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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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What Are Your Wearing for Halloween, Deer?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 31, 2014

Vampire deer in Afghanistan, ready for romance.

Vampire deer in Afghanistan, ready for romance.

And, darling, what big teeth you have!

I was thinking the folks at the Wildlife Conservation Society just put out this press release to have a little fun at Halloween. But it’s based on a new study in the October issue of the journal Oryx (also apparently feeling the Halloween spirit) and the species Moschus cupreus is apparently real, and poachers know it:

 More than 60 years after its last confirmed sighting, a strange deer with vampire-like fangs still persists in the rugged forested slopes of northeast Afghanistan according to a research team led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which confirmed the species presence during recent surveys.

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 traversing the region in 1948.  The study was published in the Oct. 22nd edition of the journal Oryx.  Authors include: Stephane Ostrowski and Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Haqiq Rahmani of the University of Leeds, and Jan Mohammad Ali and Rita Ali of Waygal, Nuristan, Afghanistan.

The species is categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss and poaching. Its scent glands are coveted by wildlife traffickers and are

considered more valuable by weight than gold, fetching as much as $45,000/kilo on the black market. The male’s distinct saber-like tusks are used during the rutting season to compete with other males.

The survey team recorded five sightings, including a solitary male in the same area on three occasions, one female with a juvenile, and one solitary female, which may have been the same individual without her young.  All sightings were in steep rocky outcrops interspersed with alpine meadows and scattered, dense high bushes of juniper and rhododendron. According to the team, the musk deer were discrete, cryptic, difficult to spot, and could not be photographed.

The authors say that targeted conservation of the species and its habitat are needed for it to survive in Afghanistan.

Although the deteriorating security conditions in Nuristan did not allow NGOs to remain in Nuristan after 2010, the Wildlife Conservation Society maintains contact with the local people it has trained and will pursue funding to continue ecosystem research and protection in Nuristan when the situation improves.

“Musk deer are one of Afghanistan’s living treasures,” said co-author Peter Zahler, WCS 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.”

 This study was made possible by the generous support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). With USAID support, WCS has been helping to build Afghanistan’s capacity for sustainably managing their natural resources at both the government and community levels, including the recent creation of the country’s first (2009) and second (2014) official protected areas – Band-e-Amir and Wakhan National Parks.

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