Description and biology

The kouprey, also called the Cambodian forest ox, the gray ox, or the wild forest ox of Indochina, is one of the most rare species of wild cattle and may be the most endangered large mammal in the world.

Kouprey were not known to humans until 1937, and there has been no close observation of a kouprey for nearly 50 years. Most of the information we have on the species today comes from a zoologist who studied and filmed the animal in the wild for two months in 1957.

Kouprey are massive animals, weighing from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds (700 to 900 kilograms). They stand between 5.5 and 6.5 feet (1.7 and 2 meters) tall at the shoulder, and their bodies are about 7 feet (2.15 meters) long. They have long legs and humped backs. Kouprey are born brown but turn gray as they mature, and males then turn black or very dark brown as they get older.

Both males and females have white patches on their shoulders, legs, and hindquarters. Males have horns that are wide–spreading and arch forward and upward with a distinctive splintered fringe, growing to about 32 inches (80 centimeters) long.

Female horns are about 16 inches (40 centimeters) long. Adult male kouprey have a very large dewlap, a sack of skin that hangs about 16 inches (40 centimeters) from the base of the neck, sometimes reaching down to the ground.

Kouprey live and travel in herds. Females and their young form separate herds from the male herds. The animals graze (eat grass in the meadows and fields) and browse (feed on the tender shoots and leaves of bushes and trees) during the early part of the day.

During the night they travel, sometimes great distances. The whole herd forms a tight circle in the early afternoon to sleep. April is the mating season, and females give birth to one offspring sometime between December and February. The kouprey’s life span in the wild is thought to be about 20 years.

Habitat and current distribution

The kouprey’s habitat is comprised of low, rolling hills covered in a mixture of open forest and dense monsoon (heavy rain) forest. The range of the kouprey has been thought to be Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Thailand, and Vietnam, but many wildlife biologists (people who study living organisms) now believe that the species is extinct in all its former habitats with the exception of small, fragmented populations in Cambodia. The total remaining population is thought to be about 250 animals and declining.

History and conservation measures

As far as is known to humans, kouprey have always had a low population. When first discovered in 1938, there were an estimated 800 kouprey. From a high of 1,000 animals in 1940, the population went into a decline. By 1970, there were only 30 to 70 kouprey left in the world.

There are many reasons for the decline in population, but war was a major factor. The war in Vietnam, which began soon after World War II (1939–45) and lasted three decades, is thought to have decimated the kouprey in that country. During the war kouprey were hunted without restriction by locals and by the military.

They were killed by land mines, and their habitat was destroyed. In Thailand, poaching (illegal hunting) was responsible for a major population decline. In all areas, loss of habitat due to illegal logging and slash–and–burn farming and disease transmitted from domestic stock took a heavy toll.

Laos and Cambodia have experienced periods of violent political upheaval, making it difficult to initiate conservation programs or send out expeditions to study the species in the wild. Kouprey are now legally protected in all of the countries in their range, however, and Cambodia has some conservation programs in progress.