“The awful wrongs and sufferings forced upon the innocent, faithful animal race form the blackest chapter in the whole world’s history”
Edward Augustus Freeman
Often called the ‘vampire deer’ because it has fangs (tusks) instead of horns, or the ‘kangaroo deer’ because of its kangaroo-like face (though I think it looks more like a llama head on), the Siberian musk deer is an undeniably interesting ungulate. But, have you ever wondered where that equally interesting, and powerful, musk smell comes from in perfumes and soap? Or how it is produced, and how many lives are taken to render even the smallest amount of this strongly aromatic substance.
For over five thousand years, the male Siberian musk deer has secreted musk for the benefit of man’s vanity and ailments. The musk has been highly prized for use in the production of both perfumes and traditional medicines. The Chinese Journal of Medicine is actively encouraging an end to the use of endangered animals in Traditional East Asian Medicine, but the problem continues and trade is as brisk as ever. Currently, there are over four hundred patented Traditional medicines using musk as an ingredient. This accounts for more than ninety per cent of the entire musk market.
The perfume trade has also changed tack, albeit by way of a ban on importation imposed by the European Union In 1999. The majority of perfumiers have now switched to synthetic alternatives. Others, however, still use the real thing. Though today, natural musk used in perfumes makes up a much smaller percentage of the market. Nevertheless, a lot of animals are still killed for this.
Musk is the powdery active ingredient inside the musk pod, which the male musk deer secretes from its preputial gland. This musk is highly prized and is still probably one of the most expensive raw materials on earth. It can sell for anything from $8,000 per kilogram to a past recorded $45,000 on the Black Market. Another disturbing factor is the number of deer slaughtered per kilogram. Only tens of grams can be taken from one animal, and for every kilogram harvested, over one hundred and sixty animals must die. Add to that the number which are killed incidentally and it is not hard to see why the species is declining so dramatically. Age and sex are immaterial to hunters setting snares, and three to five musk deer are killed for every male with a musk pod. This carnage includes females, which are crucial to the regeneration of the species.
Siberian musk deer are also bred in captivity at musk deer farms, especially in Russia and China. Farming was introduced as a method of obtaining musk without killing the deer. Alas, this method has not proved entirely successful. The quality and quantity of musk produced is way below par. Hunting in the wild, the more cost-effective method, continues for the purer musk.
The most striking characteristics of the Siberian musk deer are its pair of prominent, tusk-like canine teeth. These are grown by the male and used for displays, rather like antlers in most other deer. They continue to grow throughout the deer’s life. The deer itself is small in stature and reaches a height of only twenty-six inches at best, with a body length of roughly forty inches. Weighing in at up to thirty-eight pounds, it is much the same as an average four-year-old child.
Siberian musk deer have dense, long coats, keeping them warm in the cold weather. Bodies are mostly dark-brown in colour with a greyish head. The species has long hare-like ears, short, thin front legs and powerful, long hind legs, with a stubby tail which can hardly be seen. Long pointed hooves, which are broad at the base, give the deer more surface area to prevent them from sinking into snow-covered ground.
On the whole, Siberian musk deer are shy, solitary creatures. Both nocturnal and crepuscular, they spend their days resting in the undergrowth, safely tucked away from predators. If they are approached, they head for rocky terrain and out of reach crags. When unable to do this, they panic and run in circles. They are very fleet of foot when it comes to taking flight, but they do tire easily.
The breeding season for Siberian musk deer starts in December and normally lasts three to four weeks, but some females do not mate until March. At this time the musk is put to its proper use, that of attracting the female. Some females remain barren, but for those who do conceive, a gestation period of six months takes place, after which one fawn will normally be born. Two are rare.
Fawns are tiny and almost completely motionless for the first month. Fawning takes place in dense shrubs, under low branches or around fallen trees. Youngsters will be weaned at three to four months and will remain with their mothers for up to two years.
Siberian musk deer live for no more than fourteen years in the wild, but can live as long as twenty years in captivity.
Mountainous broadleaf, needle and dark coniferous forest (at under sixteen hundred meters) protect and feed them through the winter. In summer they tend to gravitate towards the lusher valleys below, by then abundant in vegetation.
Mongolia, Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, China, and the Korean Peninsula
What they eat
Lichens constitute the bulk of the Siberian musk deer’s winter diet, supplemented with bark, leaves and pine needles. In summer they eat grasses, cereals and the leaves of indigenous fruit trees.
Illegal, unsustainable hunting for musk is the greatest threat to the musk deer. Only the male has the musk gland, but hunters do not discriminate when killing the species.
Habitat fragmentation and loss is also a threat. Illegal logging, mining, human disturbance and fires caused by humans, all contribute to the loss. Natural predators include the lynx, tiger, bear and wolverine.
The Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable (meaning the species is at high risk of endangerment in the wild). This species is also listed under CITES Appendix II.
The Siberian musk deer is protected throughout its range, although the level of protection shows room for improvement. It is also against the law to kill musk deer in all countries save Russia and Kazakhstan. In Russia it is prohibited in some areas and not in others, where a permit is required during the months of November and December. In Kazakhstan, little information about hunting is available but it is thought the population numbers, confined to the eastern most part, are very low.
Four Russian Officials Accused of Poaching a Rare Siberian Deer! (January 2014)
Russian Border Agents Seize Half Ton of Bear Paws Some of these packages contained body parts belonging to Siberian musk deer. (November 2013)
Russians May Face Death in China for Bear Paw Smuggling (June 2013)
Day 680 – BPAL’s Siberian Musk (November 2013)
5,500 Siberian Beavers to Be Culled (January 2014)
Big Cats Disappearing in Russia along with other species (August 2013)