The kouprey (Bos sauveli) is perhaps the master of mystery. The wild forest-dwelling ox dodges in and out of the depths of the forest, spending its nighttime hours awake, perhaps to avoid humans. This already-elusive species hasn’t been seen since 1988 and is currently listed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. These magnificent animals will certainly go extinct in the near future unless conservationists take effective action immediately.
Hunters seek out Kouprey, which means “forest bull” in Khmer, for both local consumption and the wildlife trade, making hunting the most significant threat to the species. Any extant populations are most likely greatly reduced and fragmented, leaving them at risk of facing the kinds of genetic and demographic problems associated with small populations, such as inbreeding and health challenges. No Kouprey are currently held in captivity, which means that ex situ conservation is not an option.
Despite a growing concern that Kouprey may already be extinct, the 2008 Southeast Asian Wild Cattle Conservation Strategy Workshop of the IUCN/SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group (AWCSG) determined that this conclusion was premature—researchers had not yet had a chance to conduct species-specific surveys across the Kouprey’s range. The IUCN/AWCSG recommended that before conducting any additional surveys, researchers should analyze recent survey results to identify regions within the Kouprey’s historical range with the highest probability of Kouprey persistence. The results are based both on habitat type and survey results to date. The overall goal of this project was to produce recommendations–including maps–of areas where scientists could conduct follow-up surveys aimed specifically at detecting Kouprey persistence.
The two most likely scenarios are that the Kouprey is already extinct or that they persist as dispersed single animals or small groups of two or three individuals in remote areas of habitat. It doesn’t look good for this special species. Saving the Kouprey requires the fortuitous persistence of a viable number of breeding animals and the immediate application of intensive protection efforts, possibly including ex situ conservation.
All hope, however, is not lost. Individual Kouprey may have survived anywhere where wild oxen still persist, and undetected persistence would most likely have occurred in the largest and remotest forest blocks. Not even the most-surveyed landscapes have been analyzed enough to rule out Kouprey presence entirely. In fact, in all likelihood the best-surveyed landscapes may well have the highest probability of Kouprey persistence.
The best strategy? Conservationists must bolster protection efforts in those areas with the highest probability of harboring Kouprey, independent of Kouprey detection. These are also high-priority sites for other wildlife species. AWCSG should review all new camera-trap images from throughout the Kouprey’s potential range for possible Kouprey occurrence along with images previously captured and not yet reviewed. Analysis of all wild cattle data should continue as well, both to refine the results of the gap analysis and to aid in the conservation of other regional wild cattle species.
Kouprey (Bos sauveli)–Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct)
Eastern Plains, Cambodia
Dry Forest, Dry Evergreen Forest
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Program (Cambodia, Lao, Thai Programs); World Wildlife Fund’s, Conservation International’s, and Fauna & Flora International’s Asia offices in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam