Hark! The Muntjac barks its heart out

share this article

The barking deer is cute and cuddly enough to make a housepet if it can be made to feel comfortable around you and if left unpoached for its meat or agricultural nuisance.

The best way to become friends with an Indian Muntjac — or any other animal — is to offer it some food. Carol Ann Luedecke, of south-east London, knows this lesson and promptly (though carefully) offers a tit-bit to Tom the Muntjac during her visit to the London Zoo. The little animal seems to be a cross between a deer and a cow. | The Hindu Archive

Perhaps no wild ungulate is as stealthy as the muntjac. The epitome of cautiousness, it’s ever on the alert as it sneaks around with slow, measured steps, its ears cocked up. It keeps its head low as it noiselessly steals through Munnar’s verdant tea fields — they afford it excellent cover as it browses on shrubs and weeds. It’s useful to the tea plantations insofar as it feeds on the shrubbery that proliferates in tea fields during the monsoon, stifling the young plants and necessitating expensive and sustained chemical control.

The muntjac is known by several other names as well — the Indian muntjac, common muntjac, southern red muntjac, kakar and, perhaps most appropriately, barking deer. In Munnar’s extensive tea gardens the muntjac has historically been referred to as ‘jungle sheep’ for some unfathomable reason, a misnomer dating back to the British era. When alarmed, the muntjac’s call sounds uncannily like the barking of a dog and hence it’s commonly referred to as barking deer.

The smallest of the deer species, the muntjac has a brownish or tawny-coloured coat which makes it stand out, often conspicuously, while it forages in tea fields. Its underparts are creamy-hued. Only the males have short antlers that usually branch just once near the base. They also have elongated, slightly curved upper canines which are used in conflicts between males to inflict serious injury.

 

 

The muntjac is known to be both diurnal as well as nocturnal in its habits. The gestation period ranges from six to seven months and one kid is born at a time, though twins are not unknown. Birth usually takes place in dense undergrowth to ensure the kid’s safety from predators. The kids are quite cuddlesome and seem rather helpless when left all alone by their mothers. The other day I saw one, perhaps hardly a month old, stranded in the middle of the road, unsure of what to do, as our car approached. We stopped to let it pass and watched, fascinated, as it lithely nipped across the road into the adjacent shrubbery.

A herbivore, the muntjac subsists largely on shrubs, grass, shoots, fruit and seeds. However, it’s sometimes known to switch to an omnivorous diet, feeding off birds’ eggs, small mammals and occasionally even scavenging on carrion.

I know for a fact that muntjacs do breed in captivity. As a teenager, I recall an incident where a male and a female fled into an uncle’s compound in a tea estate near Munnar when set upon by a pack of local mongrels. They were sheltered, fed and taken good care of for more than a year to the extent that they were reluctant to leave. In due course the duo had a kid which was bottle-fed with cow’s milk (in addition to the mother’s) until it grew up and was weaned. The wobbly-legged kid used to enchant us with its antics. After a year or so the trio was released back into the tea fields and was thereafter sighted from time to time in the vicinity, perhaps drawn back by happy memories of the care and concern showered on them.

 

 

The muntjac is extremely fleet-footed, loping away when pursued predators and usually succeeding in outrunning its pursuers. With its canine-like barking, it’s known to alert other wild animals to danger. Once, while out trekking alone, a muntjac erupted into a prolonged spell of barking as it fled, alarmed by my proximity to it. Soon, I noticed a troop of Nilgiri langurs (locally known as black monkeys), who had been whooping vociferously, quieten down all of a sudden and scan their surroundings for the source of danger. For a long time thereafter there was pin-drop silence in the jungle.

Frequenting Munnar’s tea fields, the muntjac prefers the extensive and comforting cover that the tea bush provides (with its lateral spread) against predators, especially the wild dog and leopard. Time and again I’ve seen local mongrels pursue a muntjac, only to be given the slip in a vast expanse of tea bushes. Given its marked tendency to damage crops and rip bark from trees, farmers consider it a nuisance and often target it.

In Munnar the muntjac is often known to sneak into the vegetable gardens of tea estate workers, lured by the prospect of feasting on the peas, beans, carrots and beetroot grown there. Thus, they sometimes get ensnared in wire nooses cunningly hidden in gaps in the fencing around the gardens. In fact, just the other day one was found furtively browsing on the lawn fronting my son’s residence and, in the absence of any harassment, it has now become a regular visitor, both early in the morning as well as in the evening. This bears out the truism that familiarity with humans does breed trust in some wild animals.

With its meat reputed to taste as good as mutton, the muntjac is highly vulnerable to poaching, its small size facilitating the hiding or spiriting away of its carcass easily. Further, its presence in an area can be easily ascertained from its small cloven tracks that pockmark the soft soil in tea fields, especially during the monsoon.

Since guns are noisy and attention-grabbing, poachers usually employ dogs to hunt the muntjac, running it down until it collapses out of sheer exhaustion. Wire nooses concealed on paths regularly used by it are also favoured for their deadly efficacy. However, I’m afraid a time will come — if it hasn’t already — when noisy guns will become passé with poachers going high-tech and using sophisticated silencers or suppressors (to use an Americanism) on firearms. Such a development, of course, will be a major stumbling block and challenge for anti-poaching agencies.

A veteran forest official once shared with me an insight gleaned from his years of involvement in anti-poaching operations in Munnar and its environs. He confessed that there’s usually a spurt in poaching just before and during the celebration of Diwali and the New Year in the hill-resort when gunshots often go unnoticed amidst the profusion of exploding fireworks. The ingenuity of poachers knows no bounds, and needs to be stringently reined in if our wildlife is to survive.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor