close this bookLittle Known Asian Animals With a Promising Economic Future
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close this folderPart II : Wild Bovine Species
View the document6 Wild Banteng
View the document7 Gaur
View the document8 Kouprey
View the document9 Tamaraw
View the document10 Anoas

8 Kouprey

The kouprey (Bos sauveli) is the most primitive of living cattle. Its features are typical of some forms that existed in the Pleistocene era, 600,000 years ago. Discovered by Western scientists only in 1937,† the kouprey was the last large mammal to enter the biology books. It is perhaps the most primitive of living cattle and is closely allied to Bos namadicus, the wild ancestor of zebu cattle. In 1964 it was declared Cambodia's national animal. It is now perilously close to extinction, and for a decade no koupreys have been observed close enough for a positive identification by a specialist. In 1982, however, five of the animals were believed sighted in Thailand, near the border with Kampuchea. Thus there are hopes that the kouprey still exists.

Appearance and Size

The kouprey is large. Males stand 1.5-2 m high at the shoulder and may weigh 900 kg. Females are approximately three-quarters the height and weight of the males. The body is slender and long-legged. The hump from the withers to the center of the back is smaller than that of the gaur, but larger than that of the banteng. There is a well-developed dewlap from the throat to the mid-chest, which in old animals is sometimes so pendulous that it drags through the grass in front of the forelegs.

Young bulls are gray, with black on the head and dewlap. Old bulls are entirely black and cows are mouse gray or dullish light brown. As in the gaur and the banteng, the lower parts of the legs have white stockings, but kouprey stockings have a streak of dark hair down the front.


Kouprey. (P. Pfeffer)

Kouprey horns are among the longest and widest of any bovine. The tips of the adult male horns are surrounded by rough, frayed tissue caused by the animals' habit of digging in the soil with their horns. The females have slender, lyre-shaped horns that corkscrew upwards, unlike those of any other wild or domesticated cattle.

Kouprey are said to have a grace more reminiscent of deer than cattle. They move at a light trot, as fast as 32 kph.


The kouprey's prevalence in ancient times is evidenced by prehistoric cave-paintings in Kampuchea. The animal was also a favorite of the ancient Khmers, who carved kouprey statues and featured the animal in bas-reliefs on temples, including the monuments of Angkor Wat.

Today, whatever kouprey exist are restricted to an area along both sides of the Mekong River in northern Kampuchea, the Dangrek Range, and other parts of eastern Thailand to the far south of Laos, and to the westernmost part of Vietnam. Although one or two small herds may still exist in remote pockets of Laos and Vietnam, the bulk of the population has always been centered in Kampuchea.

There are no koupreys in captivity.


Because of their large size, gregarious behavior, comparatively low reproductive rate, and preference for open areas, kouprey are vulnerable to hunting. The impressive horns and other tissues are valued as trophies and as medicinals.

In 1964 it was estimated there were about 500 kouprey in Kampuchea, but by 1970 fewer than 70 were left. The subsequent fate of the species is unknown because of the years of warfare in the area. (Early in 1970, the three nominal kouprey reserves of Kampuchea were overrun by military forces.)


In 1975 the kouprey stocks in Laos and Thailand were estimated at only 50 and 20 animals, respectively. By now, hunting and habitat destruction probably have all but eliminated the kouprey from Thailand. However, a reported sighting of five animals that had strayed across the border from Kampuchea was made in July 1982. (By the time Thai zoologists arrived to investigate, the herd apparently had crossed back into Kampuchea.)

Habitat and Environment

Like the banteng, the kouprey inhabits open sites such as light savannas, woodland meadows, and scattered glades in the monsoon forests. It is adapted to dry country. This type of habitat is not widespread in Indochina, and the range of the kouprey is consequently limited.

Kouprey spend most of the year among low rolling hills in open areas where grazing and visibility are good. These open areas are a fire climax mosaic of dry dipterocarp savannas and patches of dense forest. Fires occur each dry season, most of them deliberately set by man. Kouprey capitalize on the young growth in burned-over areas. They feed primarily on grasses, sedges, and tree leaves. They also require salt licks and a supply of water in the dry season.


The gestation period is thought to be about 8.5 months. Cows leave the herd before parturition and return with their calves after about a month. They nurse their calves for about 6 months.


Kouprey are said to be even more shy than banteng and gaur. They feed in erratic patterns and are always alert and nervous.

Loose herds of 20 or more have been reported. These were of mixed composition, often with more than one adult male, and were usually led by an old female. Adult bulls sometimes form bachelor herds.

Kouprey utilize some of the same feeds as wild banteng, and the two animals often live in a loose association. They graze together, and, especially after the mating season, solitary kouprey bulls often associate with banteng herds. The two species do not, however, interbreed in the wild.


The kouprey is a candidate for domestication and has important potential as breeding stock. It is a wild animal, but it may have been domesticated temporarily during the Khmer culture, 400-800 years ago.* Both Vietnam and Laos have cattle breeds that resemble kouprey, and a kouprey bull, reputed to be a domestic animal of the Stieng tribe, was exhibited in the Paris Menagerie in the mid-nineteenth century. It may be that kouprey are domestic even today in parts of Indochina.

Potential Advantages

Kouprey survival has worldwide significance. The animals could be important for studies of bovine evolution and as a genetic resource for crossbreeding to improve disease resistance and other characteristics of domesticated bovines. For instance, the kouprey is thought to be resistant to rinderpest, a killer disease of domestic cattle. Also, kouprey bulls are distinctive for their long dewlap, and they probably have more skin area for their weight than other bovines and are therefore better able to eliminate body heat. This genetic trait may help large cattle breeds survive in the tropics.


The kouprey's potential may be moot - there may be none left in the world. It is feared that the warfare of recent years may have caused its extinction. However, if enough animals survive and can be protected, the kouprey could probably recover its numbers, as a higher calf-to-cow ratio (1:3) was reported for this species than for either banteng (1:4) or gaur (1:10).*

If wild kouprey are found, their capture is likely to be difficult.

Research and Conservation Needs

There is a long-term sequence of research needs for the kouprey, which includes the following:

. Working with the governments of Thailand, Laos, and Kampuchea to identify any remaining pockets of this species and to establish conservation programs;

· Establishing one or more captive breeding herds (because there is little chance of the animal surviving in the wild owing to the fighting and turmoil in the area);

· Studying the animal's basic physiology and production potential;

· Exploring its possible commercial utilization; and

· Investigating the kouprey's genetic relationship to zebu cattle and the transferability of genetic characters through interbreeding.



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