The kouprey, an enigmatic Asian ox believed to be a hybrid — and so, unworthy of conservation efforts — is in fact a distinct species related to the banteng (a wild ox)1. The conclusion contradicts earlier findings2 that the horned beast is a cross between the banteng and domesticated zebu cattle.

First identified in 1937 and last spotted in the 1980s, the kouprey (Bos sauveli) has become a symbol for conservation in southeast Asia. Some experts think that it is already extinct.

Cambodia's national emblem, the kouprey, is a distinct species of ox. Credit: BLICKWINKEL/ALAMY

Gary Galbreath, a biologist at Chicago's Field Museum in Illinois who concluded that the kouprey was a hybrid, told CBS News: “It is surely desirable not to waste time and money trying to locate or conserve a domestic breed gone wild.” He based that conclusion on the observation that kouprey and banteng (Bos javanicus) shared several sequences of mitochondrial DNA.

Now, Alexandre Hassanin and Anne Ropiquet of the National Natural History Museum in Paris have sequenced three regions of mitochondrial DNA and five of non-coding nuclear DNA from seven related species, including kouprey. The pair found that kouprey have unique sequences of both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Their data suggest that kouprey should indeed be a conservation priority — if anyone can find one.