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Himalayan musk deer talk to each other through poop, but poachers are also listening

Himalayan musk deer

A Himalayan musk deer at Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal. Image courtesy of Pratap Gurung.

  • A new study has indicated to scientists what poachers in Nepal may have long known: that Himalayan musk deer use their defecation sites as a sort of message board to communicate with one another.
  • The endangered species is typically solitary and has limited vocalization, but its varied behavior at latrine sites — defecating, browsing, sniffing, scrapping and covering, and ignoring — appear to show efforts to convey messages to the other deer using the sites.
  • Poachers may have long known about this behavior, and accordingly set their snares near latrine sites, where they target the male deer for their scent glands — prized for making perfume and traditional medicine.
  • The authors of the new study say this finding could help improve conservation activities, including ensuring mating success for captive-breeding efforts.

KATHMANDU — On April 25, 2020, barely a month after the country went into COVID-19 lockdown, authorities at Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park reported “one of the worst cases of poaching in recent years”: Six Himalayan musk deer (Moschus leucogaster) had been found killed by poachers.

Officials from the park, situated in the Everest foothills, said they believed the poachers had removed the scent gland from one of the male deer. The Himalayan musk deer, commonly known as kasturi in South Asia, is an endangered species in the region. The bucks’ scent glands, or pods, have long been sought after to make perfume and traditional medicine, and can fetch hundreds of dollars.

The animals only come out at dawn, dusk and night, and make limited sounds. But they’re easy targets for poachers, who rely on traditional knowledge of the species — something that researchers are only recently starting to understand — to locate and trap the animals.

One such piece of knowledge is that latrine sites, where the deer defecate, hold a special significance for the species.

“Himalayan musk deer are very faithful to their latrine sites. They seldom defecate outside of their latrine sites,” said Paras Bikram Singh, lead author of a recent study on how the deer use their latrine sites for communication. According to the paper, musk deer were found sniffing at the latrine site even when it was covered with snow.

Poachers understand this relation and set their snares next to these sites.

Musk deer, from the genus Moschus, are found in densely forested areas in Asia’s alpine zones. Their numbers have declined steeply across much of their natural range because of poaching for the musk pod, with six of the seven species, including the Himalayan musk deer, categorized as endangered by the IUCN.

Until recently, it was believed that latrine sites, located on or near forest trails, were limited to their scent-making behavior (male deer emit a peculiar scent from their pod believed to attract females). But the study led by Singh suggests the solitary animals, which have limited vocal capabilities, maybe using their feces to communicate with other members of their own species.

The research began with Singh and his team setting up camera traps in Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area to record the behavior of these animals in their known latrine sites. After the cameras were up and running, Singh and his colleagues noted behaviors such as defecating, browsing, sniffing, scrapping and covering, and ignoring, and tallied each instance with the sex of the individual musk deer. They recorded a total of 428 musk deer visits and a total of 479 behaviors by musk deer between May 1 and July 29, 2016 (non-breeding season), and Oct. 1 and Dec. 29, 2016 (breeding season).

The team found that both lone male and female deer repeatedly visited shared latrine sites as well as sites exclusively used by another deer. Male musk deer visited their latrine sites more frequently than females during both seasons.

The most frequently observed behavioral activities at the latrine sites were defecating, sniffing and browsing, followed by scrapping and covering, and ignoring the latrine sites. The defecating and sniffing activities were performed throughout both breeding and non-breeding seasons.

Based on the behaviors observed at the latrine sites and studies on other species — distantly related African antelopes such as oribis (Ourebia ourebi), bushbucks (Tragelaphus scriptus), dik-diks (Madoqua kirkii) and klipspringers (Oreotragus oreotragus), as well as black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) and greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) — the team arrived at the conclusion that Himalayan musk deer likely use latrine sites to convey various messages, including about personality, maturity, sexual status, and territorial markings.

himalayan musk deer
A screengrab from a video taken using a camera trap used to study Himalayan musk deer in Nepal.

“It is quite interesting to see from the research that the deer form a sort of a social network using their latrine sites,” said Narayan Prasad Koju, a wildlife ecologist who was not involved in the research. “But I am not surprised by the findings as research on the animals of the cat family show that [those] animals use their scat as a means of communication.”

Another interesting finding, Koju said, was the variation in latrine visits during the breeding and non-breeding seasons. “That the number of visits by both the male and the female deer to their latrine sites decreased during the breeding season compared to the non-breeding season begs further research,” he said. “It could be possible that that the deer go outside of their usual territory during the breeding season.”

The researchers say their findings have wider implications for the conservation of Himalayan musk deer, which, in Nepal, are mostly confined to protected areas.

“In the past, poachers could differentiate between latrine sites of male and female Himalayan musk deer, and lay snares for males only as they carried the valuable pod,” Singh said. “However, that knowledge seems to have been lost and people are setting snares for deer regardless their sex, further adding to the challenge of conserving them.”

The paper backs the idea of breeding the deer in captivity while also protecting them in the wild. “For the success of a captive breeding program, information on animal behavior is the primary requirement,” it says. “Knowledge of the function and mechanism of the latrine sites used by the musk deer can be helpful to activate mating and maintain captive animal welfare.”

It also notes that understanding the latrine sites, chemical signals, and animal behavior can support and improve conservation disciplines such as patrolling, habitat management, rewilding, conservation farming, and wildlife research.

“Poachers are better scientists than those studying these animals as they have a better knowledge of animal behavior,” Koju said. “They know how and where to find these musk deer to remove their pods. We can’t change the latrine behavior of the deer, even if it makes them vulnerable to poaching. So we need to step up law enforcement efforts as well as programs to raise awareness for their conservation.”

Banner Image: A Himalayan musk deer at Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal. Image courtesy of Pratap Gurung.

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Singh, P. B., Saud, P., Jiang, Z., Zhou, Z., Hu, Y., & Hu, H. (2022). Himalayan musk deer (Moshcus leucogaster) behavior at latrine sites and their implications in conservation. Ecology and Evolution, 12(4). doi:10.1002/ece3.8772




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