The Deer of Sri Lanka

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					                                        The Deer of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has five species of deer of which one is the extremely rare hog deer, which was thought to be
extinct in the island for a long time until recent sightings indicated a small population of survivors. The
other deer species are, in descending order of size, the sambhur, axis deer, barking deer and - last and
very small but certainly not least - the mouse deer.

Hog deer (Cervus porcinus)
Known as hog deer because of their stout, hog-like build, this could well be Sri Lanka’s rarest mammal
today. Closely related to the axis deer despite the very different appearance, the hog deer looks like the
proverbial poor relation! A drab, unmarked, bay or brown coat and relatively small, straight antlers are
characteristic of this timid and secretive deer. Similar to the two previous species, the antlers have three
tines or ‘branches’ and are shed annually. The hog deer favours grassy riverbanks, short–grass plains
and marshy surroundings.

Generally solitary or found in small groups, it was known to frequent the Southern Province inland from
Bentota and Koggala. In situ conservation measures may bring back the Sri Lankan hog deer from the
brink, but finding adequate natural habitat in the heart of today’s densely populated Southern Province
will be a true conservation challenge.

Sambhur (Cervus unicolor)
Next to the elephant and wild buffalo, the sambhur is the largest mammal in Sri Lanka. Once widespread
throughout the island, today only place names such as Gonawela near Kelaniya and Gonahena near
Kadawata (gona means “sambhur” in Sinhala) remain in wet zone areas to remind one of places where
wild sambhurs once trod.

Today they are restricted to mountain forests in the wet zone, and are becoming an increasing
rarity outside protected areas in the dry zone. Does and fawns form loose-knit herds of varying size, while
stags lead a solitary existence except during the rut. Only the stags possess antlers, which grow during
the second year of life and are thereafter shed and re-grown each year. The national parks in which to
see these magnificent deer in their natural habitat are Horton Plains in the central massif, Wilpattu in the
northwest, and Yala and Kumana in the southeast. Such areas are critical to the long-term conservation
of this species. Other than humans, their only other enemy is the leopard.

Axis deer (Axis axis)
A dry zone species, this is Sri Lanka’s commonest deer. A full grown axis deer is barely half the size of a
sambhur stag but has long antlers in proportion to body size. The axis or cheetal as it is known in India, is
a South Asian deer. In Sri Lanka it is found throughout the wilder areas of dry zone districts. However, it
is rare today. Legal hunting throughout most of the 20th century, wire snares and trap guns set to meet an
increasing demand for illicit bush meat, not to mention settlement schemes, have all contributed to a
drastic reduction in this gregarious species. The axis deer is the main prey animal of leopards wherever
the two co-exist, hence the reduction in numbers in an area will have a direct bearing on that
particular leopard population.

Axis deer form large herds, especially following rains that encourage the growth of new grasses. Both
males and females associate together until the mating season, when fighting breaks out between rival
stags, and mixed herds break up into male-controlled harems. Primarily a grazing animal, the axis deer is
able to switch to browsing during the harsh dry season and supplement its diet by eating fallen fruit. As an
animal that has to drink daily, their natural distribution is limited by the availability of water sources.

Barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak)
Also known as muntjac, this is a widespread species found throughout South and East Asia occurring as
several subspecies and races. Not much bigger than an average dog, and with a distinctive reddish-
brown coat, this deer cannot be confused with any other animal in the country. The muntjac shows a
marked preference for wooded habitats. The short antlers have only two tines and can be seen below the
facial skin. The name comes from the muntjac’s bark-like call, which is surprising loud given it’s small
size. Usually solitary, sometimes in pairs and occasionally in small family groups, the best places to see
these timid deer are in Wilpattu and Wasgomuwa National Parks.

Mouse deer (Tragulus meminna)
The mouse deer is also known as the chevrotain and by its Sinhala name meeminna, which has also
contributed to it’s scientific nomenclature. This is a truly tiny deer, only attaining a maximum height of
30cm, although larger members of this genus are found in several southeast Asian countries, but relative
to other deer they are all very small. These deer do not possess antlers but instead have greatly
elongated canine teeth that they use in fighting and defence. These so called ‘tusks’ of the males are
longer than in females, and protrude below the upper lip. However, their small size makes them highly
vulnerable, not only to village dogs but even house cats!

Being low down in the food chain, their best defence is concealment. Their coats have a pattern of beige
stripes and spots against a darker buff background, which acts as excellent camouflage. They have
secretive habits and remain hidden in vegetation for much of the day. As a result, although mouse deer
have a widespread distribution in both the wet and dry zone, and even in Colombo’s suburbs, their
secretive habits allow them to go unnoticed.

Civets: Makers of Scents
Eyes flash, luminous in the night, as something darts low and quick across the dusty road. The strange
creature pauses on the verge, frozen by the dazzling headlights and you are able to make out a long, lithe
body, grey with dappled black spots and parallel stripes on the elongated hind legs. The long tail is ringed
with alternating bands of black and grey whereas the small head, fine-boned as to be almost delicate, is
tilted inquisitively, face narrowing to a sharply pointed muzzle, rounded ears alert. It suddenly dips, swiftly
and silently into the undergrowth and is gone from sight.

This sort of fleeting encounter is not an uncommon way to get introduced to the Ceylon small civet
(Viverricula indica mayori), commonly called the ring-tailed civet, one of three civets found in Sri Lanka, all
members of the Family Viverridae, to which mongooses also belong. The other two island representatives
are the common Indian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus hermaphroditus), widely known as the
palm, toddy or pole cat, and the golden palm civet (Paradoxurus zeylonensis), both of which are more
arboreal and cat-like than their beautifully marked cousin.

Morphologically well adapted to their environments, the three Sri Lankan civet species possess sharp,
curved, fully-retractable claws for climbing. Further enhancing their efficiency in this regard they have
hairless foot pads for grip and semi-fused third and fourth toes which make them more sure-footed. The
Ceylon small civet rarely seems to use these faculties and is almost always on the ground, including in
small patches of fern or grass where it lies up in the heat of the day.

Civets of one stripe or another are found throughout the country from the arid Yala coastline to the moist
upper reaches of the central hills – but you don’t have to venture to remote areas to catch a glimpse of
them. The pole cat is familiar to urban dwellers, living as it often does in the rafters of houses, where it
has an unfortunate tendency to annoy the inhabitants by noisily chasing rats in the night and urinating
through the ceiling panels. Palm civets are also widespread in rural areas where their fondness for the
fermenting juice of the coconut palm (toddy) is legendary, to the point where, reputedly, they will steal it
from the toddy tapper’s buckets, hence their common name toddy cat.

The endemic golden palm civet is an elusive forest denizen that often spends the day nestled high in the
fork of a sheltered tree, emerging at night to prowl. Like the other civets it is omnivorous - the Ceylon
small civet is the most carnivorous of the bunch - feeding mainly on fruits and berries although showing a
preference for preying on small mammals, birds, eggs, lizards and frogs when it can get them. Aptly
named, this muscular creature ranges in colour from bright gold to a deeper reddish-gold bordering on
russet and is free of markings.

They are nimble climbers, keen to investigate all of a tree’s nooks and crannies in their tireless search for
food and we have watched them doing just this, by torchlight, which they seem to readily ignore.
Intriguingly, like sloths in the neo-tropics, a golden palm civet’s shoulder hair grows “backward”, towards
the head. With the sloth it is thought that this orientation acts like a drip ledge, aiding water run-off as they
hang upside down, but the explanation seems unsatisfactory for these agile and highly mobile civets!

Civets are famous for their scent secretions which have long been used in the perfume industry as a
stabilizing agent for fragrances. A strong smelling, oily yellowish liquid called “civet musk” is produced
from the perineal glands located adjacent to the animal’s genitals. Records indicate that a trade in this
precious oil was ongoing as far back as the 10th century BC when King Solomon imported the stuff,
harvested from African civets. In nature this musk is used for communication with scent-marks deposited
at strategic locations to inform other civets that a neighbour is near and to designate home ranges. As
solitary species, this type of non-verbal, non-visual communication is vital.

So the next time your headlights pick up flashing eyes darting across the road or you get jolted awake by
the sound of clawed feet scrabbling through your ceiling space, pick up a torch and investigate. You may
just be lucky enough to meet one of three of the island’s most widespread yet elusive mammals. And
while you’re searching for the torch, check the ingredients of your perfume or aftershave and make sure it
doesn’t have “civetine” listed, because these fascinating creatures belong high up in a coconut palm
sipping on toddy or nestled comfortably in a secluded tree fork napping the day away, not crammed into
some shoddy crate waiting for the next “harvest”. That just stinks.

Mongoose Quartet
Sri Lanka has four species of mongooses, all belonging to the genus Herpestes. They range in size from
the small, grey mongoose, to the large stripe-necked or badger mongoose. They exhibit sexual
dimorphism - males being considerably larger than females. They have a varied carnivorous diet that
includes earthworms, grubs, snails, insects, frogs, crabs, reptiles, birds’ eggs, birds, rodents and other
small mammals. They also eat a small amount of vegetable matter, which varies with each species.

Sri Lankan mongooses are mainly terrestrial, although some smaller species do limited hunting in trees in
order to raid birds’ nests and nest holes. Mongooses are fierce and resourceful hunters who do not
hesitate to take on prey much larger than themselves when the opportunity arises.

Mongooses have scent glands in the anal region which produce a pungent, sticky substance which is
used to mark low vegetation in order to announce their presence to other members of the species. They
have few natural enemies, but do occasionally fall prey to large raptors and constrictors such as the
python. Their ability to kill and devour other snakes is well-documented. Battles between mongooses and
cobras are a part of south Asian legend and folklore.

Mongooses may breed more than once a year: the usual litter size is two or sometimes three young. The
young remain dependant on their parents till sexual maturity.

Grey Mongoose (Herpestes edwardsii)
This is the smallest of the local mongooses, with a pronounced elongated body and short legs. However,
the tail is proportionately much longer. It has a glossy, speckled grey coat, with the fur being longest on
the back and hindquarters.

It’s distributed throughout the low country dry zone and often encountered close to human habitation. A
species easily tamed when young, it is a popular pet in many rural south Asian homes including Sri
Lanka, although the practice is in contravention of wildlife laws and can result in prosecution.

More diurnal than nocturnal in habit, this species exhibits a great deal of curiousity and ingenuity in
securing prey of remarkable diversity. Usually two young are born in a burrow dug by the female or within
a chamber in a termite mound.

Brown Mongoose (Herpestes fuscus)
Larger than the grey mongoose, this species bears the closest resemblance to the former. However, the
brown mongoose exhibits the greatest degree of colour variation of all Sri Lankan species. It ranges from
dark brown through tawny brown to reddish brown. In the past, the four main colour variations were
described as separate sub-species. However, today they should be considered geographic colour
variants forming sub-populations until proven otherwise through DNA studies.

The brown mongoose in its several colour variations is the most widely distributed of all Sri Lanka’s
mongooses. It is encountered in the highest mountains and down to the coast. Indeed it is found in every
single district of the island.

This species usually tends to be more nocturnal than the others and almost exclusively uses termite
mounds for breeding purposes. This is the species most likely to be seen at night in urban areas,
including Colombo. These mongooses often hunt in pairs, accompanied by much screeching vocalisation,
which closely resembles that of “flying foxes” (fruit bats).

Ruddy Mongoose (Herpestes smithii)
The ruddy mongoose, larger but slimmer in build than the brown mongoose, has a tail three-fourths the
length of the body. Black-tipped tail, it is carried stiffly, bent upwards at the tip in a very characteristic
manner. This, more than any other feature or colour, helps in distinguishing the species. The fur is
speckled with reddish brown and iron grey, creating a rather ruddy overall effect.

The species is widely distributed in the island both in the wet and dry zones. It is more forest loving than
the previous species, and is therefore dwindling in areas of dense human settlement and forest
conversion to agriculture.

This is the most frequently seen mongoose in most national parks. Besides the usual mongoose diet, this
species is known to regularly feed on carrion, and therefore a part of the regular ‘clean up crew’ at
leopard kills.

They are often seen in pairs: sometimes mothers with dependent young in tow. They do not seem to dig
burrows to breed, but instead use natural cavities. They may also breed among fallen rocks as they have
an affinity for rocky outcrops.

Stripe-Necked Mongoose (Herpestes vitticollis)
This is by far the largest mongoose in the island. In fact it is the largest mongoose species in Asia. Twice
the weight and size of any other species in Sri Lanka, the stripe-necked mongoose has a stocky build and
is more colourful than the other species. Apart from the distinct black, horizontal neck stripe, the fur
ranges from dark brown, through reddish brown, to orange-yellow speckled with grey. The pelage (fur)
colour changes in brightness seasonally and is most probably associated with breeding.

Patchily distributed in the island, it can be seen in the highest mountains and down in the coastal
lowlands, but populations are highly localised. It is also considered to be very water dependant and
therefore never found too far from a water source. If this mongoose has a stronghold it is at Yala in the
south-east corner of the island, where it is frequently seen busily digging up dry stream beds for dormant

Unlike other mongooses, its sheer size alone enables it to hunt larger mammals, such as mouse deer and
hares, and large birds such as jungle fowl, with ease. A wilderness dependant species, it is therefore not
encountered close to habitation.

The Porcupine and Pangolin: A Bizarre Jungle Pair
Unrelated except by their common mammalian heritage, the porcupine and pangolin are two of the
strangest animals that inhabit Sri Lanka. Something else these two unusual but vulnerable mammals
have in common is the formidable armour. In the case of the porcupine, this comes in the shape of
hundreds of pointed, stiff quills, while the pangolin’s consists of large overlapping horny scales or plates.
Both animals are seldom seen in the wild due to their nocturnal and secretive habits but are nonetheless
widely distributed throughout the island.
The Porcupine
The Indian crested porcupine (Hystrix indica), known in Sinhala as ittawa and Tamil as mallam-pandi, is
the largest rodent in Sri Lanka. In fact it is the largest rodent in the entire Indian sub-continent, where it is
widely distributed. The porcupine possesses large incisors which grow continually throughout its lifetime.
This is a characteristic common to all rodents.

The porcupine’s head and forequarters are covered with stiff bristles and hairs while the chest and belly
are almost naked, hence unprotected. The rest of the body is covered with sharp hollow, cylindrical
spines. These spines or quills are of varying length and are coloured with black or dark brown and white
bands. They are minutely barbed and can be erected vertically up and away from the body at will.

The porcupine is a stockily built, stout-legged rodent widely distributed throughout the island, both in the
wet and dry zones and occupying the mountainous interior and the extensive coastal and inland plains. It
is a strict vegetarian whose diet includes tubers, fallen fruit, leaves, shoots, roots and the bark of young
trees. Due to its considerable nocturnal depredations in agricultural areas, it is deemed a pest in this
country, and together with wild pigs has the dubious distinction of being named an unprotected species.

When threatened the porcupine deploys its formidable defence by erecting its quills and warning the
attacker by rattling its open-tipped tail quills. If the warning is unheeded the porcupine is able to rush
sideways or backwards at its attacker deeply embedding its loosely attached quills in the attacking
animal’s face and forequarters. Such an effective defensive manouevre is recorded to have caused the
deaths of not only dogs, but on occasion leopards and even lions in Africa.

Nevertheless, porcupines do regularly fall prey to leopards in Sri Lanka, evidenced by shattered quills that
are sometimes seen in leopard faeces. One can only imagine the skill and technique needed by a leopard
to kill a porcupine and then safely consume it. As leopard tend towards prey specialisation, it is believed
that these skills once mastered enable certain leopards to exploit a food source not favoured by other
competing leopards.

Porcupines favour rocky hillsides both for living and breeding purposes. Such sites are found in
abundance especially throughout dry zone Sri Lanka. One to four young have been recorded in India,
usually born in the wet months inside a secluded rock shelter, hollow log, or burrow dug in a hillside.
Porcupines tend to live communally and favoured sites may house several individuals. Such sites with
their tell-tale droppings, strong odour and paw prints abound throughout the island. Vocalisation is limited
to loud grunts.

The Pangolin
The Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), known in Sinhala as kaba-laya and Tamil as alangu, is a
member of a most unusual mammalian order. Pangolins form the only family within this order, which has
seven species both in Africa and Asia. Although strongly resembling some armadillo species of the
Americas, pangolins are unrelated to them. Pangolins are also known as scaly ant-eaters.

With a small conical head and a long, graduated tail, and covered with slightly overlapping, spatulate
scales, the pangolin is one of the strangest looking mammals. Females are about a metre in length, while
males are about one-and-a-half-metres long. Sexes are otherwise alike. Females weigh about nine kilos
while males more than twice that. The mouth of the pangolin is toothless and houses a very long, worm-
like sticky tongue, with which it licks up its insect prey. The feet end in stout, slightly curved claws which
are much longer in the forelimbs and are used for breaking into and digging up termite mounds and
burrows to live in. The colour of the scales varies from dull yellowish-brown to a reddish-brown and is
believed to vary according to the soil colour of the individual’s habitat.

The pangolin’s food consists of several species of ant and their larvae. However, their main prey seems
to be termites. Damage to termite mounds can be evidence of pangolins in an area. Essentially nocturnal,
it is rarely seen in the daytime. Some sightings do occur in protected areas; these usually occur very early
in the morning. The island’s prime predator, the leopard, is once again the only natural enemy of the
pangolin. The slow moving pangolin’s only defence is to roll up into a ball, protecting its vulnerable
underside from attack. Extraordinarily strong muscles prevent all attempts to uncurl a pangolin in such a
defensive posture.

Although a protected species, the pangolin is believed to have been extirpated from many areas of the
country with the expansion of human settlements. Both the reduction of its primary food source – termites
- as well as direct persecution by humans who seem to relish its flesh, threaten its existence outside
protected areas.

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