox — are unknown. Charles Wharton’s study of the ecology of this species and a film made during his expedition in 1952, form the basis of knowledge about kouprey ecology. The optimal habitat of the kouprey was the dry deciduous dipterocarp forests of Indochina including open grassy areas, gallery forests, and access to water and mineral licks. Bush fires contributed to maintaining this habitat and probably benefited kouprey as it provided them improved feeding sites. Their diet consisted mainly of new growth of grass (Arundinella setosa, Chloris sp.) and bamboo (Arundinaria spp.) Kouprey were frequently seen feeding in mixed groups with bantengs and water buffaloes, sharing common foraging grounds, but the kouprey maintained their herd identity (Wharton, 1957). Koupreys formed herds of about 15 to 25 individuals, generally led by an old female (Pfeffer, 1971). Older bulls were likely to become solitary. Herds of koupreys moved from one place to another to seek new grasslands, waterholes, or to avoid annual inundated areas, up to 15 km a night (Wharton, 1957). When running, koupreys more often used a typical fast trot, than a gallop. Populations of kouprey appear to have always occurred in low densities. Reproduction is poorly known, young were apparently born between December and January, after a gestation period believed to be around 8.5 months. Herds of kouprey split up, with the females and their young staying together, and the males forming bachelor herds. During the first month after birth the female stayed alone with her calf (Wharton, 1957). Maximum longevity was probably 20-25 years.

Conservation To the top

The kouprey has been widely regarded as one of the world's most endangered mammals, and is now considered effectively extinct. Despite several surveys during the 90’s over the main range where kouprey were expected to occur in recent past – including an aerial and ground survey for kouprey in the Mondolkiri and Stoeng Treng Provinces of eastern Cambodia in 1994 – no evidence of the existence of any kouprey were collected. The species’ small range, local hunting pressure, trophy trade, and the decades of war and its ravages (including soldiers hunting for food) have very probably decimated the last koupreys. Land mines along the border of Cambodia might also have caused the deaths of some Kouprey as well. The population of kouprey was estimated at no more than 800 individuals in 1938 (Sauvel, 1949), 500 individuals in 1952 (Pfeffer and Kim-San, 1967),and only 200 individuals in 1964 (Pfeffer and Kim-San, 1967). A herd of three kouprey were spotted at the Thai border in 1982, coming from Cambodia; a team tried to catch up with them but stopped after a ranger was severely injured by a landmine. Thus, the kouprey completely vanished some time during the late 1980s. In 1964, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, who kept the last captive kouprey in the palace ground as a child, declared the kouprey to be the national animal and created three protected areas (Kulen Prum Tep, Lomphat, and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuaries) for the kouprey. Unfortunately long periods of political unrest in Cambodia have not allowed effective protection of the small remnant populations. The Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group of the IUCN/SSC completed an Action Plan for the conservation of the Kouprey in 1988 (MacKinnon and Stuart, 1988), but the implementation of its recommendations has been impeded by ongoing insecurity problems in Indochina. In 1964 Wharton launched a mission to capture live kouprey for ex situ conservation. His team was able to capture five individuals, but lost them all (two died and three escaped). Other attempts to develop a captive breeding program for this species were also unsuccessful due to the war in Cambodia and then the impossibility of capturing any founder individuals in the wild.

References To the top

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