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The deer with a fatal scent

The deer with a fatal scent

C. Macartney

CLEMENT MACARTNEY wrote this report for the World Wildlife Fund. These are excerpts.

For over a thousand years, musk has been obtained by hunting wild musk-deer. This practice was threatening the species with extinction. Since 1958, China has set up a number of musk deer farms.

The musk-deer is a small animal, standing about 60 cm (2 ft) high. It is quite unlike other deer in appearance. With its long arched back, long pointed ears, and bounding gait, it could easily be mistaken for a large rabbit. Its coat is coloured grey or brown, according to the season, and is distinctive in that the hair is brittle and corrugated, giving a plastic-like appearance. The absence of antlers and the possession of long upper canine teeth also differentiate the musk deer from other deer species.

But what really sets the musk deer apart, and is the principal cause of its disastrous decline, is that the male has a musk gland, known as a pod, in its lower abdomen.

Despite the fact that musk-deer live in alpine and subalpine regions of the Himalayas, from about 1500 to 3700 m (5000 to 12000 ft), hunters from the mountain peoples have little difficulty in killing them for their musk. Musk-deer were formerly widespread throughout the Himalayas in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and southwest China. They have since been eliminated from many areas, reduced to isolated pockets in Nepal, and almost wiped out in India, but they are still present in Pakistan and Bhutan in unknown numbers.

Poaching and habitat destruction are the main reasons why the musk deer has a place in the Red Data Book of endangered species, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Natural Resources. The incentive for the carnage is, of course, money. The rewards are immense. In Hong Kong, the centre of the international market in musk (despite a ban on imports), musk fetches up to US$50000 per kg, while in India it is worth four times its weight in gold. However, the bull; goes to Japan where it is used in medicines.

Hunting of musk-deer by well organized gangs is unchecked. Animals are killed indiscriminately, regardless of sex or age, either by strangulation with nooses or by guns. Some figures suggest that four or five females and juveniles are killed for every adult male, which alone has musk. Each pod provides about 20 g of the substance.

Trade in the musk-deer or its products is banned by all those countries, including the United Kingdom, who are parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. However, trade in musk from the northern races of the deer, found in the USSR and China, is authorized under licence.

Besides man, the predators of the animal include leopards, wild dogs, foxes and yellow-coated martens. Lynxes and wolves may also prey on musk-deer and large predator birds may take juveniles.

The Himalayan musk-deer is not without friends. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) are carrying out a project for its study and conservation in cooperation with the Indian Government. The project is based at the Kedarnath Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh at Shokh, about 2740 m (9000 ft).

Musk is a valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. It can make all sense-organs more sensitive, stimulate blood circulation, reduce inflammation and lower fever. On the international market, musk is mainly used by the perfume industry.

In India there is a growing interest in farming musk-deer in captivity. Animals are at present kept at Dachigam Sanctuary, Kashmir, at Darjeeling Zoo, and at Kufri near Simla. The state government has approved the setting up of a musk-deer breeding farm at Shokh, where there are three enclosures. About 1000 indigenous trees have been planted to provide additional food and cover for the captive deer.

The Chinese have farmed musk deer since 1958 and are reputedly able to milk the musk of males up to 14 times over a period of years: the substance is used in oriental medicine.

If this unusual species is to be saved from extinction in the wild, it is essential that international trade in Himalayan musk be effectively prohibited. Efforts should also be concentrated on protecting the species in national parks and sanctuaries and in promoting education and research into a dwindling species.

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