Fanged Deer Not Extinct, Still Roaming the Mountains of Afghanistan

The Kashmir musk deer was last spotted in 1948 but now researchers report five recent sightings

siberian musk deer
A Siberian musk deer two-month old stands next to his father at the Edinburgh zoo — they are closely related to the species just spotted DAVID MOIR/Reuters/Corbis

While traveling through the high reaches of Afghanistan’s Parun Valley in 1948, a Danish expedition saw a unusual animal. It was, Knut Paludan, one of the expedition’s members, wrote, "...about the size of a roe deer, greyish like a roe in winter, but the hindquarters were not snow white; head small, narrow; antler or horn not seen."

After asking a local elder, the expedition's members confirmed that they had seen a Kashmir musk deer. It was the first and last scientist-confirmed sighting of this rare species in Afghanistan, until now.

A study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), published in Oryx, confirms that the deer is still alive in the region — researchers reported five sightings — more than 60 years later. 

The species' male deer may not have antlers, but, during the breeding season, they do sports frightening "fangs." These are actually tusk-like teeth they use to fight other males. Seven types of musk deer roam the forests and alpine scrub in the mountains of Asia. All are hunted for their meat and musk pouches, which contain a smelly secretion valued for use in traditional medicine and in perfumes. "Gram for gram, musk is one of the most valuable products in the natural kingdom and can be worth three times more than its weight on gold," Stuart Chapman of the WWF-UK told National Geographic News

The Kashmir musk deer is listed as endangered, but researchers really have no good idea how many animals live in the wild. Deforestation likely poses a threat along with illegal hunting for their musk. In the intervening years since the first sighting, the only indication scientists had that the deer might still live were from locals who said they had seen or hunted such animals. Their preferred habitat—steep slopes among alpine scrub at 9,000 feet or more above sea level—coupled with the "lack of security" in Afghanistan prevented researchers from assessing the deer’s distribution, the study authors write.

After asking villagers where to go, the research team hiked through the mountains on foot, looking for the deer. They were able to spot a lone male three times, a female with fawn and a lone female (which may have been the same individual, without her offspring). The animals were aware they were being watched and stood still, so the researchers couldn’t make observations about their behavior. Once they did see the male snacking on forbs. They also saw bedding sights and collected some hairs. 

The only photograph they were able to get was of a dead female, killed the previous day by a hunter. 

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