During the 1990s, a startling array of new and rediscovered species of ungulate were revealed in Indochina. Whereas the most famous of these is the saola or Vu Quang ox Pseudoryx nghetinhensis (the remarkable antelope-horned, long-limbed bovine beast that had remained entirely unknown to science until its discovery in Vu Quang, Vietnam, during 1992), the most infamous is the holy goat or kting voar Pseudonovibos spiralis – always assuming, of course, that this hoofed mystery beast ever existed at all...
Its convoluted scientific history began in earnest on a market stall in southern Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City - for that is where, in early 1994, German zoologist Dr Wolfgang Peter, visiting from Münster's Zoological Gardens, spotted a strange pair of horns that were unlike any that he had seen before. They were approximately 18 in long, heavily spiralled, blackish in colour, and their upper portions were greatly splayed - so that they bore more than a passing resemblance to a somewhat strange pair of motorbike handlebars!
Although he didn't purchase them, Peter did take some photographs. And when he and his colleagues back home in Germany and elsewhere around the world were unable to assign these mystifying horns to any known species, he and fellow German zoologist Dr Alfred Feiler, from Dresden's State Museum of Natural History, paid several further visits to southern Vietnam. Here they succeeded in uncovering eight pairs of these peculiar horns, one pair becoming the type specimen for the formal description (published by Peter and Feiler later in 1994) of their still-unseen owner as a new species, housed within its own, brand-new genus. Incredibly, this was the third new genus of large ungulate to be described in just over a year, following on from Pseudoryx in 1993 and Megamuntiacus in 1994 (although Megamuntiacus has since been abandoned – its sole species, the giant muntjac M. vuquangensis, having been reassigned to the typical muntjac genus Muntiacus).
Conversations with locals in the Vietnamese districts of Kon Tum, Dac Lac, and Ban Me Thuot revealed that they were familiar with this creature, which they call the linh duong - sometimes translated as 'holy goat'. Another local name given to it translates as 'spiral-horn'. Scientifically, moreover, it is Pseudonovibos spiralis ('spiral-horned false kouprey') - emphasising its spiralled horns, and their deceptive similarity in shape to those of the Cambodian wild ox or kouprey Bos (Novibos) sauveli, which itself remained concealed from scientific detection until 1936 and is also deemed controversial nowadays (but that, as they say, is another story!).
Stunning life-sized statue of a kouprey in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, showing clearly its very distinctive horns (© Prof. Colin Groves)
This, however, is only half of the Pseudonovibos saga. At much the same time that Peter and Feiler were discovering its horns in Vietnam, Norway-based zoologist Dr Maurizio Dioli was visiting northeastern Cambodia's Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri provinces when he purchased two pairs of unusual spiral horns at a market. Each pair was attached to a portion of skull, and seemed to resemble the horns of a juvenile female kouprey.
Upon closer observation, however, Dioli found that the skulls' sutures were completely fused - conclusive proof that the animals had been adults, not juveniles. Moreover, whereas those of female koupreys are smooth and markedly oval in cross section, Dioli's horns bore very pronounced rings, were almost perfectly circular in cross section, and were more widely splayed. Clearly, then, these were not from a kouprey. Nor did they match those from either of the other two species of wild cattle known in Cambodia - the gaur Bos gaurus and the banteng B. javanicus. Indeed, they did not correspond with the horns of any animal documented by science.
When Dioli made enquiries, he learnt from local Cambodian hunters that these mystifying horns belonged to a large bovine beast that they call the kting (or kthing) voar. This name translates as 'wild cow with vine-like horns', referring to their rings and curved shape.
Judging from hunters' accounts collected by Dioli and also, more recently, by the Cambodia National Tiger Survey, the kting voar weighs 440-660 lb, stands 3.5-4 ft at the withers, and is said to be somewhat bovine in basic form. However, it is taller and more slender than a banteng or a domestic cow, and has legs like those of the sambar deer Rusa unicolor, as well as a well-developed coat, which is variously claimed to be uniformly greyish-black or dark red in colour. Very shy, rare, fleet-footed, and agile, given to standing on its hind legs to browse off leaves on trees, it lives in small family groups amid the region's mountainous dipterocarp forests. Evidently, therefore, although it has successfully eluded scientific detection, this reclusive animal is no stranger to the region's people, thus making all the more interesting their second, alternative name for it - kting sipuoh, or 'snake-eating wild cow'!
It is not unique for primitive native folklore to incorporate fanciful beliefs regarding herbivorous ungulates consuming serpents - Indian tribes tell similar stories concerning Asia's ibex-like markhor Capra falconeri. Although intriguing, these curious claims have no scientific corroboration.
An adult male markhor showing its magnificent spiralled horns (© Geographer/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)
The hunters alleged that when the kting voar devours snakes, these reptiles bite its horns, creating their rings, and imbuing them with venom. This supposedly bestows the horns with medicinal properties against snake bite. Consequently, as soon as a kting voar is killed by a hunter, its horns are removed and used for making venom antidote. This is prepared by burning the horns in a fire - hence few survive to be sold at the markets as trophies.
Not long afterwards, Dioli learnt of Peter and Feiler's investigations, and he recognised that the horns of their Vietnamese holy goat matched those of his Cambodian kting voar. These two mysterious mammals were one and the same - both belonged to the newly-named species Pseudonovibos spiralis. Moreover, Dioli revealed that two horns supposedly from a young female kouprey that were collected in southern Vietnam as long ago as 1929 and donated to the Kansas Museum of Natural History are actually those of Pseudonovibos.
Researches have suggested that Pseudonovibos had once been most common in Vietnam, but has been so heavily hunted there that today it survives predominantly across the border in Cambodia. Despite being known to the western world now for over 20 years, however, one major mystery remains unsolved. Scientists have yet to spy a living Pseudonovibos - apart from native testimony, therefore, we still do not know for sure what it looks like!
Having said that, however, a certain antiquated Chinese encyclopedia may offer a unique clue, as revealed by Drs Alastair A. Macdonald and Lixin N. Yang. Entitled San Cai Tu Hui, compiled by Wang Chi and Wang Si Yi, and published in 1607, it contains a drawing and short piece of accompanying text concerning a sturdy horned creature known as the ling. According to this encyclopedia, the ling: "...looks like a goat but is larger. Its horns are round and have pointed tips". There is also a fanciful account of how it uses its horns to hang from trees at night to sleep. The animal depicted in the drawing does not call to mind any known species of ungulate - except, that is, for its horns, whose shape and ribbed pattern, as acknowledged by Macdonald and Yang, do recall those of Pseudonovibos.
Moreover, in 1999 a team of German zoologists, which included Feiler and also Dr Ralph Tiedemann from Kiel University, published a short communication documenting the results of some mitochondrial DNA sequence analyses featuring DNA extracted from Pseudonovibos horn fragments and compared with corresponding DNA sequences from a range of other bovid ungulates in an attempt to ascertain its taxonomic affinities. These analyses revealed that Pseudonovibos did seem to be more closely related to goats than to antelopes or to cattle (despite its generic name), but in an e-mail Dr Tiedemann informed me that his team would be publishing more extensive genetic comparisons at a later date.
And in an e-mail to me of 15 December 1999, highly-renowned ungulate and primate expert Prof. Colin Groves, then based at Canberra's Australia National University, revealed that Australian zoologist Dr Jack Giles of Taronga Zoo in Sydney had recently visited Vietnam, where he had been shown an old black-and-white photo of a local hunter sitting upon a dead Pseudonovibos! Frustratingly, however, the photo was of such poor quality that little detail could be discerned, other than the fact that the animal was not particularly large. Making matters even worse, the hunter was perched upon the dead beast's head, thereby obscuring any distinguishing facial or cranial features that may have been visible. (After learning this, I promptly wrote to Dr Giles requesting information and sight of this photograph, but unfortunately I did not receive any reply from him.)
Even more tantalising are reports from early January 1995 documenting the capture of a still-unidentified mystery mammal in central Vietnam during December 1994. An immature female specimen, it was caught alive near the village of A Luoi in the central Vietnamese province of Thua Thien-Hue, more than 180 miles southeast of Vu Quang (the geographical epicentre for Vietnam's 1990s ungulate discoveries). Referred to by its captors as a tuoa, it died shortly afterwards, and was eaten before its body could be scientifically examined. Its mother had also been captured, but escaped. The calf weighed 36 lb, and was said not to be a saola. Instead, it resembled a goat, with a roundish head, long ears, horns, stout body, and a black and white coat patterned with buff and grey patches. According to quotes attributed to Hanoi University zoologist Prof. Ha Dinh Duc, it seemed to be different from any bovid species known scientifically in Vietnam.
Nothing more has been heard about the tuoa, but in view of its morphological description, could this cryptic creature be one and the same as Pseudonovibos? If so, how ironic, and tragic, that the only complete - and living - specimen to come within reach of modern-day science found its way into a local cooking pot instead!
Spectacular painting of an adult saola (right) and okapi (left) prepared specifically by acclaimed American wildlife artist and longstanding friend Bill Rebsamen for my second and third books on new and rediscovered animals (© William M. Rebsamen)
Moreover, in his above-noted e-mail to me, Robert Timmins opined that it may already be too late for this most elusive Indochinese hoofed debutante: "It's looking like Pseudonovibos has disappeared like the rhinos for a perceived medicinal value to its horns".
However, we should not - indeed, cannot - forget that during the 1990s Indochina hosted an unparalleled spectacle of mammalogical revelations, and with research continuing here the present 21st century may well witness many more surprises in this cryptozoologically rich and still far from well-explored region. There must surely be hope, therefore, that one of these surprises will be the long-awaited discovery of living specimens of Pseudonovibos – or will it...?
In January 2001, a team of French biologists including Drs Arnoult Seveau, Herbert Thomas, and Alexandre Hassanin published a pair of startling, highly controversial papers, in which they claimed that Pseudonovibos is non-existent - a forgery. They based their claim upon the results of two separate studies of Pseudonovibos material. In one of these, they sequenced two DNA markers from the bony cores of four sets of Pseudonovibos horns, and compared them with the equivalent genetic markers in Vietnamese domestic cattle. In the second study, they conducted a histological examination of the keratin in six Pseudonovibos frontlets (the horn-bearing frontal bones of the skull that constitute the animal's brow or forehead). The results of the DNA study revealed that the markers from the Pseudonovibos material were a perfect match with those from the Vietnamese domestic cattle. And the keratin study exposed the Pseudonovibos frontlets' horns to be nothing more than domestic cattle horns whose keratin sheaths had been skilfully manipulated by heat treatment, followed by twisting and trimming, to create the distinctive spiral, heavily-ridged horns characterising Pseudonovibos.
Yet although there can be little (if any?) doubt that these particular specimens are indeed fakes, there is currently no evidence that any of the several other sets of Pseudonovibos horns on record (including this species' type material) are also fraudulent. Hence the French team's bold statement that Pseudonovibos is not a new animal and its scientific name should be abandoned is premature, to say the least. Kansas University mammalogist Prof. Robert M. Timm has published an extensive paper on Pseudonovibos, in which he and fellow mammalogist Dr John H. Brandt documented two sets of Pseudonovibos trophy horns procured by two western big game hunters in Vietnam during 1929 (but not recognised back then to be from anything special or new). Following the appearance of the French team's claims, Timm averred that he had no doubt that Pseudonovibos is a valid taxon, having uncovered various overlooked records from the 1880s and 1950s that documented a mysterious spiral-horned bovine beast ostensibly synonymous with P. spiralis.
Moreover, in a separate paper a team of Eastern European scientists announced that their phylogenetic analyses of nearly-complete 12S mitochondrial rDNA sequences for this enigmatic creature and a number of other bovids indicate that P. spiralis is a valid species belonging to the buffalo subtribe (Bovina), and should be placed between the Asiatic buffaloes Bubalus and the African buffalo Syncerus.
Asian water buffalo Bubalus (top) and African buffalo Syncerus (bottom) (© Dr Karl Shuker / public domain)
Personally, I consider it possible that the answer to the riddle of whether Pseudonovibos truly exists is that this enigmatic beast is a real but extremely rare species, so rare that procurement of its much-prized, supposedly snake-repelling horns even by locals is extremely difficult - which has in turn led to the deliberate preparation of copies for use in rituals. In other words, some of the preserved horns on record are indeed fakes, yet were created not to fool, but merely to act as substitutes for the real thing. This is also an opinion that has been aired by Prof. Colin Groves, though as he has noted to me, if the type material for Pseudonovibos is examined and is also shown to be fake, then regardless of whether this animal does exist, the name 'Pseudonovibos spiralis' must be abandoned, and every remaining specimen must be examined to see whether any genuine material does exist.
Meanwhile, however, the holy goat remains suspended in a decidedly unholy scientific limbo, and seems destined to remain there indefinitely, or at least until – if ever – further evidence for or against its reality is obtained.
The above ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals. My sincere thanks as ever to Dr Maurizio Dioli for very kindly permitting me to include some of his photographs in my writings.
In early August 2016, cryptozoological colleague Lorenzo Rossi brought to my attention a very strange but intriguing photograph that he had recently discovered in the entry for Pseudonovibos in Spain's version of Wikipedia (but not present at that time in other countries' Wikipedia entries for Pseudonovibos, although, very oddly, it does currently appear in the English-language Wikimedia Commons entry for the saola!). According to the photo's subject and accompanying caption, it depicted in close-up a living specimen of the kting voar encountered in Cambodia. Remarkably, however, this potentially highly-significant image had (and still has) attracted virtually no cryptozoological attention – ostensibly a very surprising situation, bearing in mind the still-unresolved controversy regarding this notoriously elusive/non-existent creature.
Moreover, in the photo, the creature has either somehow lost its right-hand horn or it is twisted backwards out of sight; and, very bizarrely, a snake appears to be fastened by its jaws to and hanging down from the creature's still-present or visible left-hand horn. Here is the photo in question:
Naturally, I was exceedingly curious as to what precisely was depicted in this odd photo (and in a near-identical one that I shortly afterwards discovered on the Cryptidz Wikia site – in the latter, there was more foliage partly obscuring the creature's face), especially as to me it seemed very similar in appearance to ordinary domestic goats commonly seen in Cambodia (such as several of the somewhat frisky individuals currently viewable here in a short YouTube video). Accordingly, I decided to obtain the opinion of a certain internationally-renowned authority on ungulates, who also happened to have an abiding interest in cryptozoology, and with whom I had corresponded on many different subjects (including Pseudonovibos) for many years. I refer of course to the earlier-mentioned mammalogist Prof. Colin Groves, who had delineated and formally described several major new species of mammal in modern times, and whose subsequent passing on 30 November 2017 was a massive loss to mainstream zoology and cryptozoology alike.
I was very interested to discover in his emailed response of 11 August 2016 to my enquiry sent to him a day earlier (and also in a subsequent, more detailed phone conversation between us regarding this matter) that Prof. Groves aired precisely the same thoughts that had occurred to me when perusing the image. Here are his most significant comments from his email:
I certainly agree with you about the goat… [and] if you [look] carefully there is a very distinct join along the forehead. I would think it just must be that rare thing, a goat standing in water (or else the water has been photoshopped into the picture)… The other one [horn] is just visible at the base, evidently skewed backward. It may be that the only frontlet and horns available to the photographer or photoshopper was defective in some way, maybe the right horn had broken off and what remained of it was pulled out of sight… The rather scruffy hair along the bases of the horns is brownish.
Summarising his emailed and phone comments: Prof. Groves personally deemed the photo to be of a domestic Cambodian goat either directly photographed or digitally photoshopped standing in water, with a Pseudonovibos frontlet bearing brown hair at its base either physically attached to or digitally photoshopped onto its black-haired head, and with one of the frontlet's horns broken off or twisted virtually out of sight. A nice touch also commented upon by Prof. Groves was the snake hanging down from the fully-visible left horn, because this immediately recalls the horn-biting snake-related folklore linked to the kting voar.
All in all, a photograph every bit as enigmatic as the highly ambiguous animal that it purportedly portrays – a fitting conclusion, in fact, to a lengthy, tortuous tale as twisted and contorted as the spiralled horns of Pseudonovibos itself!
I wish to dedicate this ShukerNature blog article to the memory of Prof. Colin Groves, in grateful thanks to him for his kind and always much-valued assistance and responses to my many enquiries on all manner of mutually interesting wildlife subjects down through the years.