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Strange, fanged deer reappears in Afghanistan

Oct. 31, 2014
Courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society
and World Science staff

More than 60 years af­ter its last con­firmed sight­ing, a strange, en­dan­gered deer with vampire-like fangs still lives in north­east Af­ghan­i­stan’s rug­ged wood­ed slopes, sci­en­tists are re­port­ing.

A Siberian musk deer, one of se­ven simi­lar spe­cies in Asia to the Kash­mir musk deer. (Cre­dit: Julie Lar­sen Ma­her © WCS)


Known as the Kash­mir musk deer – one of sev­en si­m­i­lar spe­cies found in Asia – the last sci­en­tif­ic sight­ing in Af­ghan­i­stan was be­lieved to have been made by a Dan­ish sur­vey team in 1948. A re­search team led by the New York-based Wild­life Con­serv­ati­on So­ci­e­ty re­ported new sight­ings from re­cent sur­veys, de­scrib­ing the find­ings in the Oct. 22 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Or­yx.

All sight­ings were in steep rocky out­crops in­ter­spersed with al­pine mead­ows and scat­tered, dense high bushes of ju­ni­per and rho­do­den­dron, the sci­en­tists said. Ac­cord­ing to the team, the deer were dis­creet, “cryp­tic,” hard to spot, and could­n’t be pho­tographed.

The spe­cies is cat­e­go­rized as En­dan­gered on the Red List of the In­tern­ati­onal Un­ion for Con­serv­ati­on of Na­ture due to hab­i­tat loss and poach­ing. Wild­life traf­fick­ers cov­et its scent glands, con­sid­ered more val­u­a­ble than gold, fetch­ing al­most $1,300 an ounce on the black mar­ket. The male uses its saber-like tusks to com­pete with oth­er ma­les.

The sur­vey team recorded five sight­ings, in­clud­ing a sol­i­tary male in the same ar­ea on three occasi­ons, a female with a ju­ve­nile, and a sol­i­tary fema­le, which may have been the same one. 

The au­thors say that tar­geted con­serv­ati­on of the spe­cies and its hab­i­tat are needed for it to sur­vive in Af­ghan­i­stan. De­ter­i­o­rat­ing se­cur­ity in the prov­ince, Nu­ri­stan, blocked in­tern­ati­onal or­gan­izati­ons from op­er­at­ing af­ter 2010, but the so­ci­e­ty said it keeps con­tact with lo­cal peo­ple it has trained and will pur­sue fund­ing to con­tin­ue re­search and protecti­on when the situ­ati­on im­proves.

“Musk deer are one of Af­ghan­i­stan’s liv­ing trea­sures,” said study co-author Pe­ter Zah­ler, the so­ci­e­ty’s Dep­u­ty Di­rec­tor of Asia Pro­grams. “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.”


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More than 60 years after its last confirmed sighting, a strange, endangered deer with vampire-like fangs still lives in northeast Afghanistan’s rugged wooded slopes, scientists are reporting. But it’s still in trouble. Known as the Kashmir musk deer – one of seven similar species found in Asia – the last scientific sighting in Afghanistan was believed to have been made by a Danish survey team in 1948. A research team led by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society reported new sightings from recent surveys, describing the findings in the Oct. 22 issue of the research journal Oryx. All sightings were in steep rocky outcrops interspersed with alpine meadows and scattered, dense high bushes of juniper and rhododendron, the scientists said. According to the team, the deer were discreet, “cryptic,” hard to spot, and couldn’t be photographed. The species is categorized as Endangered on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to habitat loss and poaching. Wildlife traffickers covet its scent glands, considered more valuable than gold, fetching almost $1,300 an ounce on the black market. The male uses its saber-like tusks to compete with other males. The survey team recorded five sightings, including a solitary male in the same area on three occasions, a female with a juvenile, and a solitary female, which may have been the same one. The authors say that targeted conservation of the species and its habitat are needed for it to survive in Afghanistan. Deteriorating security in the province, Nuristan, blocked international organizations from operating after 2010, but the society said it keeps contact with local people it has trained and will pursue funding to continue research and protection when the situation improves. “Musk deer are one of Afghanistan’s living treasures,” said study co-author Peter Zahler, the society’s Deputy Director of Asia Programs. “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.”