close this bookMicrolivestock - Little-Known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future
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close this folderPart V : Deer and Antelope
View the document26 Mouse Deer
View the document27 Muntjac
View the document28 Musk Deer
View the document29 South America's Microdeer
View the document30 Water Deer
View the document31 Duikers
View the document32 Other Small Antelope

28 Musk Deer


The musk deer (Moschus species)1 is so small that (like other ungulates in this section) it is only as large as an average-size dog. A gland in males produces musk, a thick, oily secretion that is one of the most valuable substances in the animal kingdom. Musk is used in Oriental Medicine as well as in Europeans perfumes, and in recent year it has sometimes sold for as much as three times the price of gold.

Musk is traditionally obtained by killing these deer and removing their glands. The dried glands, called pods, contain a reddish brown musk powder that has been a commodity in international commerce for more than 1,000 years. Despite bans in India (1972) and Nepal (1973), musk continues to be illegally exported, mainly via Hong Kong, for use in Japan and Europe. In Japan, for example, it is an ingredient in more than 200 different medicines.2 In Europe, musk goes into some of the most famous perfumes.

The international trade in Himalayan musk, originating from both northern and southern sides of the Himalayan divide, amounts to 200 kg per year, representing an annual slaughter of 20,000-32,000 male deer.

The commercial value of the animal makes it highly attractive for development as a livestock species. The economic force causing its slide toward extinction could be employed to protect and restore both the species and its habitat. Ranching these deer might put musk production on a sustainable footing. It might also encourage habitat protection, because in the harsh climate of the high Himalayas, rearing musk deer could be much more profitable to villagers than raising crops or cattle.

Musk deer are already being farmed under primitive conditions in China, where techniques for extracting musk without killing the animal have been developed. In India, small collections of musk deer have been established by the forest departments of Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. For several years authorities in Nepal have successfully extracted musk from an adult male at the Kathmandu Zoo' without apparent harm to the animal.3 These experiences suggest that musk might become a farmed product. So far, however, success has been limited. The Chinese animals, for example, have a high mortality rate and the musk is said to be of poor quality. Nonetheless, these examples are valuable pioneering case studies that deserve recognition, support, and further development.4



With their long ears, arched back, and bounding gait, these diminutive deer remind one of large hares. The pointed face and large ears make their heads strikingly reminiscent of kangaroos. The coarse hair gives them a stocky appearance. The color varies according to species (and subspecies) from rich reddish brown to dark grey or black. The peculiarly brittle and wavy hair probably has good insulating properties, as it consists of air-filled cells arranged like a honeycomb.

Musk deer have an average mature weight of about 6-11 kg and a body length of 50-90 cm. They stand 50 60 cm high at the shoulder and 5 cm higher at the rump because the hind legs are longer than the forelegs. Some dwarf types are only 40-46 cm high. The tail is short, and in males it is naked, except for a terminal tuft of hair, because they mark their territories by constantly rubbing the caudal gland, which is located near the tail, onto objects.

All four toes are flexible, which, compared to the rigid hoof of other ungulates, gives a firmer grip on precipitous slopes. The dew claws are enlarged and, together with the central digits, splay out, to minimize sinking in soft snow.

Neither sex possesses antlers, but males have long upper canine teeth that project well below the lips. The lower front teeth have a spatulate form that probably helps the animals scrape lichens from the surfaces of rocks and trees in winter, when most vegetation is snow covered.

The musk deer’s native range.



The genus is distributed patchily throughout the forested mountainous parts of most of Asia. One population extends from just north of the Arctic Circle southward to the northern edge of Mongolia and Korea. Others occur in China, northern Vietnam, and the Himalayan region including Bhutan, Assam, Tibet, the Indian Himalayas, Nepal, and northern Pakistan.



During this century, the musk deer has rapidly declined throughout its former regions. In many parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and probably Tibet, it is already regarded as rare, with a distribution that is becoming increasingly localized. Possible exceptions are Bhutan and most of China, where its population is thought to be stable. In southern China, a recent estimate puts the musk deer population at 100,000 head. In western and northwestern China, the population is estimated at 200,000-300,000 head.5

It is the uncontrolled hunt for musk that in most places is driving this animal toward extinction, but its habitat is also being increasingly destroyed by livestock and woodcutters. Part of the loss to hunters is owing to the mindless way in which the animals are caught. Most are snared in traps or nets or killed by poisoned stakes set on trails. This kills all the animals indiscriminately, even females and fawns, which produce no musk. This waste of reproductive animals is extremely destructive to the populations and is senselessly hastening the musk deer's extinction.



Musk deer mainly occur in upland woodland and scrub areas. They prefer remote, dense vegetation, especially birch-rhododendron forests in mountainous terrain. They are seldom found in treeless regions or areas thickly populated by people. In the Himalayas, the upper limit coincides approximately with the tree line, which is as high as 4,600 m at the eastern end.6



Despite its economic importance and wide distribution, little is known of the musk deer's biology. Nonetheless, it is known that musk deer have a gall bladder, a bovid feature that distinguishes it from the true deer.

The animals are browsers, relying on young leaves, buds, fruits, and flowers. During the winter, as snow deepens, they depend more on lichens growing above the snow on rocks or tree bark, although in shallow snow they scrape for vegetation with their hooves.

The male's musk sac is unique among deer. Situated between the umbilicus and penis, it contains the gelatinous, odoriferous oil. The amount varies with the season and the age of the animal, but pods of adult males usually weigh about 30 g; occasionally up to 45 g.

Males also have a caudal gland under the tail, which secretes a viscous yellow substance with a goaty smell. They mark vegetation with this secretion by rubbing their hindquarters against stems and branches.

Males become sexually mature at about 18 months, but females seem capable of reproducing in their first year. The estrous cycle is 18-25 days; the receptive period lasts 36 60 hours. Gestation varies from 178 to 192 days. Each female usually bears one or two fawns, rarely three. The fawn is precocious - able to stand and move within 15 minutes.



Musk deer are shy, furtive animals with keen senses of hearing, smell, and sight. They are normally solitary and are most active at dawn and dusk. Only under cover of darkness do they frequent the more open spaces. Except in the rutting season, more than two animals are seldom seen together; groups usually consist only of a female and her young. The alarm call, a loud hiss, is often accompanied by a highstepping, springy gait.

In the wild, musk deer lead "orderly" lives. They use well established trails connecting well-established feeding places, resting places, and "latrines" where they deposit their droppings. Migration is uncommon.

Remarkably sure footed, musk deer climb cliffs and even the trunks of leaning trees. Being small and solitary, they rely on camouflage to avoid predators but flee through established escape routes when disturbed. If cornered, males defend themselves by slashing with their tusks, often inflicting deep cuts and severe injuries.



The strong-smelling, reddish-brown musk is obtainable only from this animal.7 It is used as a fixative in expensive perfumes to increase the retention of the fragrance on the skin. In Oriental medicines it is used in stimulants, sedatives, and other products. Some medicinal properties appear to be genuine.8 Recently, highly purified musk has been selling for as much as $27 a gram.

Trade in the Himalayan musk deer or its products is banned by all countries that are parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, products from musk deer in the Soviet Union and China can be traded legally under license. It seems likely that if formal, self-sufficient, musk-deer farming projects can be established elsewhere, with safeguards to minimize poaching, a wider trade would be officially sanctioned.



Since at least 1919, Chinese scientists have been experimenting with the extraction of musk without killing the males. When the sexual activity is at its peak, the males are caught and musk removed from the pod with a runcible spoon (curved fork) inserted into the sac's aperture. The procedure takes only minutes. There are records of up to 9 g being recovered at a time.

As noted, China established formal musk deer farms in 1958. They are clustered in the Maerkang, Miyalo, and Manchuan areas of Sichuan Province; the Zhenping county of Shanxi Province; and the Fuziling area of Anhui Province. Despite heavy initial losses of animals, mainly during transportation and acclimatization, the Chinese now breed musk deer in considerable numbers. However, juvenile mortality is still high and longevity relatively short. Zoos in other parts of the world have also had difficulties maintaining the animals.9

In captivity, musk deer readily accept many foods: lettuce, carrots, potatoes, apples, rolled oats, hay, alfalfa, bananas, some grass, bamboo leaves, and pumpkins, for example.



The musk deer's social system may represent an impediment to its successful reproduction in captivity. It is irascible and scares easily. In close confinement, males fight and may have to be isolated from each other.

There is an inherent danger in any captive-breeding scheme in the Himalayas: resumption of legal trade in natural musk could damage the remaining populations by stimulating the market and providing an outlet for illicit musk from poached animals. Some biologists (notably in India) consider that a total ban on the trade in natural musk from all sources is essential.

So far, removing the musk without damaging the animals has not proved commercially successful because of market resistance. Most purchasers require the entire pod in order to be certain that they are receiving the genuine product. Given a regularized farming program, however, it seems likely that mutual trust would circumvent this lack of confidence.



To protect this species will not be easy. It occurs in vast, remote areas that are difficult to patrol. The local people are poor and traditionally have used it as a source of income and food. The value of musk is so high that smuggling is already well organized and will be difficult to eradicate.

It is imperative that the status of existing musk deer populations be established. This is especially important in Nepal. The total population may be not more than 500 in the wild.

No matter what is achieved in farming, pressure on populations will only be reduced by protecting the wild specimens. Thus, the dietary requirements and behavior of musk deer should also be evaluated with a view to building up the wild populations directly. If the techniques of breeding and handling can be improved, farming the animal may also indirectly help wild populations by reducing the pressure to harvest them.

An alternative to captive breeding might be ranching the wild animals. In this process, males would be caught periodically and the musk extracted before releasing them. The organized, sustainable harvesting is particularly attractive if developed at the rural level with revenue going directly to local people; it would provide them incentive to conserve not only "their" musk deer but also its habitat. For this purpose, today's musk deer hunters could be trained to extract musk from live animals, releasing and recapturing them on a controlled basis.

Another alternative could be controlled culling at a sustainable level, as is now done in the Soviet Union, where about 5 percent of the population is harvested each year. However, elsewhere annual culls at any level would not be feasible for at least 10 years because the populations are now so low.


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