The Unexpected Beast

Brown bear. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght

A few years ago I was helping a colleague track Siberian musk deer in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve. She was a graduate student studying the behavior of these fascinating, spritely creatures, and was in the middle of a grueling field season collecting reams of movement data from several radio-tagged musk deer.

One afternoon, in the middle of a day hike, we turned up a narrow valley dominated by Korean pine while tracking a male musk deer. This was a lush gorge bisected by a gurgling brook that further masked our footsteps already dampened by the carpet of pine needles. This stealth allowed us to obliviously approach then flush a trio of roe deer then later a sounder of at least a half-dozen wild boar.

Continue reading “The Unexpected Beast”

To Catch a Fanged Deer

Poaching Prey

I recently translated a book by Vladimir Arsenyev, a Russian explorer and naturalist who, a century ago, walked the same forests of the southern Russian Far East that I do now. The following passage—modified here for brevity—describes Arsenyev’s encounter with some trappers who had set up a drift fence to catch musk deer, a strange, shy animal that boasts fangs instead of antlers.

Keep in mind that Arsenyev’s description of a drift fence is from 1906:

“It was a fence 1.2 meters tall constructed of wind-fallen wood, which was staked down to keep from shifting. Drift fences such as these are always placed in the mountains blocking musk deer trails but with intermittent gaps that contain a suspended noose of rope. When a musk deer walks through, its head slips into the noose. The more the frightened deer struggles to escape, the tighter the noose becomes.”

This could easily be a description of the above photograph, a drift fence I found in 2004 just outside the border of the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve. The same method has been used by trappers in the Russian Far East for a hundred years.

Arsenyev continues:

“In this particular drift fence there were twenty-two nooses, and there were dead musk deer in four of them: three females and one male. The trappers dragged the females off to the side and left their carcasses to be consumed by ravens. When I asked why they would discard something they had caught, the trappers responded that only male musk deer have the commercially-valuable musk gland. According to them, each winter season they killed up to 125 musk deer, of which 75% were females.”

Given this sustained, incredibly wasteful, and non-selective form of trapping, no wonder musk deer are in trouble.

To see a photo of a musk deer, and to better understand why they are hunted, see a related post here.