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Sunday, October 9, 2011

10. Deer

The drought that scorches the forest ends with the rains brought about by the north east monsoon commencing usually in mid October. The hibernating roots of grass shoot out no sooner the earth gets soaked with rain water and the surface then becomes a bluish green carpet within a matter of a few days. The dusty dry grasslands which are an eye sore flips into pleasing scenery.

Herds of deer separated into small family groups and withdrawn deeper into the jungle during the drought, flock together, back into groups of hundreds to feed on the growing tender grass in open glades with the dawn of the rainy season.

Out of the four members of the deer family found in our country three are resident at Yala East with Spotted Deer being the commonest among them. It is one of the most sensitive and harmless creatures among the herbivores. They form part of the food chain that turns the flora of the jungle into the food of the carnivores. The wellbeing of the top carnivores such as leopard which occupies the apex of the food chain depends on the abundance of prey species such as spotted deer.

The pair of antlers which adorns the head of a well built male deer brings out its personality. Leadership of a group is offered only to a strong male which is capable of overpowering other males. To retain leadership the dominant male will have to fight with others. A strong leader will get a better chance to mate with the females in the group. Only a strong male can contribute to a strong posterity.

Females are attracted to the rutting calls and courtship behaviour of males and give birth to a fawn after a gestation period of eight months. Fawns are weak at birth and the mothers will have to protect them from predators such as leopard and jackal until they grow strong, hiding them in cover such as tall grass. While foraging, the mother returns to the fawn for suckling from time to time. Feeding on mother’s milk the fawn grows fast and learns to go about with the group.

First pair of antlers of a male deer does not branch out and resembles a pair of short spikes. Antlers are covered with velvet looking skin during the tender stage. As they grow and harden this skin dries out and peels off. After shedding the first pair of spikes a deer gets a small pair of proper antlers which sheds and re-grows annually during the first few years. It is after this that a complete and full grown branching out pair of antlers forms.

Deer prefer to spend the cool morning and evening hours grazing in open areas. They spend the hot daytime lying under the shade of a tree, resting while chewing cud and dozing off in between.  At times, they go to a water source nearby to drink. These activities all take place with eternal vigilance keeping tab of anything that moves. Any mistake would literally be at the cost of their life. Preying on deer which possesses sharp senses of sight, smell and hearing is not an easy task for a predator.

The prime predator dependent on deer for its sustenance is the leopard. Sometimes, a careless deer will fall prey to a python lying in ambush under a layer of crumbling leaves along a trail or to a crocodile lurking in the murky water of a water hole. Fawns and injured deer are easy prey for jackals. There is hardly any deer which undergoes a natural death escaping from untimely death that peeps from every corner of the jungle, unendingly.

Deer which mostly depend on lush green shoots gets its full complement of food only when the grasses shoot out during the rainy season. When the grasslands go dry during the drought deer will have to move into the jungle and browse on the dry undergrowth of the forest. Finishing the tender leaves of a tree or shrub within their reach they raise themselves with the hind limbs to feed on upper layers.

Deer put on weight during the rainy season and then gradually emaciate and become weak as the drought reached its peak. Stress due to scarcity of food and water grows steeply as the tanks and water holes dry out. Water is left only in the deep rock pools as the drought continues unabated. By then, the rapidly receding water in the rock pools is being shared by all animals in the forest and is becoming foul.  The few inches of water left at the bottom is sometimes beyond the reach of deer. Many deer perish by tipping into the waterholes while trying to reach for the water. It was customary for us to clean and de-silt the waterholes when they dry up at the height of an extreme drought. I remember removing a vast quantity of animal bones including elephant bones from the “Kiri kema” rock waterhole.

At times, even the man-made water holes within the coastal belt of the park completely dry-out making the situation precarious. The only hope left for the animals is to reach Kumbukkan Oya.  The river by then has become a narrow and shallow stream of water leisurely flowing by hugging one of the banks or worse, only small puddles of water remain here and there. In extremely severe droughts when even these puddles dry out, animals find water only in small fountains formed as a result of clever digging by elephants. By then, only the strongest of animals which can withstand all the adverse conditions in the jungle have survived. The weak have perished succumbing to the nature’s way of letting the strong survive to pass along their traits to the next generation.

Barking Deer is a member of the deer family more often observed in association with riverine forests. It is a beautiful animal smaller than spotted deer, reddish brown in colour and lacking spots. When alarmed, it emits a barking call and disappears into the bush quickly.

Hog Deer is quite similar to Barking Deer but it is not found in Yala East area. Its appearance is restricted to cinnamon plantations in Alpitiya area, in Galle District. It is on the verge of extinction due to the destruction of habitat and poaching.

The largest species of deer in Sri Lanka is Sambhur which is not less than one and half metres in height at the shoulder and weighs over three hundred kilograms. General feeding habit of Sambhur which prefers to live in rocky hilly terrain is to browse the under growth while grazing occasionally.

Sambhur is generally solitary or found as a small family unit and displays more nocturnal behaviour than spotted deer. The only exception is the population of Sambhur at Horton Plains National Park which grazes in open grasslands every evening.  Sometimes, a herd of Sambhur at Horton Plains may number over fifty. This may be attributed to the absence of competitors such as wild buffalo and spotted deer for food and the feeling of safety and security.

Though Sambhur is generally quiet its piercing alarm call is heard over a long distance in the jungle. It resembles a short burst of a vehicle horn. Once I was completely startled hearing it at close range.

It was a dark night and we were on a foot patrol to Helawa area where farmers sometimes poach wild animals that come to raid their paddy fields. While on night patrols Senior Ranger Wijesekara leading us never allowed us to make any noise or flash the torches. On that cloudy night without even starlight the strip of empty sky above the road helped us to be guided. Suddenly, we were jolted hearing the loud hoot of a lorry horn right beside us. It took quite sometime to realize that we had got too close to a Sambhur walking in the dark and that it was the alarm call that shook us. It took even longer for my excitement to fade away and the blood pressure to become normal. Even a leopard dashing towards a Sambhur to kill would be stilled for a moment on hearing its alarm call. Instead of being a harmless Sambhur if the animal we met while walking in pitch dark was a rogue wild elephant this book would never have been written.

Sambhur commonly suffers from infections caused by ticks and other parasites. The strategy they adopt to avoid such parasites clinging onto them is to bathe in mud by lying in a pool and getting a layer of mud formed on the skin. Then, it is spread evenly all over the body by rubbing against a tree. Sometimes, small groups of Sambhur take refuge on the windy sea beach to get rid of parasites such as blood sucking insects.

Social life of Sambhur is interesting to study. Its rutting season dawns as the tender antlers grow on a male adult. The velvet skin peels off and the hardened pair of huge antlers become a crown on its head. Young energetic animals in heat raise specific rutting calls and express their desire. During this season Sambhur emits chemical secretions from pre-orbital glands and glands in between their hooves which cause sexual attraction. Pheromones that are chemicals present in urine during the season too arouses sexual desire among the animals. In a video film on ‘Barasingha’, the Indian swamp deer, one male was shown spraying urine all over its face by leaning down. Males which come with the smell of well laced urine must be attractive to females.

Stimulated by the male Sambhur the females mate with it. Sometimes, a male attracts several females and will not allow other males to enter its territory. During the mating season the male Sambhur performs various behaviours to show its dominancy. Showing a proud domineering look, having leaves and twigs on antlers etc., are some such behaviours. Towards the end of the short rutting season the females conceive and are left to themselves by the males. Males commence a solitary life once again.

Epidemics are not rare among the wild animals. Once in a few years a large number of wild animals die within a short period being victims of an epidemic. Animals belonging only to one species die at a time during such epidemics sweeping across the jungle, mostly during the peak of the drought. In August 1984 it was reported by Kumana staff that an epidemic was spreading among the Sambhur population in that area. On our inspection a number of Sambhur were seen showing symptoms of the disease. A female Sambhur severely emaciated due to the scarcity during that drought season was standing under a bush motionless. Having the head leaning down she did not respond to any provocation. It appeared that her hind limbs were paralysed.  We also found a number of carcasses of Sambhur near the Kumana tank.

It was established after sending samples of blood and tissue taken from the carcasses to the Veterinary Department of Peradeniya University for testing that the Sambhur died of a virus disease. In such a situation no action can be taken other than burning and destroying the carcasses to prevent further spreading of the disease. During severe drought periods when the animals are physically weak and unable to resist infectious diseases they fall victim to epidemics easily. As only the strong animals withstand the disease and survive epidemics can be considered as another barrier set up by the law of natural selection to select and ensure the survival of only the strong individuals.

Though not considered to be one of the true deer species Mouse deer is an innocent small animal resembling a tiny deer. It is an ungulate with a brown coat of hair speckled with white spots and with shoulder height not exceeding twenty five centimetres. This solitary animal is seen very rarely as it is nocturnal in behaviour. When scared it runs fast and generally climbs along the trunk of a leaning tree on which vines and runners grow. Climbing upwards inside a tree hollow or switching between sides of a tree are some of the wonderful antics it uses to get rid of a pursuing predator.

Undoubtedly, members of the deer family are the wild animals most ruthlessly harassed by man. Killing deer takes place using all forms of poaching methods ranging from organized hunting using automatic rifles by well to do people travelling in vehicles down to primitive methods such as noosing carried out by people in remote areas.
Once at Giritale near Polonnaruwa we came across a doe trapped in a noose. By then a few days had elapse and the cable wire of the noose had cut into her neck. The wound of the starving animal was infested with maggots. Though the rescued animal was treated by a veterinarian she died after long and acute suffering. Though she did not raise any noise right from the moment she was found, up to her death, she pleaded for her life with melancholy eyes filled with tears.

An innocent and lovely animal like a deer is killed by sending a heated lead pellet through its heart, choking with a noose made of a cable wire or by surrounding it with dogs and clubbing it on the head – all for the sake of its flesh that we cherish as a delicacy. In turn, they never demand equal rights to live or fight back for their rights, but rather die silently harassed by man, until extinction perhaps will emancipate them finally.

“A hunter, happening on a glade,
Beheld a quietly browsing doe
That rooted gazed with eyes afraid
At levelled gun but feared to go.

The gun sang death – but even her pain
Gave to her halting feet no wing:
The woods rang out to death again,
Again the poor beast felt the sting.

She ambled off some screen to find –
While from the scrub leapt to her side
A gentle, frightened, little hind
The man till then had not espied.

It smote the hunter’s heart with awe;
He could not end the deed he’d done –
With anguished, shaken soul he saw
His home, his wife, his little one.”

                                                            - R. L. Spittel



  1. What a beautiful site. Enraptured reading about these animals. Looking forward to my journey to Yala in December/January