Science and Technology

The Dilemma of the Horns

'Khting Vor' horns
Cambodia's Yeti? A scientific storm swirls the horns shown above, attributed to a mysterious bovine called the Khting Vor (Photo: R.M. Timm).

On the wall of the Golden Parrot restaurant, in the Cambodian town of Skuon, hangs a ceramic buffalo head with real horns attached. The horns are the restaurant owner’s most treasured possession. She believes they once belonged to a Khting Vor, an elusive bovine from northeastern Cambodia, and keeps a sliver of horn in a vial hanging from a chain around her neck as protection from the bite of venomous snakes. Mention the Khting Vor to Khmer people, and they will tell you it “lives in the forest” and its “horns cure snakebite.” For them, there is no doubt of its existence, even though no skin, skeleton, or skull has ever been found, and there are no photographs of the animal.

These stories are not just from the mouths of superstitious villagers. Lic Vuthy, who was educated in the United States and is the species program manager for the World Wide Fund For Nature, believes in the Khting Vor; his family has passed on tales of its powers for generations. And it’s not difficult to find Western-trained Khmer doctors who recommend the horn as a remedy for snakebite.

The Khting Vor, which in Khmer means spiral-horned ox, is scientifically known as Pseudonovibos spiralis and was first identified in 1994 when two German zoologists described a new species sighted along the Vietnam-Cambodian border. They claimed to have discovered the Khting Vor after collecting a set of horns and unearthing others in various markets in the area.

There are about 20 sets of alleged Khting Vor horns in the world, all similarly shaped—twisted at the tip with semi-regular corrugations along their length. A set of horns found in 1929 in Vietnam is in the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. The horns are claimed by Kansas scientists as “hard evidence” of the Khting Vor’s existence. They say the horns have been scientifically analyzed (under a microscope) and DNA-tested, and subsequently found to “represent a new species.”

The case of the animal so rare that it has never been seen came to the attention of  The World Conservation Union (IUCN), which in 2000 decided the Khting Vor should be on the world’s official endangered species register. It based its decision on the report compiled by the two German zoologists (even though the Germans did no fieldwork). It is, says the IUCN, a species with “a very high risk of extinction in the wild.” The listing, it adds, is a “precaution,” and further research may very well change its views.

Hundreds of Khmer hunters and villagers, in studies conducted after the Germans made their report, have claimed sightings of the bovine. Because extensive areas of Cambodia’s forest were not explored until after 1997, when the Khmer Rouge was ousted, it was considered very possible that an unidentified species was living there.

In 1999, French naturalist Arnoult Seveau of the Zoological Society of Paris
traveled around Cambodia asking Khmer farmers about the Khting Vor and combing remote areas where it supposedly lived.

Back at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, he set about examining five sets of alleged Khting Vor horns with the best bovine specialists in France. They made a silicon rubber mold of the inside of the horns to show every indentation and marking, scrutinizing the outside under a microscope. Seveau concluded that the specimens were the “artificially deformed” horns of cow and buffalo—heated, twisted, and engraved by artisans. Then, using DNA testing, horns residing in a number of collections were formally exposed as altered versions of cow or buffalo horns.

It has now been established—and stated in a 2002 report by the German Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations—that the holotype German Khting Vor horns were “superficially embellished,” but it “remains unclear as to whether the horns were originally from cattle or another bovined taxon,” perhaps even from a creature that is extinct or as yet undiscovered.

In the society’s opinion, the debate will continue until every set of horns in the world is proven to be fraudulent, and it believes future DNA analysis will “unambiguously clear the identity” of the Khting Vor.

One popular theory to explain so many manipulated horns is that they were created not as a hoax to fool scientists, but to supply the 1920s horn markets. In the early 20th century, when horns of any large animal were considered trophies, the horns of an animal so enveloped in powerful myth (Cambodian folklore mentions a snake-eating cow with twisted horns) would have been a valuable addition to any hunter’s collection. Cambodian artisans, unable to find and kill real Khting Vor, manipulated available horns to sell.

When it is conclusively proven that the Khting Vor is not of this world, and an embarrassed IUCN is forced to remove it from its endangered species list, many people will have to swallow their pride and admit that the “last discovered mammal of the 20th century” was nothing more than a local hoax which grew to global proportions.