Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 103 – Chinese Water Deer

Chinese water deer

“We are the only species which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great effort to save what it might destroy.”
Wallace Stegner

Chinese water deer You may have noticed how the rare Chinese water deer in the image above bears an uncanny resemblance to the recently featured Siberian musk deer.  In fact, there are various similarities between them, but the tusks are, of course, the real common denominator. There are contrasts, too, one of which lies in the way their value is perceived by their human predators; their individual reasons for becoming a cause for concern in the wild. Although both are hunted for body parts and meat, and the musk deer is specifically hunted for its musk pod to make perfume, these sweet little things are pursued and slain for the most egregious of reasons:  the quasi-digested milk found in the rumen of unweaned fawns, is used in traditional medicine as a cure for indigestion in children.  In other words, an extremely young animal, a baby, is being killed for the sake of a relatively minor ailment in a human child.  Just how bad is that!  Yet again, that same primal pattern of behaviour surfaces to aid the demise of a wonderful species.

In China, hunting occurs at night with the use of dogs.  In Korea, where dogs are also utilised, snares are very much in evidence, too.

Then, we have the introduced populations in England and France.  Speaking of primal behaviour, in England you can shoot the Chinese water deer – providing it is Open Season, of course.  Is this why England introduced the water deer in the late nineteenth century [1] and continue to conserve the species today?

Chinese water deer “This opportunity is strictly limited as it forms part of our management control to keep the deer damage at acceptable levels and provides additional income for landowners”. So sayeth “Pete ‘the Meat'” of Chinese Water Deer Stalking when speaking of providing recreational hunting of the water deer.

Why they are not operating a captive breeding programme, with a view to re-introducing the species to its native home, is not clear.  Bearing in mind the English population makes up ten per cent of the world population (including the small feral populations founded by escaped deer), and it seems, that is too many.  It does beg the question – is ‘sport’ in a non-native country more important than conserving the deer in its own native wild habitat where it is considered at risk?

Chinese water deer are classified as Vulnerable (at high risk of endangerment in the wild) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.   Surely, we should be investing Chinese water deer some time and effort in this animal before it reaches the brink of oblivion, and not using it for the entertainment of the privileged few.  If any such captive programmes do exist, I apologise, and would welcome any information – but thus far I have been unable to trace any.  But, there is no doubt, these delightful and unusual animals, with their shy and gentle natures, and fascinating evolutionary biology are something we should both treasure and assist.

There is little information available regarding the French herds, though it is thought they are small and completely feral.

Reportedly, the Chinese water deer is the most primitive living member of the Cervidae family.  As with the Siberian musk deer, the water deer sports large canine teeth, or tusks, and has no antlers. This makes both these deer biologically significant species.  The similar Reeve’s muntjac, also a significant species, has both tusks and antlers.

Chinese water deer Huge furry ears, a round face, soft black eyes and a black button nose give the Chinese water deer the look of a well-loved teddy bear.  The second part of their scientific name, Hydropotes inermis, is translated as ‘unarmed’, ‘defenceless’, ‘without weapons’. Which is exactly, where man is concerned, what they are.  Those sharp little fangs, admittedly not very teddy-bear-like, are used for in-fighting. Any territorial issues are laid to rest by the bucks confronting each other.  This is usually a last resort, as chasing off is normally the first choice of weapon. The bucks can sometimes harm each other by fighting, but fatalities rarely occur.

These are small deer, with males weighing in at up to forty pounds, and standing less than two feet at the shoulder.  Their hind legs are longer than their forelegs and they have short, stumpy tails.  Their enlarged canines grow just over three inches in length, and can move around in the sockets.  This adaptation helps eating and reduces the risk of the teeth breaking. The female is slightly smaller than the male, with smaller tusks.  Coats are thick and coarse, and chestnut-brown in the summer months, dulling to a greyish hue in winter.  The underside is of a much paler colour.

Chinese water deer and fawn by Hans WatsonChinese water deer are, as the name implies, frequenters of water. Proficient swimmers, they move through the water between locations, in search of food and shelter.  They are crepuscular and usually hide in dense vegetation during the day.  When alarmed, they tend to run in ‘bunny-bounds’, shrieking and barking as they go.

In fact, they have a range of very distinctive calls.  The main call is a bark, often used as an alarm call.  If challenged during the rut, a clicking sound can be heard from the males (possibly made with their teeth), and a buck chasing a doe will squeak or whistle.  And, there is a special call reserved by mothers when signalling to their fawns, which has a gentle pheep tone.

Chinese water deer with four fawnsThe mating season, or rut, for Chinese water deer takes place between November and January. Following successful pairings, there is a gestation period of up to two hundred and ten days, after which the doe can give birth to as many as six or eight young; though the more common births are between one and three fawns.  These tiny babies will weigh about one kilogram at birth and will be on their feet within the hour.  They will have darker coats than their parents, with white spots and stripes on their backs.  For the first few weeks, most of their time will be spent well-hidden amongst grasses and shrubs.  This is a fast-growing species and the fawns will be weaned by two months of age and fully mature at six and eight months (male and female respectively).  Sadly there is a forty per cent mortality rate of fawns between birth and four weeks.  Those that do survive could live up to thirteen years in both the wild and captivity.

[1] Chinese water deer were first introduced to London Zoo in the 1870s and later to the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Abbey estate in 1896.

Natural Habitat
Riparian zones, swamps, marshes and coastal plains.
China (Hydropotes inermis inermis) and the Korean peninsular (Hydropotes inermis argyropus).  It has also been introduced to England and France.
What they eat
Young grasses,forbs and other wetland plants.
Habitat loss through reclamation of land for agriculture and urban development. Poaching for its meat and for the semi-digested milk found in the rumen of unweaned fawns.
Status: Vulnerable
The Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable (at high risk of endangerment in the wild).  This species is also listed on the Chinese Red List as Vulnerable and on China Key List II.
The introduced Chinese water deer population in the United Kingdom is increasing.

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