Oh, Roos-Ket

Threatened by human invasion of their natural habitats, Musk deer or Roos is struggling to survive the onslaught. Shakir Mir reports how poachers hunt this animal for its prized musk sac

Musk Deer. Photo: Intesar Suhail

(Musk Deer. Photo: Intesar Suhail)

On Friday this week, locals in Ganderbal caught hold of a female Musk deer and held it aloft to the sound of camera clicks. Timid about the human proximity, the deer, visibly scared, died in few minutes. Authorities who later buried the animal at Dachigam blamed ‘improper handling’ on part of its captors.

While the dodgy deer specie is widespread across Valley, authorities are nevertheless stepping up efforts to conserve this beleaguered mammal. Its numbers across the Himalayan region are estimated to be around just 5000 and still dwindling.

Wildlife experts say Musk deer was considered to be single specie until 1995 when scientists discovered the idiosyncrasy of the kind which is found across Kashmir and have ever since re-named it as Kashmir Musk deer. Its zoological name has also changed to Moschus cupreus.

“Kashmir Musk deer can be differentiated from its other species by black or greyish spots on its back,” says Intesar Suhail, Wildlife Warden Kargil range where the presence of deer specie is believed to be most abundant in the state.

The deer inhabits across Alpine forests, at the altitude of 1500-4000 meters and unlike Hangul, is found across both sides of Jhelum River. “It is found across both Greater Himalayas and Pir Panjal,” Suhail says. “…while Hangul which is only found across Pir Panjal range.”

There has been no census to record its numbers in Kashmir but officials say the department is looking forward to start the initiative. The deer is traditionally found across forests replete with Oak, Conifer and sub-alpine scrubs. It is popular for two sharp tusks fanning out from its mouth giving it a ferocious appearance.

With at least seven known sub-species of Musk deer, conservationists believe there is an overlapping distribution of two sub-species of this deer across Kashmir range. The other one is called Himalayan Musk deer.

Although Schedule I of the J&K Wildlife Protection Act 1978 prohibits the killing and trade of Musk deer, experts aver that the elusive herbivore is facing drastic decline in numbers allegedly due to threats originating from human interference.

To give the visitors a visual treat and promote word about its conservation, the J&K Wildlife Department is also exploring options to put the animal at display at the breeding center in Pahalgam.

It is starting to become widespread in South Kashmir again where, due to the omnipresence of military at higher reaches, its declining numbers have been arrested. The otherwise “deleterious” militarization, experts believe, has become a windfall for this vanishing mammal to survive the onslaught of the anthropogenic (human-related) activities. “Heavy army presence has ensured that very little people can roam around with deadly weapons,” says Sadiq Mir, Wildlife Warden, South tells Kashmir Life.

Mir says that his department has identified the animal for in-situ (within forests) conservation to augment its number. “Besides, we are going to re-introduce the deer in areas like Achabal and Daksum where it had simply disappeared in the thin air due to poaching and habitat destruction,” he says. “We will ensure that it flourishes again.”

Poachers are baying for blood of this animal for its coveted glandular secretion used widely to manufacture medicines, perfumes and aftershave lotions. The animal carries the aromatic musk in a sac located precisely between its navel and genitals. “The musk is a prized possession,” explains Suhail. “It cannot be extracted without killing the male Musk deer.”

It is estimated the just ten grams of deer musk fetches up to Rs 50,000 in the open market. “It is a brown waxy substance which gives away pungent odor,” Suhail says. “It is supposed to undergo many stages of process before becoming ready for pharmaceutical or cosmetic purpose.”

In many parts of Kashmir, musk is also part of endeared superstitions. It is believed that musk can fend off bad luck while bringing fortunes. Faith-healers embed the smidgens of musk into trinkets and offer them to the devotees.

The animal is also hunted for food. “Nomadic tribes residing deeper in the forests often kill Musk deer for consumption,” Suhail says.

Its declining numbers have also been attributed to the gratuitous green-felling which has shrunk its habitat. The deer prefers basking in the presence low-lying Juniper thickets. “Often village women, who roam around the forests, end up cutting these low-lying bushes called understory,” Suhail says. “As a result it affects their habitat and the deer flees to area when they come in contact with humans who invariably kill them to extract musk.”

Curiously, the animal has also been part of local folklore. The deer, called Roos in Kashmiri, is believed to have been introduced from Russia. The female is thus invariably called Roos-ket. In many parts of India, the animal is called Kastoor. It is believed that it was from this very name that lyrics of a famous Kashmiri song Walai Kastooriye originated. The mystic animal also finds a mention in one of Allama Iqbal’s poems, Aseeri.

Across North Kashmir, the Musk deer inhabits in numbers officials maintain is “good enough.”

It is widespread in Kupwara and Baramulla. Experts say the deer is also found abundantly in Kishanganga belt where number of cases of poaching is estimated to be high compared to other regions.

“The poachers are mostly locals not outsiders,” says Mohammad Shafi Bacha, Chairman, Wildlife Conservation Fund and erstwhile Regional Wildlife Warden “The deer inhabits in both protected and outside protected areas.”

Maqbool Baba, Warden, North says his department has made interventions to make sure its number does not dwindle further. “Over the years we have tightened the patrols to keep away poachers,” he says. “Hopefully, we will have its numbers rising.”

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