November 22, 1993 12:00 PM

THE FIRST TIME DR. JOHN MACKINNON heard about the creature, he was skeptical. The British-born ecologist was in Vietnam’s remote 350-square-mile Vu Quang Nature Reserve in May 1992 conducting a biodiversity study with five Vietnamese scientists. Villagers who lived near the mountainous jungle reserve, which lies about 175 miles southwest of Hanoi and straddles the border with Laos, told the scientists about a rarely seen beast they called the forest goat. It was cowlike, they said, but had the long horns of an antelope, the glossy coat of a horse and the agility of a mountain goat. “I thought it was rubbish at first,” says MacKinnon, 46, who has worked in Vietnam on and off for 10 years.

The villagers knew what they were talking about, however, and when biologist Do Tuoc, a member of MacKinnon’s team, visited their settlement, they gave him a set of horns from the animal. “At first,” says MacKinnon, “I thought the horns might have been a trophy from Africa that had come from some Frenchman’s house. I knew this was not anything we had ever encountered before in Vietnam.”

MacKinnon had DNA tests done on skin samples from other remains the locals had collected. The creature, it turned out, was something scientists had never encountered anywhere before. Last June, MacKinnon and his colleagues, writing in Nature, the British science journal, were able to claim a remarkable coup: the discovery of a large mammal hitherto unknown to science. It was the first such finding in more than half a century, since the kouprey, a species of wild cattle, was discovered in Cambodia in 1937. “Finding a new genus of mammal is always a shock,” says Dr. John Robinson, vice president for International Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City. “That it exists at all shakes our foundation of knowledge.”

The creature—named by MacKinnon Pseudoryx nghetinhensis (meaning false oryx of Nghe tinh, the former name of the province where it was found)—is a member of the bovid family, but it is called by the villagers the forest goat or spindlehorn. It had been able to live undisturbed because of the inaccessibility of its native region. Until villagers began moving into the area in the 1950s, MacKinnon believes, the spindlehorn had no natural enemies. Its habitat escaped damage during the Vietnam War. “There were no targets,” says MacKinnon, “and no soldiers going through.”

Even today the spindlehorn, which lives at elevations above 3,300 feet, is caught only occasionally in snares set for wild pigs and deer. “I don’t think the animal was deliberately hunted, because it did not have a value, except for a little medicinal use,” says MacKinnon.

MacKinnon, the youngest child of two physicians from Leeds (and the grandson of Ramsay MacDonald, a prime minister of Britain in the 1920s and 1930s), has worked in 60 countries, primarily in Africa and Asia, and has focused his energies on creating conservation management strategies. He founded the Hong Kong-based Asian Bureau for Conservation in 1992.

MacKinnon, who has never actually seen a spindlehorn, wants to capture one—but only on film. He plans to set up a system of cameras in the Vu Quang reserve that will automatically photograph any large animal that passes. “It’s obviously long been a forest animal,” he says. “Its existence suggests that cows originated in forests and later became plains animals.”

Discovery of Pseudoryx—of which it is estimated there are at most a few hundred—could be an impetus to conservation in the reserve, which MacKinnon would like to see expanded. “The Pseudoryx is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “We’ve found a new species of carp, the skull of a deer that may be a new species, and possibly a new species of bird.”

The spindlehorn, MacKinnon estimates, weighs about 220 pounds, has a brown coat with black-and-white markings and a scent gland like the ones deer use to mark territory. “It looks more like a goat than a cow, but it’s biologically closer to the cow,” he says.

Until someone can study a live spindlehorn up close, though, one big question remains unanswered: Should we be getting ourselves ready for Pseudoryx cheese?



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