Is the mouse deer just timid, or just shy of going extinct?

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Given its well-known timidity around humans, some feel that the Indian Spotted Chevrotain’s adaptation to captivity is in itself a phenomenon.

Can you spot the camouflaged Chevrotain?

I had always feared that the unchecked ‘invasion’ of Munnar and its environs by tourists had driven the Indian spotted chevrotain (or mouse deer as it’s commonly called) deep into the inaccessible interiors of the hill-resort, never to be seen again. Having last seen one, fleetingly, at daybreak in neighbouring Valparai way back in 2004, I never expected to be favoured with another sighting again. I was, therefore, elated when, while returning after Christmas mass well past midnight last year, the car’s headlights picked out a pair of mouse deer nimbly nipping across the road into a tea field hardly a kilometre from my home! It made Christmas day doubly delightful for me.

The smallest of the ungulates, the mouse deer is one of the least noticed and seen denizens of the wilds. Its elusiveness stems in no small measure from the excellent camouflage provided by the mottled markings on its body. These help it to blend unseen with its environment, more so when it remains immobile. Very few indeed ever chance upon a mouse deer and when this does happen, it’s usually because it has been disturbed out of its hiding place.

Yet, for all its wariness, there’s at least one recorded instance of a mouse deer letting its guard down altogether. A veteran Indian tea planter in Tamil Nadu’s Anamallais tea district recalls, in his memoirs, how late one evening in 1973 he was amazed to find one wandering, unannounced, into the drawing room of his bungalow. He froze to avoid alarming the visitor as it moved towards the fireplace, sniffing various articles in the room. After some time it struck him that it must have come in search of food, so he unobtrusively left some vegetables by the door. Next morning he found that the ‘gate-crasher’ had left, having nibbled the vegetables and ungraciously deposited a few droppings on the carpet — either in appreciation of his hospitality or as a memento of its visit! This rare occurrence is, of course, incontrovertible proof of a well-known fact, namely that familiarity with humans — and more importantly, lack of harassment by them — does breed trust in wild animals.

In fact, the mouse deer’s ability to conceal itself effectively is believed to be one of the prime reasons for its survival in hostile terrain. Nocturnal by nature, it remains hidden for most of the day — typically within rocky crevices or tree hollows — emerging at dusk to forage. Its inherent shyness makes it shun open spaces and run for cover if any unfamiliar sound is heard or unknown presence approaches. Against the background of leaves littering the forest floor, its dappled coat makes it virtually unnoticeable if it freezes.

The mouse deer probably derives its sobriquet from its mouse-like face. Indeed, it looks like a weird mix of a deer, pig and mouse. Standing hardly 40 cm high at the shoulder, this petite creature weighs around 3 kg with a body length of about 58 cm and a short, stumpy tail measuring just 2.5 cm. It inhabits evergreen and deciduous forests, grasslands and tea and coffee plantations, presumably drawn to the latter by the ideal cover that tea and coffee bushes provide against predators.

 

The IUCN, rather surprisingly, hasn’t listed the mouse deer as an endangered species. However, some feel that, as in the case of so many other endangered species, rampant poaching and large-scale habitat destruction are the bane of Moschiola indica, whose population has decreased alarmingly in recent years to the extent that it’s seldom sighted nowadays.

Primarily frugivorous, the mouse deer leads a predominantly solitary life except during the mating season. It lacks antlers and is instead equipped with well developed canine teeth which are believed to be used in combat. The average gestation period is around 5 months with the female usually giving birth to twins in the wild. In captivity, however, twins are rare with a litter consisting of just one offspring. The mouse deer has a lifespan of 8 to 12 years in the wild while in captivity it’s just a little over 6 years. Given its well-known timidity around humans, some feel that its adaptation to captivity is in itself a phenomenon.

The mouse deer, of course, does have its predators — notably the tiger, leopard, wild dog and some reptiles. However, as in the case of so many other species of wildlife, man remains its main threat. Poachers hunt it for its meat, flushing it out of jungles with dogs, or trap it with cunningly positioned snares. These unscrupulous elements prey upon the gullible, ‘endowing’ the mouse deer’s flesh with imaginary curative properties for human ailments in order to hike its demand and price. And the unsuspecting and unlettered villager will, quite understandably, clutch at any straw that promises relief from chronic ailments.

Currently, opinion is divided on the threat perception to the mouse deer. The IUCN, rather surprisingly, hasn’t listed it as an endangered species, preferring to classify its conservation status as being of “Least Concern” and “Lowest Risk”. This perhaps is based on the assumption that the mouse deer’s consummate ability to conceal itself effectively from predators, both animal and human, ensures its overall safety.

However, another school of thought opposes this seemingly complacent view. It opines that, as in the case of so many other endangered species, rampant poaching and large-scale habitat destruction are the bane of the mouse deer, whose population has decreased alarmingly in recent years to the extent that it’s seldom sighted nowadays. Indeed, some even believe it’s on the verge of becoming extinct.

One fervently hopes that the outlook for this midget but unique deer is as positive as the IUCN believes it to be.

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