Plants and Animals

Fanged Deer Spotted In Afghanistan

October 31, 2014 | by Janet Fang

Photo credit: The unusual fangs of a musk deer are used by males during the breeding season. A population of Kashmir musk deer were found living in Afghanistan. This photo is of a similar species, the Siberian musk deer / Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

Some 60 years after its last sighting in Afghanistan, the mysterious fanged deer makes a reappearance along the country’s steep, forested slopes. A recent survey has confirmed five sightings. 

The Kashmir musk deer, Moschus cupreus, is one of seven Moschidae species found in Asia. Their vampiric fangs aren’t used to aid bloodsucking, nor do they deliver venom like vipers. Rather, these tusks are used by males during breeding (or rutting) season to compete with other males and impress the ladies. 

The species is listed on the IUCN Red List as endangered, mostly due to habitat loss and poachers. They’re a perennial favorite of wildlife traffickers: By weight, their scent glands are more valuable than gold, fetching as much as $45,000 per kilogram on the international black market. Their musk -- the brown, waxy secretions from glands near a male’s rear end -- have been used in cosmetics, fragrances, and traditional medicine for centuries. While the musk can be extracted from the animal alive, "musk-gatherers" often kill them to remove the entire sac. A single pod yields only about 25 grams of the substance. The last scientific sighting in Afghanistan was made by a Danish survey team in 1948. 

Within the last few years, an international team led by Stephane Ostrowski of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York conducted transect surveys in Nuristan Province in northeast Afghanistan. The musk deer were discrete, cryptic, difficult to spot, and couldn’t be photographed (that’s why the photo above is of a Siberian musk deer) -- but their presence and persistence was confirmed with at five sightings. 

These include a solitary male seen in the same area on three occasions, a female with a juvenile, and a solitary female (which may have been the same female, except without her young). In the summertime, the musk deer inhabited remote alpine meadows dotted with juniper and rhododendron bushes and scattered on steep, rocky outcrops. They also lived in the upper fringes of coniferous forests about 3,000 to 3,500 meters up. 

Additionally, the team built a geographical model, which predicted that suitable habitat for musk deer in Afghanistan extends over 1,300 kilometers squared across Nuristan and into the neighboring provinces of Kunar and Laghman. While vast, the habitat is highly fragmented. 

"Musk deer are one of Afghanistan's living treasures," WCS’s Peter Zahler says in a news release. "This rare species, along with better known wildlife such as snow leopards, are the natural heritage of this struggling nation. We hope that conditions will stabilize soon to allow WCS and local partners to better evaluate conservation needs of this species."

The findings are published this month in Oryx, the international journal of conservation.

Image: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS