The most common deer in India is one of two species of axis deer, known as the chital (the Hindustani name) and those who know it well claim it is the most beautiful deer in the world. Usually the beauty of a species of deer depends on the fine head of antlers the stags can attain. The beauty of the chital lies in its coat, which is bright reddish-brown with lines of conspicuous white spots, set off by the white underparts and the insides of the ears. The antlers are slender and have few branches, or tines, compared with the red deer or the wapiti. The chital, also known as the spotted deer, is unusual in that the stags shed their antlers at all times of the year and the fawns can be born at all times. Their body-size varies from one area of the range to another. In northern and central India the chital stands up to 3 ft at the shoulder, in southern India it seldom exceeds 2 ½ ft.
There is another deer living alone, or in parties of up to 18, on the grassy plains of northern India and Burma, and in some parts of Ceylon. It is known as the hog deer for its squat, pig-like appearance and movements. Its legs are short, its body smaller and stouter than that of the chital, and it runs head down, not bounding like other deer. Yet it is an axis deer, a close relative of the chital, in spite of its being so different. Its coat, for example, is brown with a yellowish or reddish tinge, and has a speckled appearance, because some of the hairs have white tips. Also, the antlers are small and set on long bony stalks or pedicels. But its young are spotted and, surprisingly, it readily interbreeds with the chital.
Habits and habitat
There is no segregation of the sexes, as in many deer, except perhaps that stags leave the herd when their antlers are about to be shed. Otherwise the chital lives in herds of up to several hundreds, including stags, hinds and young of varying ages. The habitat may be lowland plains or the lower hills, among bushes or trees or in bamboo forests, especially near a stream, with a ravine for shelter. The axis deer swims well and takes readily to water.
Browsers and grazers
Less nocturnal than most deer, the axis feeds for 4 hours after sunrise, then goes to water, rests in shade in midday heat, and feeds for a couple of hours before sunset. It is both a grazer (grass-eater) and a browser (eater of leaves).
Enemies prevent overbreeding
Mating takes place mainly in winter in northern India but fawns can be seen at all times of the year, born 210-238 days after mating.
Axis deer were once indifferent to the presence of human beings and, because they do not run away from man, in some parts of their range they have been severely reduced in numbers or even wiped out. In other areas their numbers have increased because natural enemies, for example, leopards, have been shot. The enemies are of two kinds: those, like the python, that take a small but steady toll of the numbers, and those, like the wild dog and the leopard, that not only prevent excessive increases in numbers but also keep the herds on the move, so that no part of the habitat is overgrazed. In countries other than India, especially those into which deer have been introduced as park deer and have then gone wild, we hear a great deal today about the need for culling (organised killing of a certain number) to prevent deer destroying their own habitat. This is because of an absence, in their new habitat, of natural predators. The axis deer is a good example of how these predators benefit the prey species by preventing the destruction of the habitat.
Deer readily increase in numbers if not checked. For example, axis deer were introduced to the Andaman Islands. They flourished and soon became a pest, moving out from their wild habitat into cultivated land. To check this two leopards were introduced – but care was taken to select two females, for fear that with a rich supply of food a pair of leopards would quickly breed, and lay the foundations of a worse pest.
Cruelty to deer?
In a sophisticated society any suggestion of cruelty to animals is repugnant to an important section of the public. Consequently, there tends to be adverse reaction to any suggestion of culling deer. EP Gee, the well-known naturalist, ardent conservationist, and authority on Indian animals, spoke wisely on one aspect of this problem.
He related cruelty to the way deer react to their enemies. Does a deer live in continual terror of being hunted or killed? Probably no wild animal feels any more apprehension of danger or death than we do in crossing a busy street. The chances of death are as great, or almost as great, as for deer in the wild state. We know there is danger. We are alert to the possibility. We are not actively apprehensive. So with deer in a wild habitat, they are ever alert to danger, with keen senses to detect it, and instinctive and instantaneous reactions to minimise it. One result is that it is mainly the weak and the sick that are caught by natural enemies.