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.

Related Articles
Chinese deer in England 
Only mass deer cull can prevent destruction of British woodlands and wildife
City reintroduces Chinese water deer for eco-tourism
Letter from Norfolk

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 100 – The Siberian Musk Deer

Siberian musk deer - Moschus moschiferus

“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

Siberian Musk Deer 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.

Exotic Deer Musk available wholesale from ChinaThe 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. Siberian Musk DeerAdd 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. Siberian Musk Deer 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.

Siberian Musk Deer 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.

Natural Habitat
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.

Status: Vulnerable
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.

Related Articles
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)