Politics of Extinction: On the trail of Cambodia’s kouprey

While Cambodia’s national mammal is widely considered extinct, researchers hope a last-ditch effort to locate possible kouprey habitat could finalise its fate, and offer a ‘wake-up call’ for conservation

September 19, 2022
Politics of Extinction: On the trail of Cambodia’s kouprey
Sok Lolo, a community ranger in Cambodia’s Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary, wades through long grass in the protected area, which is home to a herd of banteng, an endangered wild cattle species. Photo by Anton L. Delgado

Once found in the vast grasslands and open forests of Cambodia and Laos, a near-mythical wild cattle species has not been definitively sighted for more than half a century. Recognised by its physical features of a humped back, drooping neck and curved horns, Cambodia’s national mammal – the kouprey – lives on in a sense.

Experts say the animal is “most likely to be extinct,” but a combination of local politics and data deficiencies have kept an official designation of extinction at bay. Researchers are now conducting the first kouprey-specific study in more than a decade.

The team of conservationists is attempting to identify unsurveyed potential kouprey habitat in the hopes of contributing an “evidence-based piece to the kouprey puzzle,” said Andrew Tilker, who is spearheading the study for conservation organisation Re:Wild.

“Until we have resolved whether or not the species could still be out there with a certain level of confidence, that question mark will continue hanging over this species,” Tilker said.

The elusive cattle

Statues of kouprey, the national mammal of Cambodia, adorn the roundabout of Wat Phnom, a historic pagoda in Phnom Penh and the entrance of Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

The kouprey’s image is not hard to find in Cambodia. Statues of it can be seen along the driveway of Cambodia’s national zoo, and on roundabouts at Phnom Penh’s historic Wat Phnom pagoda and in Senmonorom town.

But the animal itself has not been seen since the early 1970s.

“There are likely more kouprey statues in existence than there are kouprey in the wild,” Tilker said.

The first scientific description of the kouprey was made in 1937.  What little is known of the animal’s biology comes mostly from expeditions in Cambodia undertaken in the 1950s and early 1960s. These expeditions found that kouprey naturally existed in low densities, but researchers attribute the decline of wild populations to high levels of hunting in the region. While kouprey sightings were claimed in the 1980s, the last confirmed kouprey sighting was in 1969 in northern Cambodia.

In 2011, the IUCN’s Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group assessed approximately 90% of the region’s camera trap photos, some taken in the kouprey’s range, and found no images of the animal.

Kouprey are distinguishable from other wild cattle species by the white socks on their legs, prominent humped backs, drooping dewlap, and frayed, curved horns. Illustration: Sao Sreymao.

The first phase of Tilker’s study, which is already underway, consists of combing through data from historic expedition surveys to piece together a picture of where kouprey once lived. The second part, which has been mostly completed, involves collecting camera trap records from across Indochina to analyse which landscapes have been observed and to what degree. Finally, the third phase will combine this information to see if there are any areas of plausible kouprey habitat that have not been extensively surveyed.

Tilker’s team expects to complete the study in 2023. Next steps will depend on the results, Tilker said. “If there are areas that merit further [field] searches, I am sure we could move ahead because there is enough interest in the global conservation community.”

While the kouprey was historically recorded in open forests and grasslands, Tilker argues that with so little known of its biology, other habitat types could conceivably support the species. 

“Very remote, densely forested areas are the last stronghold for many large mammal species that are subject to heavy levels of exploitation,” Tilker said. He pointed to the Cambodia-Laos border, where he said large areas of forest have never been surveyed as they are so remote.

The best example, Tilker said, is Virachey National Park, which stretches across more than 332,000 hectares along Cambodia’s border with Laos and Vietnam. Scientific knowledge on what lives in the park is limited, considering the landscape’s first comprehensive biodiversity survey is in the process of being conducted.

In March 2021, camera traps set in the first stages of the biodiversity survey, led by Fauna & Flora International, a wildlife conservation organisation, captured the first ever images of a large-antlered muntjac fawn in Cambodia.

The species was only scientifically described in 1994 and it is listed as “critically endangered” by the IUCN. Photos of a fawn demonstrated the presence of a breeding population in Cambodia.

Pablo Sinovas, country director for Fauna & Flora in Cambodia, believes a lack of observation in remote areas like Virachey leaves conservationists unable to implement conservation methods and interventions for rare and endangered species.

“The very significant find means there is probably a lot more to be found in the area.” Sinovas said.

Churt Thom, a forest ranger working for the Ministry of Environment, adjusts the angle of a camera trap in Virachey National Park as part of a biodiversity study conducted by Fauna & Flora International. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

Chantha Nasak, Fauna & Flora’s leading species officer in Cambodia, has spent weeks in Virachey setting camera traps for the biodiversity study. He hopes the results will emphasise the need to protect large mammal habitats.

“Wildlife is a very special part of Virachey and the kouprey is a very special part of Cambodian culture,” Nasak said. “Unfortunately, now the population of kouprey in Cambodia is unknown. But we should focus on protecting places, like Virachey, so maybe kouprey, but definitely other special animals can survive.”

A snaring crisis

In the nearly 25 years Kam Phon has been a forest ranger in Virachey National Park, the only kouprey he has come across are the ones featured on the patch of his Ministry of Environment ranger uniform. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

Alongside the kouprey, several other members of the cattle family are native to Indochina, including the banteng, gaur, and wild water buffalo. But all are now facing serious declines, driven largely by indiscriminate snaring.  Leading conservationists fear they could vanish much like the kouprey.

Snares are simple traps with a noose designed to snag the neck, torso, or leg of any animal that walks through it. Often made with household items, like wire cables, nylon or rope, snares are cheap, easy to produce and simple to set in large quantities.

Sok Lolo, a community ranger in Cambodia’s Phnom Tnout-Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, which is still home to a herd of endangered banteng, helped discover and remove seven snares within the first few hours of a patrol in July 2022. Back at the ranger base, the skulls of two banteng killed by snares are kept in the shed. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

In a 2020 report, WWF estimated that 12.2 million snares were present in protected areas within Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, equivalent to more than 110 snares per square kilometre.

The banteng, a type of wild cattle found in scattered populations from Myanmar to Bali, is among the most at-risk species, according to Thomas Gray, who co-authored the WWF report and has studied banteng populations in Cambodia.

“As banteng continue to decline because of snaring, the probability of any kouprey remaining drops to zero,” Gray said.

Phnom Tnout-Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia’s northern province of Preah Vihear – where many of the early 20th century kouprey expeditions took place – is home to a herd of a hundred or so banteng today. But it is plagued by snaring.

Lim Sap, a community ranger in Phnom Tnout-Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, conducts an early morning snare patrol in the dense forests of the protected area. “If we keep killing all of the wildlife, the next generation of Cambodians won’t even have a clear picture of what our country’s animals look like,” Sap said. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

Community rangers, like Sok Lolo and Lim Sap, spend several days a week patrolling the protected area, looking for snares. Within the first two hours of a morning patrol in mid-July, the duo removed seven snares.

“If we keep killing all of the wildlife, the next generation of Cambodians won’t even have a clear picture of what our country’s animals look like,” Sap said.

Politics of extinction

The kouprey was declared a national heritage symbol in the 1960s by the king of Cambodia, making it the Kingdom’s national animal. In 2005, a royal decree narrowed the title to ‘national mammal’. 

Despite an absence of confirmed sightings for more than half a century, the kouprey permeates Cambodian culture. The animal’s likeness appears on official stamps and company logos. The animal’s name has been used to define military exercises, and is the nickname of the country’s national football team.

The animal’s ubiquity as a Cambodian cultural symbol likely contributes to the government’s reluctance to determine its potential extinction, according to Robert Timmins, lead author of the IUCN assessment on the kouprey’s status.

“Extinction has a stigma to it. From a political perspective, admitting an extinction has occurred, particularly of a symbolic species, has political ramifications,” Timmins said. “Nobody likes to admit failure and it’s hard to see extinction as anything other than a failure in management and governance.”

A declaration of extinction also takes time to coalesce. The IUCN declares a species extinct “when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died” and “exhaustive surveys” have failed to record an individual.

In the case of the kouprey, despite concluding that “its extinction, if not yet upon us, is almost certainly sealed”, the IUCN has not yet categorised the species as extinct on the basis that potential habitat was not “sufficiently surveyed to rule out the presence of kouprey.”

Gray, who is also the Red List assessment coordinator for IUCN’s Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, doubts that declaring the kouprey extinct would have a meaningful impact on wildlife conservation in Cambodia.

“There is no urgency in declaring it extinct,” he said. “If kouprey, Cambodia’s national animal, was declared extinct, would that change the behaviour of the government or people in any way? I don’t know. Might it concentrate the government? I think that is probably naive and too hopeful to say.”

Gray predicts that the next IUCN assessment for the kouprey, expected in the next one to two years, will continue to list the species as ‘critically endangered’.

But Tilker argues that the official extinction of a national animal could galvanise the government and conservationists to safeguard the region’s other dwindling wild cattle populations.

“The tale of the kouprey is a warning sign for biodiversity, especially among wild cattle in Indochina,” Tilker said. “If the species were to be declared extinct, this could be a major wake-up call for banteng and other large mammals.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Third Pole and China Dialogue.

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