All deer in Sri Lanka belong to the family of ungulates. Ungulates are animals whose feet have hooves.
DEER POPULATION: There are four species of true deer in Sri Lanka – Sambur (Cervus unicolor), Spotted Deer (Axis axis), Barking Deer (Muntiacus muntiacus) and Hog Deer (Axis pornicus). Though the Mouse Deer (Tragulus meeminna) looks like a small deer it is not a member of the deer family.
All deer are in the genus Cervidae whereas the mouse deer is in the genus Tragulidae. Deer have hoofs and grow antlers.
The mouse deer has a three-chambered stomach instead of the four chambers found in a true deer. However, I will discuss the mouse deer as well in this article.
The adult males of the sambur, spotted deer and hog deer are called stags and the females are called hinds.
However the male of the barking deer is called a buck and the female a doe. The young of the sambur is called calves whilst the young of the other deer can also be called fawns. The call of a sambur is referred to as a bell whilst a spotted deer barks.
The sambur is the largest of the four species of deer we have. It is brown coloured and about the size of a large cow. The Sambur is called Gona in Sinhala and Marai in Tamil. It is also erroneously called an Elk.
Sambur are found in the forests in most parts of the country from the lowlands to the highest hills. Upto about 15 years ago, there was a strip of land at Gonalabbe in the Yala NP where one would see a number of Sambur resting. Now there are no sambur to be seen there.
Forest Ranger, Meynert of Yala reports, in 1936, that a herd or collection of 40 sambur was seen at Udapotana. Normal groupings of sambur are 10-15 animals. They are also seen in single or pairs. Groups of females are also encountered.
However, the present situation at Horton Plains is different. In the Horton Plains, Sambur are found in great abundance, where they are seen grazing in the open areas every evening.
When visiting the Horton Plains in the years leading to the mid 1980s one did not see sambur in such large numbers. They are seen on the plains after the cultivation of potato in the Hortons was stopped.
Many years ago Sambur have been taken to New Zealand on ships as food for the sailors on their long journey either from India or Sri Lanka.
The excess animals, at the end of the journey, have been released in that country and have bred freely to constitute a problem there.
Sambur breed once a year and one calf is born. Though sambur are poached, due to the difficulty to find them in their thick jungle habitat, they are not killed in the numbers that the spotted deer are.
Dense forest cover and the availability of water influence the distribution of sambur in the wilds. It is both a browser and grazer. It prefers grass and when no grass is available it resorts to browsing on the branches of trees.
Fallen fruits and fruits off the low branches of trees are eaten. The sambur are not seen very easily, the exception being at Gonalabbe in Yala at one time and now in the Horton Plains.
There is an interesting report of an adult male sambur and a leopard fighting after the leopard had attacked the sambur.
The sambur had succeeded in goring the leopard to death. This is not the usual story. Leopards generally go for the young sambur, which they are capable of killing. They rarely attack adult sambur, which they know that they cannot handle.
The Spotted Deer is called a Tith Muwa in Sinhala and Pulli Man in Tamil. The Spotted Deer is the most common member of the deer family found in Sri Lanka.
It is found in most parts of the country except in the highest hills. Deer are seen, in the protected areas sometimes in large herds, as large as 30 – 50 females with a few stags.
In unprotected areas they are rare. R.P. Gaddum reported that at Yala in 1936, he saw a herd of over 300 spotted deer on the Buttuwa Plains. This herd of spotted deer at Fort Fredrick in Trincomalee has been there for over 200 years.
Spotted deer are both browsers and grazers. Their diet consists of all kinds of vegetation including fallen fruits though grass is the favourite. Sometimes the antlers that are shed are also eaten for the nutrients that the antlers have.
Deer are seen regularly under trees that are occupied by both species of monkeys, the macaque and the gray langur. This is to pick up the tender leaves, flowers and fruit that are dropped by the monkeys in the course of their feeding.
The monkeys also warn the deer of approaching danger, especially in the form of a leopard. Spotted deer are extremely nervous and are always on the alert for any sign of imminent danger from the leopard or man. The leopard preys on the deer whilst man poaches it.
Gorton Coombe reported a white deer from Kumana in 1946. However he said that ‘it had small brown spots on a drab white back ground. It also had normal eyes’ so it could not have been an albino. Then again in 1965, a white deer was seen at Yala.
This was a male but also not an albino. Lyn de Alwis in an account in Loris, the Journal of the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society, says that a herd of white deer was seen at Ambalan in the Puttalam district in 1822.
He says that more than five white deer have been seen at Wilpattu between the 1950s and the mid 1960s. He observed another white deer in 1966, especially since they did not have pink eyes, these deer could not have been albinos but a colour variation.
Like the white tigers of Rewa in India, these deer if bred would continue to have white off spring. The breeding season follows throughout the year.
The males can be seen and heard during the rutting season putting their heads back and letting out loud mating calls. Males butt each other during this time and the clashing of antlers make a loud noise.
Sometimes the clashing of antlers can also be heard in the still of the jungle night. Males keep on butting each other to win the opportunity to mate. Generally there is one dominant male in a herd of many females, somewhat like a King and his harem.
Generally one fawn is born at a time and the young fawn can be seen prancing, leaping and running about for no apparent reason. This really is a way of exercising their growing muscles to ensure that nerves and muscles work in harmony. This is very important to make a getaway from predators.
There is a report of two stags, both with impressive antlers, having butted each other had got their antlers entwined. Being unable to extricate themselves they have both died of starvation, thirst and exhaustion with their heads still together in death.
Spotted deer are seen in open areas and the thick jungles. They are always close to a source of water, and drink water in stealth. They are always alert for danger, especially when the water is in an open area.
Despite being one of the favourite prey species of the leopard and the target of poachers and added to this the fact that they only give birth to a single fawn at a time, the deer population is quite abundant.
Spotted deer are heavily poached even from the protected areas and venison is freely available in many places, especially close to protected areas.
Spotted deer grow to a height of approximately 90 cm at the shoulder and can weigh up to 85 kgs. Their life expectancy ranges from 20-30 years.
The Hog Deer (Axis pornicus) known in Sinhala as the Gona muwa (sambur deer) because its colouring resembles that of a sambur. The hog deer is however much smaller than a sambur. It has a short stocky body and short tail with a white tuft at the end.
The Hog Deer is the rarest member of the deer family found in Sri Lanka. This species is found in some South and South-East Asian countries including India and Pakistan. The hog deer is erroneously called the Swamp Deer.
The hog deer runs when frightened with its head held low somewhat like the Barking deer. It gets its name from the manner in which it runs, like a hog. With its head in this position, it can creep under obstacles rather than jump over them as other deer do.
The Hog Deer has a life expectancy of 20 – 30 years.
That is, if it manages to escape the attention of humans in the vicinity of its habitat. It does not seem to have a predator. It grows to a height of approximately 60cm at the shoulders. It is one of the smaller members of the deer family and a fully-grown adult mostly weighs in between 20-30 kgs.
The male members of the species have antlers that can reach lengths of around 30cm, which have a distinctive 3-point formation.
In Sri Lanka, the hog deer is found in the wet zone areas of the South Western quarter of the island, mainly in the Agalawatte, Matugama and Kalutara areas.
The hog deer prefers the leafy undergrowth to open areas. It prefers to be in the dense vegetation of swampy areas and also in the undergrowth close to streams. It is a shy animal moving away when approached by man. When agitated, it also barks somewhat similar to that of the barking deer.
The present population status of the hog deer is unknown. The hog deer is found in places where cinchona grows. It is still not clear whether there is a symbiotic relationship between these two.
The hog deer is a strong swimmer and not shy of the water. It has fairly broad splayed hooves that enable it to traverse boggy swamps.
The hog deer is mainly nocturnal due probably to the dense human population in the areas where it is found. It eats leaves and grasses like all deer, prefers to browse than graze and is known to find its way into paddy fields at night and eat the growing paddy.
There are three theories with regard to the origins of this deer. One is that it was brought here by the Dutch in their ships, as food on the hoof, to sustain them on their sea journey.
The excess animals were let off inland and made their home in these marshes. The second theory is that they were brought by the British to breed so they could be hunted for sport.
For one thing there are records of this deer before the advent of the British and the second is that this being a marsh loving deer, I cannot see the hunters suffering in boggy areas just to shoot this small deer. This theory may have comeabout as a result of the fact that the Hog Deer were shot by sportsmen in India.
The third theory is that it was always in Sri Lanka and not an introduced species.
The Barking Deer or the Muntjac is smaller than the spotted deer. It is found in all parts of the island in small jungle patches as well as in the larger forests. In Sinhala, it is called Veli Muwa or Olu Muwa and in Tamil Sarugu Man.
It is of a chestnut red body with a darker red neck, which is almost brown.
This chestnut colour is brightest on its back and becomes lighter down the sides. It grows to a height of almost two feet. The barking deer can jump well over ten feet from a standing position.
It is sometimes erroneously called a Red Deer. In India, it is called the Jungle Sheep and also the Rib-faced Deer.
This is because the pedicles on which the horns are set continue down the front of the face. These look like two ridges giving rise to the name rib-faced deer.
It is a very shy animal and moves away quickly when approached by humans. It feeds on leaves and fruits.
Though ruminants do not usually have canine teeth, the barking deer have large canine teeth that protrude from under their upper lip. Another unusual feature is that it is only one of the few mammals that have two sets of weapons – tushes and antlers.
The barking deer hides its young in a thicket and moves about to feed but not far away from the young. The spotted deer, on the other hand, takes its young, even soon after birth, along with it when it moves. The young stay with the mother till they reach maturity.
In 1939, R.P. Gaddum has reported seeing a barking deer swimming towards Sober Island in Trincomalee.
He has captured it and taken it back to the mainland by boat and later released it in the jungle on the road to Kantalai. All good intentions, but at that time they did know about the home ranges of animals. They thought that any wild animal would live happily in any jungle.
The Mouse Deer (Tragulus meeminna) are the smallest of hoofed mammals mentioned earlier. they are not true deer. They are also called Chevrotians. The Asian species weigh as little as one and a half pounds.
The Sri Lankan species is also native to India. There are two other species in Asia. Called Meeminna in Sinhala and Atta Man in Tamil.
Mouse deer vaguely resemble deer though they have a hunchbacked appearance. They have long, thin legs, which are about the size of a pencil. Each foot has four toes. Mouse deer are brownish and have rows of white spots along its back. Captive animals exude a musky smell.
The Mouse deer is a little larger than a domestic cat and weighs about two pounds. It is found in all parts of the island in small patches of jungle and on the edge of the larger forests, generally close to water. They are nocturnal and rarely seen.
The curved upper canines are very long, especially in the males. They protrude below the lips, resembling the tusks of musk deer. The lower canines resemble incisors.
Mouse deer are ruminants and have three-chambered ruminating stomachs, like cattle, sheep, etc. It is believed that Mouse deer or Chevrotians evolved from these mammals.
Mouse deer live in all types of forests and are often found in undergrowth on the edges of forests. They eat mostly grass, leaves, and fallen fruit and berries. They are normally solitary and secretive, except during the breeding season.
Deer have antlers and not horns. Antlers differ from the hollow horns of cattle, in that they comprise solid bone tissue. The horns of all species of deer are solid and cannot be removed without damage to the animal. Horns do not have nerves and do not reflect pain.
It is the docile male deer that sports antlers. He needs antlers to attract and to impress females to his harem and to fight with his competitors for the females’ affections. In successive years, as the deer matures, his antlers lengthen and, in most species, he acquires additional branches.
Deer shed their antlers annually as a prelude to the regeneration or re-growth of new ones. During the re-growth phase of the antlers, they are covered with a sensitive skin referred to as ‘velvet’, which is filled with blood vessels that feed the antlers the vitamins and the minerals necessary to build up bones, and to promote normal antler growth.
After a time the velvet is no longer needed, and a ring, which effectively serves as a shutoff valve, forms at the base of the antlers and cuts off the blood supply to the velvet.
As a result, the velvet withers, dries up, and falls off, often assisted by the deer, which rubs his antlers against the bark of a tree.