Thursday, December 8, 2011

These trusting crepuscular animals are easy preys.

While much is said about tiger poaching incidents, nobody really bats an eyelid when it comes to poaching of other smaller species. For instance, come winter, demand for bush meat increases and so does the poaching of sambar deer. Bush meat costs only a fraction of, say, that of a goat: domesticated animals need to be fattened up, while you just need a bullet to shoot sambar. The deer also makes it easy by feeding on the fields of green crops adjoining the forest areas.

But it must be said of Sambars: they are survivors, they have adapted themselves to a wider variety of forests and environment conditions. Sambar has an exceedingly wide geographic distribution that includes India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines and beyond. They have also been introduced in California, Texas, Florida, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

There are about a dozen sub species of sambar in the world; the Indian sub species of Sambar is restricted to India. In India, sambar has adapted itself to the moist forest of peninsular India, the pine forests of Himalayan foothills, the evergreen forests of northeast India and the thorny forests of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Sambars have been spotted in 208 protected areas of our country. Sambars are crepuscular, active during dawn and dusk. For the jungle lovers, the alarm call of a sambar is a sure sign of a predator in the vicinity. The major predators are tiger, leopard, pack of wild dogs and wolves. When a sambar senses danger, it would stamp its feet and make a ringing call, known as poking or belling. Sambar’s eyesight is only reasonable, however, to recompense for this, they hold exceptional powers of smell and hearing. A deer’s internal lining of the nose is covered with specialised skin called epithelium, which is covered by mucus membrane. The larger the deer, the greater the epithelium surface area and the more acute its sense of smell. It is believed, therefore, that larger, older deer are able to detect odours better than younger, smaller ones.

In fact, sambar use this sense of smell not just to detect the predator, but also to search and select its food, recognise their bedding spots and track others in the herds. A female sambar identifies her calf by its odour. Sambars also commune with and recognise other group members via glandular odours and secretions such as those exuded from the various body glands, which are situated near the eyes, feet and tail. Conceivably, the most important function of the scent is its role in communication with other deer.

The renowned wildlife scientist Dr Schellar made an observation in his Kanha notes that unlike other species of deer, sambar lives in smaller herds. When a sambar confronts a possible threat, it would not bolt – which would draw attention – instead, it would stand motionless, its dark pelage blending perfectly with the surrounding of the forest. Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore tiger Reserve is considered one of the best places for sighting not sambar deer. It is believed that sambar is the favourite prey of the tiger, mainly because a sambar can feed a tiger for about four to five days. However, it is also the favourite prey of a poacher.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambhore)

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