|Auburn University Digital Library|
|Microlivestock - Little-Known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future|
source ref: b17mie.htm
|Part V : Deer and Antelope|
Little is known about the water deer' (Hydropotes inermis), but it should be considered along with mouse deer, muntjacs, musk deer, and others as a possible species for microlivestock development. It is comparable in size, and it is unusual among deer for producing large litters: births of triplets or more are common.
As with the other species in this section, this is a highly speculative notion; however, there is some justification for it. The Zoological Society of London has successfully established breeding colonies, and other zoos have also bred the animal in captivity. The water deer has the advantage of rapid growth, early maturity, and high fecundity. Indeed, given protection, its populations have been known to increase rapidly.
APPEARANCE AND SIZE
The animal has a graceful and delicate appearance, its best known characteristic being the male's long tusks. Both sexes are about the same size, standing 45-55 cm at the shoulder and weighing up to 19 kg. Body length is up to about I m, and the tail is so tiny that it is barely noticeable. The round-tipped ears are characteristically held erect above the head.
Water deer are somewhat like muntjacs, but they are longer in the leg and lighter in build. Their forelegs are shorter than their hindlegs so that they stand slightly higher at the haunches than at the shoulders. This gives them a hunched appearance.
The hair is generally thick and coarse, longest on the flanks and rump. The backs and sides are usually yellowish brown, finely stippled with black. In winter, the coat is thick and variable in color; pale fawn and peppery gray-brown are common shades. In summer, the coat is sleek and reddish. Fawns are white spotted at birth, but this dappling soon fades.
Neither sex has antlers. The upper canine teeth, especially in the males, are enlarged, forming curved tusks 7 cm long. These are much bigger than those in muntjacs and can protrude well below the jawline.
In both sexes there is a small inguinal gland present between the hind legs, the only instance among deer.
In China the water deer has a wide distribution range. It is mainly found in the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hunan, Hubei, and Fujian, the mid and lower Yangtze River Basin, and coastal areas and islands in central and eastern China. It is also found in Guilin, southern Sichuan Province, Guangxi Province, and Guangdong Province in the south.2
In Korea, the animal lives along the lower reaches of most rivers, except those in the extreme northeast. Its northern limit of distribution is probably about latitude 43ÝN.
At Woburn Park in England, a few escaped from a herd early this century and have increased and become established in a number of counties, particularly Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk.
In China, owing to increasing reclamation and cultivation of wetlands, the habitat of the water deer is gradually shrinking. At present the animal is protected by the government, which designates appropriate hunting seasons. It is estimated that about 10,000 are killed each year by hunters. In Korea the water deer is still plentiful. As noted, in England it is maintaining itself and is thriving in some protected parks. It is also reported to be present in France.
HABITAT AND ENVIRONMENT
In its home range, the water deer is usually found among reeds and rushes in swampy areas. It also frequents the tall grasses and sparse shrubs of mountainsides and cultivated fields. In England it has adapted to a variety of habitats, including woodlands.
The water deer is chiefly a grazer. It feeds mainly on reeds, coarse grasses, and some tree leaves.
As previously mentioned, this is the most prolific species of deer. Up to seven fetuses have been observed in a single pregnant female, although the normal litters are two or three. The gestation period is about 176 days. Fawns are born in late spring or early summer, and weigh only about 0.5 kg at birth. Within 4 days the newborns can live almost exclusively on grasses. Usually, however, they are fully weaned after 4 8 weeks, but remain socially attached to the mother. They appear to become independent after about 4 months. Males become sexually mature at about 5-6 months; females at about 7-8 months.3
Water deer are generally seen alone. Even where abundant, they seldom congregate in herds. Females are sometimes intolerant of each other, as are adult males or young males. However, in captivity, several females can graze and rest in loose aggregations. The peak period of grazing activity occurs around dusk. Feeding sessions are interspersed with periods of passive cud-chewing.
Water deer "bark" at intruders. During the rut, males are especially noisy and aggressive, and defend their territories with vigor. Fighting involves striking their tusks into the shoulder or back of their opponents. 3 Information from Lu Houji. These are extremely excitable little animals. When upset, they often "hump" their backs and bound away like rabbits. They are also good swimmers.
In China the water deer are hunted for their meat and skins, and newly born fawns are killed to obtain the mother's colostrum for medicinal purposes. In a few localities in England, the species has become a game animal.
The water deer is not yet known on "farms." However, it seems to be easily kept, has bred well in zoos, and has thrived in many British wildlife parks.
The assets of early maturity and high fecundity mean that the potential exists for rapid population expansion. Such an event occurred at Britain's Whipsnade Zoo. In 1929 and 1930, 32 deer were released into undeveloped pasture; by 1937, 120 fawns had been raised.
Because they are relatively small, and because in the wild state they aggregate only under exceptional conditions, water deer are unlikely to have any appreciable impact on vegetation in forests, farms, or gardens. Nonetheless, they can damage crops, and Chinese farmers, who consider them pests, often illegally kill them out of season.
These animals are swift and adept at escaping captivity. It is possible that because of territoriality only a single pair will live in a given area. Moreover, males are aggressive and must be kept apart.
They seem able to withstand chilly weather well, but a combination of wet and cold is harmful. Their heavy winter coat, essential to survival in the Far East, renders the animal susceptible to dehydration and heat exhaustion in comparatively mild climates, such as England's.
At birth, the tiny fawns are extremely vulnerable to a variety of predators, both birds and mammals. The species may need areas of dense cover or some shelter from wind.
RESEARCH AND CONSERVATION NEEDS
The water deer has been successfully kept in semicaptivity for many years; however, for it to reach a level of domestication suitable for use as microlivestock, research is needed in the following areas:
- Performance under a range of environments;
- Grazing efficiency;
- Basic physiology;
- Captive breeding and domestication - measurements of growth rates, space requirements, and feed needs; and
- Modifying behavior to overcome territoriality - for instance, imprinting on humans, selection of docile specimens, hand rearing, and castration.
The water deer is not an endangered species; however, efforts should be made to preserve the populations in their native ranges and habitats.