29 South America's Microdeer
South America contains three types of tiny, indigenous deer. None are well known to science, yet they are of microlivestock size, and if given research attention at least two might respond to rearing in captivity.
The pudu (pronounced "poo-doo") is native to temperate forests of the Andean region. It is among the smallest of all true deer, adult males being merely the size of small terriers and the females being smaller still. It is very shy and retiring and is endangered.
All things considered, this animal would appear to be an unlikely candidate for microlivestock. But wherever it is found, the pudu is mercilessly hunted, and captive rearing might be the only way to save its populations from extinction. Indeed, it is already being raised in experimental herds in Chile and Argentina.
Pudus (also called the Andean dwarf deer) once ranged widely through the foothills, valleys, and lowlands of the Andes. They prefer the dark, dank underbrush of the cool rainforest, particularly thick bamboo stands. There are two species: Pudu pudu is distributed in parts of southern Bolivia and throughout much of southern Chile nearly to the Straits of Magellan. It is also found on islands off the Chilean coast. Pudu mephistophiles is distributed throughout the highlands of Ecuador, where it occurs only in cool areas at great height.
With their short legs, stocky bodies, and compact heads, pudus do not look much like deer - more like small antelopes with foxlike faces and spiky antlers. Full grown, they are only 40 cm tall and weigh less than 12 kg. They have thick fur ranging from reddish brown to pale gray.
Because of the pudu's small size, shy and secretive nature, and forbidding habitat, few people have ever even seen one. Nonetheless, these animals tame easily and reportedly were once kept by South American Indians. Several generations were also once bred in a Paris apartment and were treated exactly like domestic dogs, which most people who saw them for the first time thought they were.'
In recent years, habitat destruction has greatly reduced the range and numbers of these attractive and fascinating little creatures. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature already lists them as vulnerable to extinction. Pudu studies are highly recommended, and raising pudus promises to be an interesting and valuable activity that may one day lead to one of the most intriguing microlivestock of all.
Brockets (Mazama spp.) are small deer that occupy the place in South America's environment that duikers occupy in Africa (see page 326). They typically reside in thick brush. They occur widely throughout South America and are found in every country except Chile and Uruguay. They also occur in Central America, the West Indies, and Mexico.
There are four species:
- Red brocket (Mazama americana), the most common and widespread, is found from Mexico to Argentina. It is also the largest species, with a mature weight of about 20 kg.
- Gray (brown) brocket (Mazama gouazoubira) is also found throughout Latin America. It is slightly smaller, weighing about 17 kg.
- Lesser brocket (Mazama rufina)2 resides in small and scattered locations in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. It weighs 10-20 kg.
- Dwarf brocket (Mazama chunyi) is found only in pockets of forest and brush on certain mountainsides in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and northern Peru. The smallest brocket, it weighs only 8-12 kg.
Except for their size and color, all brockets look alike. The head, neck, and tail are short; the ears are wide. The lumbar region is higher than the shoulders, and this, together with an arched back, gives them a hunched appearance not unlike a duiker's. The antlers are simple spikes, never longer than a person's hand.
The different species are similar in behavior, too.3 They generally wander around singly or in pairs. Although frequenting dense cover during the day, they emerge at night to feed in open areas. Little is known of their food preferences. But farmers know only too well how fond they are of melons, beans, peppers, and corn. Doubtless, wild forest fruits dominate their native diet.
Although extensively hunted, brockets are so adept at dodging into dense brush that relatively few get caught. However, small size makes them vulnerable to many other predators: puma, jaguar, ocelot, and eagles and other large birds of prey. Near villages the domestic dog is probably their worst enemy. (Infuriated vegetable growers commonly set their dogs on them.)
Although at first sight these retiring, nervous, and agile creatures seem unlikely to be even potential microlivestock, young brockets are sometimes caught and raised by people. It is not uncommon to find them as pets on farms and in gardens. They seem to become very tame and might therefore make useful livestock at some future time. At least one species, the grey brocket, adjusts particularly well to life in and around human settlements.
The third type of South American microdeer, the huemul,4 is a much less likely candidate. It is very rare, very shy, and has so far shown little likelihood of settling into captivity. However, huemul conservation is critical: without urgent attention, the animal will become extinct. Although totally protected by law, it is declining owing to poaching, farm dogs, habitat loss and diseases transmitted by cattle and other livestock.
There are two species:
- The Chilean huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus)5 occurs in high altitude forests, thickets, and grasslands in the Andes of southern Chile and Argentina.
- The Peruvian huemul, or taruca (H. antisepsis), occurs in parts of the Andes of southern Peru and Bolivia as well as of northern Chile and Argentina.
Both species live in small herds above the tree line. They are very shy, and even though the Chilean national seal bears the depiction of a huemul, almost no Chilean (or anyone else, for that matter) has ever seen a live one.
At less than 85 cm tall and probably weighing under 15 kg, huemuls are sized to be microlivestock. However, previous attempts at rearing them in Chile have met with little success. Nevertheless, huemuls have been kept in zoos in Germany, and such experiences - together with the increasing knowledge of how to raise red deer and other species - may eventually provide the keys to their continued existence.