The wild yak, the takin, and a few other animals are facing a fate similar to that of tigers, and whales but seem doomed to make a more silent and unknown journey to extinction. The large-antlered muntjac is among the large family of 50 odd species broadly categorized as deer (Cervidae). This number comprises a fifth of the mammals on earth with hooves (ungulates). They are present and hold ecological niches across various biomes.
The deer initiate an extensive range from cool temperate rainforests in Patagonia and the Southeast Asian humid tropics. They are also found in the high plateau of the Himalayan western range.
Two of the species are closely similar and are confused for one another and were considered part of one species in the past. There is the wapiti, or the elk covering Canada to Mexico. The show is found in the eastern regions of Tibet and is found at altitudes up to 16,700 ft. (5,100 mt.). The red deer of Europe live on shorebird eggs and seaweed along the coast of Scotland. The Barbary stag was once abundant in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Then there’s the hangul in Kashmir or the maral in Iran.
But lost in the vast jungles of Southeast Asia, another obscure species could be lost forever. A dozen-odd species that are collectively called the muntjacs comprise between 20 to 25% of the total deer species in the world.
Getting To Know The Various Muntjacs
The red muntjacs are the most common variety and are divided into the southern and the northern red muntjac. They are spread over from the eastern part of Pakistan to Borneo, from Sri Lanka to the Western Ghats in India. There are also found in the Bhutanese part of the Himalayas at an altitude of over 12,000 ft. (3,700 meters). But several species of the muntjac have more constrained territories and were relatively unknown to even scientists. A string of varieties of the muntjac was discovered as recently as 3 decades back by a team of scientists who brought back their research from an extensive chain of mountain ranges that sweep the Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
The Large-antlered muntjac along with other discoveries including the Saola and the striped rabbit became known to the whole world. A small species of the muntjac also came to light, the Truong Son. North Myanmar was the setting for another recent discovery of the muntjac. The Roosevelt Barking deer, also called Roosevelt muntjac was considered extinct but has been recently discovered in 1996. Other species of deer are yet to be discovered in the Southeast Asian forests.
Their capability to vocalize with a distinct sound has led to the name, barking deer. The call is common to both genders of the deer. The call is more of a warning call.
Several other traits are shared by the muntjacs. The males of the maximum species of this deer have antlers, it is not present in the females. Long protruding canines in males are used to fight other males during mating season. The canines are present even in females in a number of species.
But little is known about their ecology behavior and demography. Though the antlers help the females choose their mates, some varieties including the Yellow muntjacs of Borneo and the Roosevelt.
The Muntjacs are shy and nocturnal which makes them relatively solitary and difficult t study. Their population status remains largely unknown. They aren’t easy to observe in the dense forests of Southeast Asia. An even more pressing issue is that of protecting endangered species.
The establishment of the Cuc Phuong National Park by Ho Chi Minh back in 1962 gave some measure of protection to the muntjacs. Ho Chi Minh believed in the concept of ‘rung la vang’ (forests are gold), inferring that an investment in the environment was an investment for the future.
But the dozen-odd muntjacs are under threat today. The southern red is the least threatened of the species while the black muntjac is listed as vulnerable. The Large-antlered muntjac comes under the critically endangered list. They are now confined to the Annamites forests, both semi-green, and evergreen.
The large-antlered variety was hunted by the indigenous population for their meat. French hunters also shot them down as trophies. But scientists remained oblivious of the deer till 1993 when ecologists Tom Evans and Rob Timmins carrying out surveys in Laos found two antlers in a house.
The unusual antlers drew their attention, found near the Phou Xang He sanctuary. Timmins finally spotted a live one while trekking in the Nakai Plateau. It was a female, and the fleeting glimpse was enough to convince them that they had found a new variant of the muntjac.
The fleeing deer had alternating light and dark bands and the color was agouti. Timmins saw other trophy heads in various homes but a live deer was found finally in a Lao zoo.
‘Martha’ one of the few sholas ever studied from up close was also found in the same zoo. Recent camera traps have given the global audience more close-up images of the Large-antler muntjacs.
Snaring remains the biggest danger to the muntjac population. Then there is the danger posed by mining and timber harvesting. The construction of hydroelectric dams poses a serious challenge to their vanishing habitats. They now are confined to the Annamite Mountains and in the associated hill ranges. Every study indicates a steep decline in their numbers.