Still bobbing and weaving

Although persecuted for the pot, the barking deer continues to thrive in many protected areas throughout the country

As the sun starts its daily ascent from the eastern horizon, the early morning air is crisp and cool. It's November and not a single cloud is to be seen in the clear blue sky. Heavy dew blankets everything in Mae Lao-Mae Sae, a wildlife sanctuary situated in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Mist rises from the forest as the morning heat builds. The scent from pine trees, some hundreds of years old, is refreshing. A sea of fog covers the lowland valleys and the view from the mountaintop is truly breathtaking.

Muntjac male in Khao Yai National Park.

Birds begin their incessant chirping and a single gibbon calls from the interior. Butterflies cling to tree branches waiting for their wings to dry out and other creatures begin their daily rituals. Life in this northern wilderness is as pure as it has been for millions of years.

A couple of kilometres from the main road, a huge granite massif dominates the sanctuary. Near its peak a pack of Asian wild dogs are zigzagging through the forest searching every nook and cranny for prey. They bump into a local resident, a male muntjac that is munching on fallen fruit.

The mature buck hears the dogs yelping and is instantly on high alert. Sounding much like a domestic dog, this diminutive deer emits a loud bark continuously until the threat has disappeared. The warning call is heard over a distance of many kilometres, alerting all animals within range that a predator is on the prowl. This extremely fast cervid is now on the run, weaving and darting through the forest. It escapes the much slower dogs to live another day and the pack carries on with its quest for nourishment.

In another scenario, a lone leopard hunting for quarry gives chase to a female muntjac in Huai Kha Khaeng. The doe becomes confused and makes a wrong turn. In a matter of seconds, the big cat has pulled it to the ground and is going in for the kill. Just another day in this wildlife sanctuary as the struggle for life and food is played out and the balance of nature reasserts itself.

Also known as the barking deer, the muntjac is a small animal of the genus Muntiacus with short antlers on the male joined on a very long pedicel (bony base). Females have no antlers. Both sexes have long canines, elongated in males and used to fight for mates or for defence against predators. Antlers are shed annually and grow back during the so-called "velvet" phase.

The muntjac is the oldest known species of deer; it appeared 15 to 35 million years ago, with fossil remains found in Miocene deposits in France, Germany and Poland. Its modern-day descendant can be found from Sri Lanka to southern China, Taiwan, Japan (the Boso Peninsula and Oshima Island), India and Indonesia. It is also found in the eastern Himalayas and throughout Indochina. There are 12 species of muntjac and they all exhibit similar traits.

Muntjac on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng.

Two species of muntjac live in the forests of Thailand; the more common is the red muntjac, which is found in many protected areas throughout the Kingdom. The other is the very rare Fea's muntjac, which still thrives in the West. Both species are similar in size and behaviour and are solitary creatures except during the annual breeding season. Muntjac feed on leaves, buds, seeds and twigs, as well as fallen fruit. They visit mineral deposits daily to supplement their diet like other even-toed ungulates including the sambar, wild pig and gaur.

I have photographed barking deer on many occasions at just about every location I have visited over the last 15 years as a wildlife photographer. I have also camera-trapped lots of them. But no matter how many images I accumulate, I still snap shots of this elegant creature in my search for a better picture. Some of my best photographs have come from Khao Yai National Park (including the main photo for this article). My good friend Coke Smith recently managed to snap a female Fea's muntjac in Kaeng Krachan National Park (his pic also accompanies this story). He was lucky since they are tough animals to catch a glimpse of, let alone photograph.

Unfortunately, both types of barking deer are killed for the pot. Their antlers, although small in comparison to those of the sambar, are still collected as trophies. Poaching is a serious threat to the muntjac and needs to be stamped out completely. However, this is more than likely to be an ongoing problem. ''Near threatened'' is how the status of Fea's muntjac is described on a list maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The other domestic species, the red muntjac, is not currently at risk even though its population is declining due to habitat loss and excessive hunting.

Fea’s muntjac in Kaeng Krachan.

Photo by Coke Smith

Although some improvements have been made in forest protection by the Department of National Parks (DNP), poachers still manage to evade the rangers and stories pop up in the newspapers, radio and TV all the time. Heavier fines and long jail time for law-breakers is key. Stamping out poaching is an important part of caring for the Kingdom's protected areas and the DNP should implement more stringent enforcement measures, ask for a bigger budget and deploy more personnel on the ground.

Hopefully, the muntjac will be with us for some time to come. However old policies like the treatment meted out to the DNP's temporary rangers (50% of its staff) still plague the department's operations. These rangers had to wait until the new year to get wages due to them since the previous October. The delay was attributed to a glitch in the system but conduct like this continues to erode the morale of this band of dedicated men who are the true protectors of the nation's surviving forests.

Management is still woefully lacking when it comes to dealing with this most important issue. As I have said before, time and time again: fix this problem now so that Thailand's wildlife and forests can at least have a fighting chance of survival. The temporary rangers deserve to be given permanent employment status plus all the other benefits now enjoyed by the other 50% (permanent and government officials) of DNP staff. It's the only way forward!

Notes from the field

Male muntjac jumping a motorcycle in Khao Yai.

A sad day from December 2000, when I was working in a protected area within the Western Forest Complex, is etched in my memory. A local hunter had killed a muntjac in the forest behind his village. It was a young buck and the villagers were ecstatic; fresh meat is always welcome. The men eagerly carved up the carcass. None of the deer meat was sold; it was shared among the villagers. This practice, common in so-called community forests in Thailand, is called subsistence hunting.

But the muntjac is protected and these people had just committed a crime. Who was going to turn them in? Since I was the guest of a householder in the village, I took a few photographs but kept my mouth shut, knowing that a step in the wrong direction would alienate these people. Rural Thailand can be a tough place sometimes and after more than three decades of living here I felt that discretion was the best option.

The biggest problem with community forests is poor protection of plants and animals or no enforcement at all. Local villagers and hill-tribe people take animals from the forest for their own consumption or for sale. It is hard to blame them when they are living off the land (maybe as their forefathers did) or hunting out of necessity because they are poor and have to scratch out a meagre living.

Modern lifestyles influence people. Many now desire new houses, cars, pick-up trucks, flat-screen TVs, mobile phones, computers and video games. The list of consumer items is long and many people are already struggling with debts. The mentality is: living off the land is free; plants and animals are there for the taking, so why not take advantage of the situation? But ecosystems, both large and small, are struggling to survive as we humans help ourselves to living resources, leaving little behind to allow for future regeneration.

Male muntjac dead in Sai Yok.

The dangers posed by the Community Forest Bill are quite evident. Just one example: Close to a protected area in Uthai Thani province, a school was given responsibility for a small patch of forest under the Community Forest Bill. That forest supported barking deer, wild pigs, jungle fowl and other small creatures. On day the teachers and students found themselves looking down gun muzzles when villagers from afar, who had already depleted their own forests, came there to hunt and gather.

Nobody could stop them. Soon afterwards all the wildlife in this small forest had been wiped out by a few selfish people. The school project, intended to instil greater awareness of the value of conservation among the local population, failed to even get off the ground. This is what happens when firepower is allowed to dictate who does what, and the consequences were devastating for the school.

Most community forests that lie outside protected areas are virtual islands protected by local residents, rather than the central government. Some are adjacent to protected areas and have unmarked boundaries. Now that the bill has been passed, most people living in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries can take what they want from the forest if they "misinterpret" the law.

Some people and NGOs have fiercely contested the ideology that underlies this. There have been some successful programmes in which people responsible for a local forest protect it well from outsiders, but these are few and far between. The road to extinction for many species will undoubtedly be speeded up by this piece of legislation. All humans have the right to exist, but we should not do so at the expense of the natural world.

Saving a species like muntjac from extinction should be a top priority for the DNP. Other ungulates like the goral, serow, wild pig and banteng should be reintroduced into protected areas where they once thrived. Some may argue against reintroduction, but as we lose more and more species, such organised releases are the only practical way to save Thailand's rare creatures from total extinction in the wild.

Red muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac)

- Muntjac is the most numerous of all deer species in Thailand. Its unmistakable bark, which can be heard over long distances, is made when a predator has been detected. The coat of this small ungulate varies in colour from reddish brown to bright chestnut; its face and legs are dark brown. The underside of the tail is white and it flips up like a white flag when the animal is alarmed.

Only the male has antlers, which are short and joined to a long pedicle (bony base). The antlers are dark brown, between 10 and 15cm in length and have short tines about five centimetres long. The females lack antlers, but have small bony knobs covered with a tuft of black hair in the same position as the pedicle on males.

In some areas they are active during the day, but where heavily disturbed by hunting the muntjac becomes nocturnal. The rut takes place in December and January. After six months of gestation, a single fawn is born. On rare occasions twins may be conceived. These creatures are eagerly sought after for their meat.

Fea's muntjac (Muntiacus feae)

- Fea's muntjac is now considered very rare and survives only in the Tenassarim mountain range, from Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary near the border with Myanmar in the West, all the way down to Phangnga province in the South.

These delicate creatures have a dark brown coat with a black-ringed uppertail and white undertail. The antlers of the male are yellowish and small compared to those of the more common red muntjac, but the behaviour of the two species is identical.

Fea's muntjac lives only in pristine evergreen forests like those in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province and Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. Their range in Southeast Asia is very small.

About the author

columnist
Writer: L. Bruce Kekulé
Position: Writer