A deer tale


IN recent weeks, I have seen two species of European deer: the artifi cial ones decorating shopping malls in Malaysia, Singapore and the UK with their glittering lights towing Santa’s sleigh, as well as two live deer in the fi elds beyond my house in South West England.

RELATIVE GIANTS: Sambar deer can be found at the Lambir Hills National Park near Miri.

The Santa sleigh deer – reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) – is native to Northern Eurasia and North America.

Today, the Lapps in North Western Europe and the Tungus and Yakut peoples in Northern Siberia breed reindeer.

A herd has even survived in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland for over 40 years.

In the fi elds of a deep valley beyond my house, when taking two Chinese visitors on a ramble with my dog, we saw red deer (Cervus elaphus).

The red deer migrated to Britain from the European continent 11,000 years ago, when the English Channel was covered in ice near the end of the Pleistocene Ice Ages.

Carbon 14 dating has accurately identifi ed the age of their antlers and long past lives in the UK.

The red deer now lives, in herds, in my nearest National Park on Exmoor, in valley woodlands and on the high exposed moors.

I know of one particular valley where I can guarantee my house visitors a view of 10 to 15 deer at almost any time and, during the rutting (mating) season, the sight of a magnifi cent stag with his huge, branching antlers held proudly aloft.

Photo shoots abound.

Having seen deer in public parks in China, my friends enquired about the species of deer I had observed in Asia.

Apart from the Shika deer – messengers from the gods – of Nara Park at Japan’s fi rst national capital in Western Honshu, where the deer are tame, my encounters with wild deer have always been in East Malaysia.

The Bornean deer are all classifi ed in the Cites lists as vulnerable verging on endangered species.

All deer are ungulates (hoof shaped animals) of the species Cervidae.

Muddy slightly crescent shaped imprints abound on paths and the sides of riverbanks.

Most deer have a facial gland set either in front of their eyes or beneath their chins, which secrete a strongly scented pheromone (a chemical to infl uence another animal’s behaviour) and this it does to excellent effect in the mating season to deter other deer from its territory.

(No wonder my dog has to be bathed at that time of the year when she comes back stinking of strong odours after rolling in a bed of reeds.) Interestingly in many classical paintings of deer, a teardrop seems to emerge from a deer’s eye – a sad-looking deer.

What the painter has not realised is that the deer is in love.

All deer are uni-parental, in that, after birth, it is the mother deer (doe) that cares for the offspring, whilst the stag disappears until he emerges, perhaps amongst other herds, to fi ght with opposing stags over his right to sire.

The Bornean yellow muntjac (Muntiacus atherodes) only occurs here and can be seen in the lowland areas of Gunung Gading, Lundu and near Bintulu as well as in the Mulu and Niah National Parks in Sarawak.

I have also seen them at the Danum Valley Conservation Area, alongside the River Danum in Sabah.

They are often referred to as barking deer, for they communicate with dog-like yelps, and are even considered a relic species of deer.

With antlers only seven centimetres long and a shoulder height of 50 centimetres, they are confi ned to moist forest areas alongside riverbanks and are easy game for poachers as they live essentially on herbs, grasses and seeds.

These are a subspecies of the Bornean red muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak), which is more evident in the Danum Valley.

Both species of deer are diurnal in their habits.

The mouse deer of Borneo is the tiniest of all deer, yet it is the one most mentioned in Malaysian folklore as a shy and timid creature, which always gets the better of bigger and stronger animals (apart from human poachers) through its superb cunning in order to survive.

Referred to as kancils (not to be confused with the car) or pelanduk in Bahasa Malaysia, there are two types of this deer, both of which are found in lowland dipterocarp forests.

The greater mouse deer (Tragulus napu) has a body length of 70 to 75 centimetres, a shoulder height between 30 and 35 centimetres, a tail length of eight to 10 centimetres and weighs between 5kg and 8kg.

The lesser mouse deer (Tragulus javanicus) is as its name implies only about 45 centimetres long and weighs just 2.2kg.

Without horns or antlers, they do possess upper canine teeth, which in the males are very sharp and project prominently either side of the lower jaw.

Essentially nocturnal creatures, they mark their roaming areas with urine, faeces and secretions from glands under their chins.

If entering the edge of a rainforest at night and catching their eyes in a torch beam, you will hear them drumming the ground with their hooves at a frequency of four beats per second.

Both species are really no larger than a hare or a big rabbit and live as browsers on leaves and grasses.

Within 30 minutes of birth, the fawns stand upright and are ready to suckle.

To see a lesser mouse deer caged and up for sale by a roadside vegetable stall in Northern Sabah disturbed me.

A low density herd of sambar deer (Cervus unicolor), relative giants of deer species in Borneo, can be found at the Lambir Hills National Park near Miri and in the Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah.

A larger herd exists at Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

The largest of forest deer in Southeast Asia weighing up to 350kg, they miraculously feed on poisonous plants thanks to organisms in their digestive systems that have the capacity to breakdown toxins.

Sadly, when growing new antlers, they are tempted to salt licks and are thus at the mercy of poachers.

Most active at night, these deer, as well as poachers, are found in open areas of forest or near river edges.

Let us hope that the transnational Heart of Borneo initiative, which focuses on sustainable development, will enable man and deer to prosper and survive.

Interestingly, of the total land area that makes up this area, 60 per cent is on Indonesian territory, less than 40 per cent in Malaysia and less than 1 per cent in Brunei.

The survival of all these species of deer is of paramount importance.

Local extermination of these elegant creatures through trade – driven hunting and the mounting of antlers as shooting trophies and wall decorations, together with local consumption of deer meat and the restaurant trade is a threat to local deer species.

To visit a website entitled Borneo’s Forest Food with a menu item for barking deer in curry masala left me as disgusted as when I found the hind leg of a red deer in a fi eld behind my house in England – the result of illegal poaching.

For further reference read ‘A Walk through the Lowland Rain Forest of Sabah’ by Elaine J F Campbell or ‘A Field Guide to Mammals of Borneo’ by Junaide Payne, Charles Francis and Karen Phillipps.

Both are Natural History Publications.