Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Tuesday, 2 June 2020

GETTING AHEAD (OR TWO?) WITH VIETNAM'S VIKING DEER - THE LONG-RUNNING SAGA OF A SLOW-RUNNING MYSTERY BEAST


The mounted trophy head of a quang khem in Vietnam's Central Highlands Animal Museum (© Copyright holder unclear – the photograph appears uncredited in the 2010 Vietnamese article cited below, and also uncredited here on the It's Something Wiki site; reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/research/review purposes only)

During the 1990s, an astonishing array of new artiodactyl (even-toed) ungulate species was revealed in Vietnam and its neighbouring Asian countries of Laos and Cambodia. These included (most famously) the saola or Vu Quang ox Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, an extraordinary buffalo-like beast but sporting long slender antelope-like horns and legs; the aptly-named giant muntjac Muntiacus (originally Megamuntiacus) vuquangensis, by far the largest species of muntjac known to exist today; several smaller muntjac species, and, most controversial of all, the holy goat (aka kting voar) Pseudonovibos spiralis, a creature so elusive that it is still known only from native descriptions and a series of preserved tightly-spiraled horns, some (but NOT all) of which have been shown to be fakes, merely the deftly modified horns of domestic cattle, leading certain skeptics to speculate whether it is a real animal at all (click here for more details on ShukerNature regarding this much-disputed mammal).

An extensive account of all of these new species and their respective discoveries can be found in my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012).

Also reported during that momentous decade of Indochinese ungulate unveilings was a mysterious deer known to the local Vu Quang hunters as the quang khem, and said by them to be very different indeed from all other deer native to this remote Vietnamese location. Yet unlike all of the other ungulates name-checked here, more than 20 years later this particular one remains scientifically undescribed and unnamed.

First page of an unidentified, undated Vietnamese magazine article featuring drawings illustrating the heads of the giant muntjac (left), the saola (centre), and the quang khem (right) (© Copyright holder(s) currently unknown to me – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/research/review purposes only)

Here's what I wrote about the quang khem (aka Chinh's deer, honouring its discoverer) in my above-cited encyclopaedia:

In 1994, Vietnamese biologist Nguyen Ngoc Chinh visited Pu Mat, just north of Vu Quang, in search of Vu Quang oxen [saola]. He didn't find any, but returned instead with local reports of a strange deer known to hunters as the quang khem - 'slow-running deer'. One hunter had also given him the skull of a quang khem, which was very unusual, on account of its bizarre antlers - for these were nothing more than primitive unbranched spikes that bore a startling resemblance to the horns on a Viking's helmet!

Technically, this odd-looking deer had actually been discovered three decades earlier - but no-one had realised! Shortly after Chinh's findings, MacKinnon [saola discoverer Dr John MacKinnon] spotted some quang khem skulls in a box of bones at Hanoi's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources - bones that had been collected as long ago as the late 1960s, but which had not previously been examined or sorted. DNA samples were sent to [zoologist Dr Peter] Arctander at Copenhagen University, who was unable to match them with the DNA of any known species. Nevertheless, the elusive Vietnamese slow-running deer has still to be scientifically described and named.

In an e-mail of 15 December 1999, Prof. Colin Groves mentioned to me that he hadn't heard anything more concerning this deer from Arctander or anyone else. He remained unsure of its likely zoological identity, being "unable to decide whether it was just sambar with undeveloped antlers (i.e. very young or very old, "going back"), or a sort of paedomorphic sambar. Certainly the evidence indicated Cervus (Rusa)". Clearly, therefore, whatever it does prove to be, the quang khem is one mystery deer that is not a muntjac.

And that was where matters concerning this most cryptic of cryptozoological deer have remained ever since (ignoring a few inaccurate mentions of it online in which it has regrettably been confused with the saola) – or so I thought, until yesterday. That was when I was contacted by British writer/journalist Fergus Blair, who shares my interest in the above-listed new ungulates – so much so that he had succeeded in uncovering (and very kindly sharing with me – thanks Fergus!) an online article documenting the quang khem that was completely new to me. Please click here to access it (although spasmodically, and for reasons entirely unknown to me, it won't always open, instead returning an automatic 404 NOT FOUND message, but fortunately I downloaded and retained on file a copy at a time when it was accessible - hence a screenshot of its quang khem section is included further down in this present ShukerNature blog article of mine). Having said that, my lack of knowledge concerning this article was due in no small part to the fact that it was written entirely in Vietnamese and had only appeared in a Vietnamese publication.

Vietnam map showing location of Central Highlands region (© Dr Blofeld/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Much as I wish it were otherwise, I freely confess that whatever linguistic talents I may possess do not encompass Vietnamese, so I resorted to Google Translate in the hope of obtaining at least some degree of enlightenment concerning its contents. Happily, the result was by no means as garbled as I'd feared it may be. So here, for what may be the first time in any English publication, is the basic information concerning the quang khem as contained in that Vietnamese article.

Published on 8 May 2010 by a local Vietnamese government website entitled Lâm Đng (but no specific author details given), the article is entitled 'Phát hin loài mang ln và loài quang khem có Lâm Đng '.

This title loosely translates as 'Detecting large deer [giant muntjac] and khem deer [quang khem] in Lâm Đng'. Lâm Đng is a province in Vietnam's Central Highlands region, the only Central Highland province that does not share a border with Vietnam's lower left-hand neighbour Cambodia.

Map showing location of Lâm Đng province within Vietnam (© TUBS/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The quang khem was the second of the two species to be documented in the article (following an account of the giant muntjac's presence in Lâm Đng), and here is the information concerning it as contained in the article.

The quang khem account opens with the heading ' LOÀI NAI ĐAU ĐINH', seemingly the local name in Lâm Đng for this creature, and which loosely translates as 'painful-nail deer species'. Reiterated a little later here, 'nail' is a descriptive term originating from local hunters that refers to this deer's unbranched antlers, which the hunters liken to large nails (as in tacks used for hanging pictures on walls, etc, rather than fingernails or toenails), so presumably the 'painful' adjective suggests that these antlers' distal points are very sharp and therefore painful to touch?

Anyway, the article then states that in a survey on Pu Mat forest (Nghe An) in December 2002, a joint survey team between the Forest Inventory and Planning Institute (FIPI) [Vin điu tra quy hoch rng, in Vietnamese] and Nghe An Forest Protection Department collected a pair of antlers and some skull fragments from a specimen of a strange ungulate species that local hunters called the quang khem.  Realizing that this specimen had many new features, the survey team gathered its components together to study them and the specimen has been sent to a number of leading animal experts of Vietnam and abroad (none of which was named in the article) for inspection. Experts have confirmed that this is a specimen of a species that has differences from all species of the genera Cervus (such species being known in Vietnamese as Nai) and Muntiacus (such species being known in Vietnamese as Hoanh) of the deer family (Cervidae) that are known in Vietnam and around the world. This may be a new species of the deer family, but the sample collected, consisting only of a pair of antlers and a few skull fragments, is probably insufficient to confirm this.

Just in case the 2010 Vietnamese article proves inaccessible when the above link to it is clicked, here is a screenshot of its quang khem section – please click image to enlarge it for reading purposes, assuming that you can read Vietnamese (© www.lamdong.gov.vn – included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/research/review purposes only)

Based on documents regarding the quang khem published by Nguyen Ngoc Chinh in Forestry Journal [the full reference to this paper is: Nguyen Ngoc Chinh, 'Opinions About Quang Khem, a Newly Discovered Deer', Forestry Journal, no. 6, 1993 – which I wish to track down and read if at all possible], and upon comparisons made with samples of the quang khem currently stored in the Animal Division of FIPI, we also identified this species in Lâm Đng.

Evidence of this province's quang khem specimens is currently stored in the Central Highlands Animal Museum, including two complete heads (mounted as trophies [a colour photograph of one of these trophy heads is included in this article]), one skull and antlers, and three pairs of antlers . The first two samples were provided by Mr Nguyen Minh Tu (Bao Loc), and skull samples and pairs of antlers provided by Mr Tran Van Thuan (Da Lat).

Through investigation, it was known that strange deer were found in Di Linh, Bao Loc, Cat Tien (Lâm Đng) and that hunters called this strange deer 'nail head'. This is because its antlers did not branch, thus resembling two big nails.

Adult male sambar Cervus (=Rusa) unicolor, exhibiting branched antlers typical of adult specimens (© Sks2610/Wikipedia – CC  BY-SA 4.0 licence)

The body weight of this deer is about 90-100 kg for adult males. Its fawn colour is similar to that of the sambar Cervus unicolor, so it is difficult to distinguish between these two deer types when they eat grass on the edge of the forest during the period when the males are without antlers. Specimens of this deer being stored at the Central Highlands Animal Museum allow a closer study of it to confirm whether it is a new species of deer and give a scientific name to it. All work is waiting for the conclusion of the animal experts.

That account was published in 2010, but a decade later the quang khem seemingly remains an enigma, in taxonomic limbo, because it has yet to receive any formal recognition either as a valid new species or as merely a freak form of the sambar.

Perhaps as Prof. Groves had suggested in his email of December 1999 to me, it may constitute a paedomorphic anomaly. That is to say, it consists of developmentally-abnormal individuals in which the simple unbranched spike-like antlers normally seen only in young deer specimens have been retained by sexually-mature adult deer, rather than having been replaced by the developed branched antlers typical of adult deer.

Juvenile male sambar sporting unbranched spike-shaped antlers (© Michael Mayer/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Of course, there is always the possibility – as evidenced by the existence of the above-translated Vietnamese article from 2010 but ostensibly unpublicised outside Vietnam until now – that new research and findings have indeed been published, perhaps including full details of who the unnamed experts were to whom the quang khem antlers and skull fragments collected by the survey team in December 2002, and what their considered conclusions concerning the quang khem's identity were, but not in Western publications, only in Vietnamese ones that have been overlooked in the West. Even so, had any such publications contained a formal scientific description and taxonomic name for the quang khem as a recognised new species, it seems highly unlikely that this very notable news would not have become known internationally in mammalogical circles. Groves in particular would definitely have learnt of it, as he maintained countless contacts with leading researchers globally.

Certainly, it would appear very likely that DNA samples could be extracted from the two mounted trophy heads and compared with samples from the sambar and other deer native to Vietnam and beyond to determine whether or not they did indeed differ and, if so, by a sufficient degree to warrant the quang khem being officially recognised as a valid new species. So why has this not been attempted – assuming that it hasn't?

Similarly, comparative morphometric analyses conducted upon the retained skulls could surely provide morphological clues as to just how similar or otherwise they are to those of other deer species. Yet once again, nothing appears to have been done (unless it has been, but the findings are currently concealed within Vietnamese articles not readily accessible to Western researchers?). All very mysterious – every bit as mysterious, in fact, as the quang khem itself!

Bill Rebsamen's painting of the giant muntjac, the other deer species documented in the 2010 Vietnamese article (© William M. Rebsamen)

Needless to say, an obvious way of investigating this mystery within a mystery is to contact Vietnam's FIPI and its Central Highlands Animal Museum, collectively holding these quang khem specimens – but finding current contact details has not proven easy so far. I did unearth an email contact from 2007 for FIPI, so I emailed to it an enquiry concerning FIPI's quang khem specimens and any current news concerning the latter cryptid's scientific status, only to obtain by speedy return one of the dreaded MAILER-DAEMON Failure Notices informing me that the recipient email address in question was no longer valid. Consequently, I am presently seeking a more recent FIPI contact, as well as one for the Central Highlands Animal Museum.

The situation concerning the latter museum is particularly curious, inasmuch as I have been unable to locate any confirmation of its existence! The most notable museum in the Central Highlands region would seem to be Dak Lak Museum, situated in the heart of Buon Ma Thuot City, but this establishment is not located in Lâm Đng, and is by no means devoted entirely or even predominantly to animals. On the contrary, it displays a wide range of exhibits, from ethnic culture, archaeology, and history, as well as biodiversity, and includes films and documentaries, not just physical objects. Another possible identity for this 'missing museum' is, as suggested to me by Fergus Blair, the Tay Nguyen Biological Institute (originally Vietnam's Redemptorist monastery), situated on Tung Lam hill in Lâm Đng. The second of its five floors serves as a biology museum. If anyone reading this article of mine has any information or suggestions concerning or for contacting FIPI and/or whichever museum the so-called Central Highlands Animal Museum is (or was – perhaps it did exist at the time of the 2010 Vietnamese article's appearance online but has since closed down?), I would greatly appreciate details.

So, to quote Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot! If I do succeed in obtaining additional details concerning Vietnam's veritable Viking deer, I shall of course reveal all here on ShukerNature, thereby adding, I hope, a new chapter to the long-running saga of the slow-running deer. Watch this space! My sincere thanks to Fergus Blair for most kindly bringing the 2010 online Vietnamese article to my attention and sharing his associated thoughts with me.


UPDATE - 19 June 2020 - THE QUANG KHEM MYSTERY IS SOLVED!

Earlier today, Fergus Blair interviewed Dr John MacKinnon, who provided some startling, game-changing information that after 3 decades in cryptozoological limbo finally provides the mystery of the quang khem or slow-running deer with what would appear to be a conclusive resolution.

Contrary to the claims made in media reports back in the 1990s, Dr MacKinnon revealed to Fergus that the DNA tests conducted during that decade at Copenhagen University upon samples taken from the skulls that he had found in a box of bones at Hanoi's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources DID obtain a conclusive taxonomic identification for them – they were from sambar deer. But that is not all. MacKinnon also stated that during a visit to a monastery in Bhutan some years later, he saw several mounted skulls on a wall there, and noticed one that he recognized to be from a quang khem. When he asked the monks what this skull was from, they stated that it was from a slow-running deer, but when he then informed them that he actually knew that it was from a sambar, the monks laughed with him and told him that this knowledge was a secret and that not many people realized that this was indeed what it was from! Consequently, as noted by Fergus in an email to me today, it would appear that the 'slow-running deer' is wholly folkloric, not a bona fide species in its own right at all, but merely based upon young (and possibly also upon paedomorphic adult?) sambar with spikes instead of antlers that are passed off unknowingly – or even knowingly in some cases (judging from the Bhutan monks' initial claim to MacKinnon, for instance) – as a rare, exotic, semi-mythical animal. Case closed!

Once again, my sincere thanks and congratulations to Fergus for so kindly sharing his findings with me and contributing so significantly to the long-awaited solution to this fascinating cryptozoological conundrum.

The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals, featuring on its front cover Bill Rebsamen's beautiful close-up painting of Vietnam's saola (foreground) in the company of the Congo's okapi (background) – two of the 20th Century's most significant and iconic cryptozoological success stories (© Dr Karl Shuker/William M. Rebsamen/Coachwhip Publications)



2 comments:

  1. Dear Dr. Shuker,

    The pictures from the Vietnamese article you cite above (including that of the slow-running deer) are the same as those reproduced in the article, "Ancient Creatures in a Lost World" from the June 20, 1994 issue of Time Magazine. Love your blog

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks very much - I thought they looked familiar.

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