The recent report of the sighting of a few Kashmir musk deer has given conservationists hope that the species may be alive and well amongst the forests in Afghanistan.The study published by the World Wildlife Foundation in the November edition of the journal Oryx, states that a team of researchers scouring the country's Nuristan Province in 2008 and 2009, encountered the animals on five separate occasions.
Kashmir musk are one of seven known species of the deer that can be found amidst the forests and alpine scrubs in the mountains of Asia. They were last seen in the area in 1948, by a team of Dutch researchers traversing across Afghanistan's Parun Valley.
The stockily-built animals look similar to other small deer except for one thing - instead of antlers, the males have enlarged upper canines that resemble vampire fangs. Scary as that may appear, the tusk-like teeth that grow longer as the animal ages, are just used by the deer to fend off other males during mating season.
Over the years, all seven species of musk deer have been hunted down incessantly. While part of the reason is the meat which is considered a delicacy, the bigger draw is the animal's scent glands that contain a smelly secretion, which is used in traditional medicine and perfumes. According to Stuart Chapman who works with the World Wildlife Foundation, the glands can fetch as much as $45,000 USD a kilogram, a small fortune for the residents of the mountainous areas where the deers reside. What is unfortunate however, is that though the glands can be removed from live animals, most poachers prefer to kill them.
The few deer that have managed to survive are difficult to locate because they spend most of the year along the steep slopes of the alpine scrub at altitudes exceeding 9,000 feet above sea level. The animals only descend to lower areas during the winter, when the mountains are covered in snow.
During the latest encounter, the researchers reported three sightings of the same fanged male, as well as, a female with a fawn. They also spotted a lone female on a separate occasion. The scientists are however not sure if she was a new specimen or the same individual without her baby. The shy animals seemed to sense the researchers and stood still each time they were sighted. This made it impossible for them to observe the deer's natural behavior or take photos. The only image the researchers were able to capture, was of a female that had been killed by ruthless poachers. They did however manage to collect a few hairs and bring them back for analysis.
Though the recent sighting is great news, helping to conserve the few specimens that are left is going to be difficult given the continuing violence and unrest in the Nuristan Province. The Wildlife Conservation Society and the world can only hope that the locals will protect the Kashmir Musk so that they do not disappear completely.
Resources: Smithsonianmag.com, livescience.com,nd.tv.com