The Indian Mouse Deer or the Spotted Chevrotain — the smallest wild deer in the country — is a species unknown, unheard of and unseen to many. In recent times, this animal has been reported in the news more often due to multiple incidents of hunting for bushmeat. While the news reports have been encouraging—wherein the Maharashtra Forest Department has been vigilant and active in nabbing the poachers near the Malkapur forest range and Amba Conservation Reserve in the Kolhapur district, it struck me with an odd thought about the possible origins of an orphan Indian Mouse Deer currently under rehabilitation at our RESQ Wildlife Treatment Transit Centre in Pune.
In early April, the RESQ Wildlife team received a call from the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Satara, Mahadev Mohite, who reported that a baby Indian Mouse Deer orphan was reported to his local officers. A sensitive ungulate, he said that it required safe transport and intensive rehabilitation if it had to have any chance of being reintroduced into the wild in the future.
It arrived safely at the RESQ TTC and huddled up in a corner of the unit it had travelled in. “Turn off all the lights, let’s allow it to come out on its own,” I said as we squatted down quietly on the grass where we had placed her transport crate. Nocturnal by nature and more comfortable in the dark, it took about 10 minutes before it finally stepped out of its crate. While we lightly joked about how it looked like a bandicoot on short stilts, I stared at our newest challenge — a tiny female, all of 600 grams.
It walked out, shook itself up and stood confidently as it stared back at me. The animal sniffed the air a few times, quickly glanced around its surroundings, stuck its nose straight to the ground and began sniffing around in the grass and mud. We were told it had been kept solely on cow’s milk for the past few days and had begun looking dull. I picked up a mix of fresh and dried leaves and placed them in front of it. I breathed a sigh of relief as it started chomping away at them because an animal that begins self-feeding early is one that we can have some positive rehabilitation hopes from.
Life in the South
Chevrotains are the smallest hoofed mammals in the world and are artiodactyls or even-toed ungulates. They are one of the most poorly known ungulates, as they are rarely sighted owing to their nocturnal and elusive nature. Taxonomically, they are classified as Tragulidae and belong to a family of primitive ruminants. They are found exclusively in South and Southeast Asia, and only in 2005 was the Indian species of the mouse deer separated and named Moschiola indica. Its distribution in India is still uncertain due to poor sighting records, however, it has been increasingly getting noticed in tropical moist deciduous and evergreen forests in several states across peninsular India. The Indian Mouse Deer’s appearance is an odd mix of a deer, mouse and pig. Its face resembles a mouse, it is petite like a deer weighing between 3 to 7 kg, and its four-toed hooves, protruding canines, absent facial scent glands and underdeveloped third stomach bring them close to pigs.
South Indian states have interesting local names for this species, including ‘jarini pandi’ in Telugu, meaning ‘a deer and a pig’, and ‘sarkuman’ in Tamil, meaning ‘leaf-pile deer’, which speaks a lot about its primitive biological features. Its legs are short and thin, which helps it maintain a small profile while running through dense foliage without being easily spotted. Both males and females have visible canines, the males with longer ones used during fights.
The species lives solitarily or in pairs and reaches sexual maturity between 5 to 10 months of age. Sexual dimorphism is observed, wherein the females are larger than the males. Young ones are weaned at three months of age and parental care is known to be relatively limited. They prefer to stay hidden in rocky crevices or tree hollows and emerge at dusk to explore. They are known to mainly forage on forest floors, consuming fruits, roots, leaves and herbs but some species, like the water chevrotain, are also known to eat insects and crustaceans. While their shy nature makes them promptly dart to safety at the first sign of threat, their dappled and spotted coat, coupled with their tiny frame, makes them incredibly camouflaged against the background of dried littered leaves when they become alert and freeze.
They play an important role in ecology as seed dispersers and form prey to larger carnivores like tigers, leopards and the dhole. However, their biggest threat and predator remain humans. Flushed out of forests using dogs or snare traps, hunted down by poachers for meat, their demand and price is raised as a hoax where several are misled into believing their meat has curative properties for chronic illnesses.
Mammoth task ahead
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the status of the Indian Spotted Chevrotain as ‘Least Concern’ and ‘Lowest Risk’. However, one wonders if this is based on the assumption that the Indian Mouse Deer can conceal itself effectively and that its true distribution and population size are largely unknown. The true status of the species is possibly unknown, as rampant poaching has been documented in recent times and fragmentation of wild habitats forms its biggest threat like other wildlife.
The Indian Mouse Deer orphan at RESQ now weighs just over a kilogram and displays behaviour true to its nature as it darts into hiding when a RESQ rehabilitator enters the enclosure to replenish it with enrichments and feed. Several questions about keep replaying in my mind about how it might have ended up in captivity in a village, why a mother would abandon its young despite having a good forest nearby, and whether the mother was attacked by a predator — was it an animal or a human? While I am dramatically inclined to believe that the mother was possibly poached for bushmeat, we will never truly know. As of now, we focus on keeping her wild, and to our joy, it is a trait she seems inclined to retain. Predators are everywhere – human or wild. The mammoth task ahead is to find the animal a safe location for reintroduction.
Eventually, its survival will depend on its ability to protect itself, so the best we can do is ensure it is growing well and provide it with every opportunity to retain its elusive spirit.
Neha Panchamia is Founder and President, RESQ Charitable Trust. She tweets @NehaPanchamia. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)