Deer With 'Fangs' Spotted in Afghanistan for First Time in 60 Years

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The musk deer is known for the tusks that males grow during rutting season. Here, a Siberian musk deer, a species similar to the Kashmir musk deer, shows off the tusks (Photo: Didier Descouens and Николай Усик/ Wikipedia).

Exciting news has hit the conservation news circuit. The Wildlife Conservation Society sent a survey team to northeast Afghanistan, and the team spotted Kashmir musk deer, a species that hasn't been seen by scientists since 1948.

A male was sighted on three separate occasions, as well as a female, and a second female with a juvenile.

The species is noted for the tusks that males grow during mating season, which extend out of the mouth and look much like fangs. Though they grow extra large teeth rather than antlers, musk deer use them for the same purpose as true deer use their antlers: for sparring with other males. But it isn't the tusks which draw in poachers, but rather their musk gland, which is sold on the black market to be used for things like perfumes.

The news of the sighting is wonderful for the species, which is endangered due to habitat loss and continued poaching. But the outcome of the sightings is even more important than the sightings themselves. The fact it was spotted now pushes renewed energy into conservation interests and efforts.

Smithsonian Magazine notes, "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."

Human activity has taken a serious toll on this fascinating deer. As is the case with too many species, humans destroying habitat and hunting has pushed the deer into steep, mountainsides that are difficult to get to and thus offer a small bit of refuge from poaching, but it may not be enough to persist. As LiveScience points out, "Three decades of war have ravaged Nuristan province, and the continued violence and political instability make the black-market trade of scent glands uncontrollable. Furthermore, the species is quickly losing suitable habitat. Recent geological surveys of the area show that it has lost about 50 percent of its mountainous forests since the 1970s, according to the study."

The sighting of the Kashmir musk deer still offers hope, however, just by knowing it is still there. It makes its way into the record books with other "Lazarus species" like Pharotis imogene, a bat species that hadn't been spotted in 120 years and was thought extinct, and the variable harlequin frog, which was thought lost forever until it was sighted again in 2003. These and other species that appear to searching scientists are faint blips on a radar, which underscore why conserving habitat is essential to the persistence of species, even those -- or especially those -- that are barely clinging on.

As WCS reports in the press release of the energizing sighting, "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."

It is through dogged efforts like this that some species are able to survive -- and in some special cases, once again thrive -- despite the odds against them. For the Kashmir musk deer, those odds seem overwhelming in light of their value to poachers. Exactly what help they need, and how to provide conservation measures, is still up in the air, but WCS plans to continue the effort.

“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.”