Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hog deer - Least known introduced species

The Spotted Deer ( Axis axis ) is a deer species that has a historical record in Sri Lanka based on the arrival of Arahat Mahinda and his disciples and their meeting with King Devanapethiss. This meeting of the two at Ambastale brings the first ever recorded declaration of a sanctuary for animals in  Mihintale.
The flagship species of the project was the Spotted Deer, and the declared sanctuary was a royal deer hunting park. ( Mahawansa chronicle ) Sri Lanka is home for other  deer species as well. The spotted deer is generally found in the lowland dry zone while the Muntjak or the Barking Deer (  Muntiacus muntjak -Sinhala : Weli Muwa-Olu Muwa) is distributed throughout the country? but more plentiful in the northern dry zone forests. It is also  found in altitudes above 5000-6000 feet.  Two other deer species are the Sambur Deer (  Cervus unicolor - Sinhala: Gona) and the Mouse Deer (  Moschiola meminna - Sinhala Miminna) .
There is but another deer, not heard of by many  other than those living close to them or studying wildlife; its the Hog Deer ( Axis porcinus - Sinhala - Vill Muwa).
The history of the Hog Deer in the country is little known and is in a pathetic state right now.
The Hog Deer is generally a deer species peculiar to its habitat ranges from Pakistan, through northern India, to mainland of South-East Asia . It is also  found in the Southwestern Yunnan province of China.
Its name the Hog Deer is got from the hog like manner in which it runs through the forests with its head hung low to duck  obstacles instead of leaping over them like most other deer do.
However in Sri Lanka its habitat is varied from the above and is confined to a very narrow strip of land in the South-Western coastal wet zone; a few miles North of Kalutara and south wards to Kottawa in the Galle district (W.W.A. Phillips).
As of recent it is highly restricted to the Cinnamon cultivations stretching from Balapitiya to Batapola and Hikkaduwa.
There is no firm historic record found to describe the species in the country and it is believed that this species is an introduced one . The best evidence to this is its non occurrence in  Southern  India and its in a very restricted range in Sri Lanka. It is believed that the progeny may have survived form pet deer becoming wild and it would be interesting to know how it may have entered the country even as pets.
Australia the land of the marsupials has had no deer species at all. However according to the Australian Deer Association all deer species have been introduced in the country and most  introductions have been from Sri Lanka, Malaya and India. The Associations' notes quoted below are very informative.

Australia's Sambur ;? Sambar were obtained mainly from Sri Lanka with a smaller number coming from India.
They were first released in the early 1860s at Mount Sugarloaf in what is now the Kinglake National Park, and at Harewood, near Tooradin, on the edge of the then Koo Wee Rup swamp.
Australia's Spotted Deer; Chital, or axis deer as they are sometimes known, are natives of India and Sri Lanka where they comprise the major part of the tiger's prey. They were the first species of deer introduced to Australia when, between 1800 and 1803, some were brought to this country by Dr. John Harris of the New South Wales Corps. Australia's Hog Deer; Hog deer are among the most primitive of all the deer species introduced and are native to several south-east Asian countries including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma. 

Sri Lanka is known to have exported its fauna from ancient times and the period of introductions of deer to Australia prompt to the possibility that they would have used the port of Galle for this purpose. Port of Galle has been the business hub in the country during this period.  The live cargo may have been off loaded for fodder and water as the voyages would have taken several days. As such there would have been animal pens holding this live cargo until they were shipped or transferred to other. Its also possible that these animals may have been a source of food supplied to the ships that called at the Galle port.  [no cold storage then]. The "Watering Point"  a fresh water spring at the sea side toe of the Bounavista Hill where the sail ships replenished their stocks still stands. (R L Brohier - Seeing Ceylon-). Similarly the Hog Deer, may have been in  transit, and escaped  to the wildness of  Sri Lanka's coastal belt,  which was later planted with cinnamon.

Today its story  is  very disturbing. This deer was elusive for over a hundred years in this water logged coastal habitat.The high grounds that were cultivated with cinnamon was ample cover for the deer during the day. The evenings brought them to the  watery feeding grounds that held tall reeds and grasses on which they foraged till dawn.

Global climate change and the  unpredictable market prices of cinnomon have effected  man and deer equally. The low market price in cinnamon has pushed man to sell out these lands for other uses, depriving the deer of sufficient cover and shelter during the day. As a result the deer in seen stranded in the marshes during the day. Co-existence of deer and man was  seen in the Ambalangoda and Batapola areas until recent. The last five years has seen much change in the global weather patterns. Excessive dry weather to excessive wet weather was a common occurrence  in Sri Lanka. Prolonged dry weather made the marshes go dry and the Hog Deer deprived of its fodder.

A fawn - an amputee

The once peaceful co-existence was shattered with the deer adopting to nocturnal raids in the farm plots. They developed a liking to the sweet potato foliage.   

The once friendly humans have turned brutal to these gentle creatures by killing them for meat. The lucky ones that got trapped or caught are handed over to the Department of Wild Life Conservation Office (DWLC) at Hikkaduwa. Of them some of the injured have been handed over to the Wild Life Society at Hiyare Galle for treatment. This treatment is limited to the sympathetic Vet Doctor who gives his/her services free of charge with possible medication with the very meager funds available. Maintaining them till recovery is but a task on the society for sweet potato saplings are seasonal and are a hard to find commodity. This is the only known fodder that it prefers. The research into this deer is very minimal or nothing at all, as such trans-location and finding foraging grounds are issues to be addressed with proper conservation planning. If the DWLC is aware of how grave the problem is with the Hog Deer today is not known.

It was about the year 2002  that we saw a once famous Director of DWLC who had a vision to conserve the Hog Deer having had to leave early with the project being limited to the printing of an awareness 'T shirt'.
Doe - awaiting transit
The Hog Deer may have been introduced in the country, but it has survived  for over a hundred years. This longer time in isolation may have  brought about very minute changes in its species character making it an all new species unique to Sri Lankan. Time is running out for this deer in this country. Something needs to be done and it needs to be done very soon for otherwise those who have not seen this deer in the wilds of Sri Lanka will not see it forever.


Published in the Sunday Observer Review  2009 - 04 - 01


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