Himalayan musk deer (Moschus leucogaster)

Also known as: Himalayan muskdeer, Himalayan musk-deer
Synonyms: Moschus cacharensis, Moschus chrysogaster leucogaster, Moschus saturatus, Moschus zhangmu
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCetartiodactyla
FamilyMoschidae
GenusMoschus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 86 – 100 cm (2)
Shoulder height: 40 – 50 cm (2)
Weight13 – 18 kg (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITIES (3).

Superbly adapted for life at high altitudes, the Himalayan musk deer has well-developed dewclaws and large, wide toes that provide increased stability on steep slopes, and a dense coat of coarse hairs with air-filled cells that insulate against the extreme temperature (4) (5). Unlike true deer of the family Cervidae, the Himalayan musk deer lacks antlers, instead possessing a pair of tusk-like, enlarged canines that grow throughout the deer’s life to reach as much as ten centimetres in length (5) (6). The body is stocky, and the forelimbs are short and thin compared to the longer, more powerful rearlimbs. The curved posture of the spine, legs and larger rear mean that, rather than running, this agile deer leaps with a distinctive, bounding gait (4) (6). The dark brown fur on the young fawns is speckled with white spots, but later becomes more uniform in colour, although adults retain two white spots on the neck (5). 

The Himalayan musk deer is perhaps most famous for the waxy substance called musk that the male deer secrets from a gland in the abdomen. This pungent secretion is typically used to mark territories and deter rival males during the breeding season, but it has also been used in the manufacture of perfumes, soap and medicinal preparations, making musk one of the most highly valued animal products (4) (6) (7).

The Himalayan musk deer is found in the Himalayan Mountains of Bhutan, northern India, Nepal and Southwest Xizng region of China (1).

The Himalayan musk deer inhabits meadows, shrublands and fir forests on high altitude plateaus above 2,500 metres (1).

Shy and secretive during the day when it hides in dense cover, at night the Himalayan musk deer emerges to feed in more open habitats. This species prefers to select the leaves of trees and shrubs with a high protein and low fibre content, but during the winter it may subsist on poorer quality lichens, although it may climb small trees to feed upon leaves that would otherwise be out of reach (6) (8). 

The Himalayan musk deer is a fairly sedentary species, occupying a small home range of up to 22 hectares. The males are fiercely territorial, only allowing females to enter their range. Territories are marked by carefully placed defecation sites and strong-smelling secretions, which are rubbed onto the surrounding vegetation. Weaker males will not attempt to enter the territory of a stronger male, but on occasions that they do, fighting may ensue (6) (7) (8). 

During the breeding season, the male produces musk, which mixed with its urine, has a pink colour and strong smell that is believed to stimulate the female to begin oestrus (7) (8). From November through to early July, the males compete in sparring competitions for females, with a single young born in May or June, after a gestation period of some 178 to 198 days. For the first two months after birth, the young fawn hides in the undergrowth and suckles from the mother. The suckling behaviour of musk deer is unusual; while the fawn suckles, the mother lifts her hind leg, which the fawn touches with its foreleg, a gesture that is sometimes seen in other hoofed mammals during courtship (7). The fawn grows rapidly, becoming fully independent after six months. Maturity is typically reached after 18 months, although the female can breed after its first year, with a life-expectancy of up to 20 years (5) (6) (7) (8).

The primary threat to the Himalayan musk deer is hunting for musk, a highly-desired product has been used in perfumes and traditional medicines for over 5,000 years (1) (9) (10). Although it is no longer in such demand, due to the availability of cheaper synthetics, it is still found in as many as 400 Chinese and Korean medicines, and may sell for as much as $45,000 per kilogram, making it one of the most valuable animal-derived products in the world (4) (10). As a result of its high value and the poor economic state of many communities within its range, hunting of the Himalayan musk deer has been unsustainable (1) (11). Animals are indiscriminately caught using snares, and although only adult males produce musk, both females and juveniles are also caught, with between three and five deer killed per harvested musk pod. In some regions the Himalayan musk deer may also be hunted for its meat, while its habitat is threatened by encroaching pastoral farming (1) (11).  

The Himalayan musk deer is protected by law in Bhutan, Nepal and India. In China, hunting may be permitted in some areas, although a license is required. This Endangered species is also found in a number of protected areas; however, the uneven enforcement of legislation across its range has meant there has been little impact on preventing the rampant trade in the species (11). Improving the enforcement of anti-poaching laws is deemed a key priority for the conservation of this species (1). 

To stem the loss of animals from the wild, captive-deer farming for musk has been developed in China, and so far this has shown that it is possible to extract musk from a deer without having to kill it. Unfortunately, however, this farming has proved problematic, with captive deer succumbing to disease, fighting and producing poorer quality musk. Consequently, killing wild deer is still often regarded as the most cost effective method for extracting musk (9) (12). It has been suggested that open farming could be practiced, whereby free-ranging musk deer are caught and the musk then extracted, or alternatively, wild deer could have the musk sustainably extracted in the same manner, ensuring that the species is conserved without damaging local livelihoods (9) (12).

For more information on the conservation of deer, see:

For more information on wildlife trade, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Aryal, A. (2005) Status and Distribution of Himalayan Musk Deer “Moschus chyrogaster” in Annapurna Conservation Area of Manang District, Nepal. Institute of Forestry Pokhara, Nepal.  
  3. CITES (May, 2010)
    http://www.cites.org/
  4. Ultimate Ungulate (May, 2010)
    http://www.ultimateungulate.com/cetartiodactyla/moschidae.html
  5. Rajchal, R. (2006) Population Status, Distribution, Management, Threats and Mitigation Measures of Himalayan Musk Deer (Moschus chyrogaster) in Sagarmatha National Park. Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation, Tourism for Rural Poverty Alleviation Programme, Babarmahal, Kathmandu, Nepal.
  6. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker’s Mammals of the World. Sixth edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  7. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Homes, V. (2004) No Licence to Kill: the Population and Harvest of Musk Deer and Trade in Musk in the Russian Federation and Mongolia. TRAFFIC Europe, Brussels.
  9. Ng, D. and Burgess, E.A. (2004) Against The Grain: Trade in Musk Deer Products In Singapore And Malaysia. TRAFFIC, Southeast Asia.
  10. National Geographic – Poachers Target Musk Deer for Perfumes, Medicines (May, 2010)
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/09/0907_040907_muskdeer.html
  11. Wemmer, C. (1998) Deer: Status Survey and Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Deer Specialist Group, Cambridge.
  12. Meng, X., Zhou, C., Hu, J., Li, C., Meng, Z., Feng, J. and Zhou, Y. (2006) Musk deer farming in China. Animal Science, 82: 1-6.