Sambar deer (Rusa unicolor)

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Male sambar deer walking
IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable VULNERABLE

Top facts

  • Only the male sambar deer has antlers.
  • There are many subspecies of sambar deer, which vary considerably in size and appearance.
  • The sambar deer has a broad diet and is well adapted to a wide variety of forest types.
  • The sambar deer is one of the few deer that will confront quite large predators.
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Sambar deer fact file

Sambar deer description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCetartiodactyla
FamilyCervidae
GenusRusa (1)

The sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) is the largest Oriental deer (3), with adults sometimes weighing as much as 546 kilograms (2). The hairy coat of the sambar deer is generally consistent in colour around the body, but can vary from yellowish-brown to almost dark grey. The belly of the sambar deer tends to be darker and sometimes has chestnut markings (3). This species has long, coarse hair, particularly on the neck, with this being more prominent in the male (3) (4). The tail is relatively long for a deer and is normally black (3).

The male sambar deer tends to be heavier and is likely to be darker than the female or any young. As in many other deer, only the male sambar deer has antlers. These antlers have three points, or tines, and can typically grow up to 120 centimetres in length in adults (3). The antlers can be fairly fragile (4) and become increasingly corrugated over time (3).

There are many subspecies of sambar deer, which differ considerably in appearance and size. The body mass and antler length of a sambar deer are highly variable, and both generally decrease from west to east across the distribution of this species (3) (4). There is also variation in the colour of the different subspecies (3).

Also known as
sambar.
Synonyms
Cervus unicolor.
Size
Head-body length: 160 - 270 cm (2)
Shoulder height: 102 - 160 cm (2) (3)
Tail length: 25 - 30 cm (3)
Typical weight: 150 - 320 kg (2)
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Sambar deer biology

The sambar deer is a herbivore, with a diet consisting of a variety of plants. It grazes or browses on a range of plant species depending on forage availability at the time, and this allows it to have great habitat flexibility (1) (3). In India alone, the sambar deer has been reported to eat between 130 and 180 different plant species (1). This deer regularly uses mineral licks, which provide essential mineral nutrients, and it is never found far away from a source of fresh water. The sambar deer can easily swim with its body fully submerged and only its head above water (3).

The sambar deer reproduces year-round, but breeding usually peaks seasonally. When in breeding condition, the male has a strong odour and a swollen neck. The male often sprays his body with urine and, standing erect on his hind legs, rubs his odour on trees. Due to regular wallowing in wet spots, the male is usually covered with mud, accentuating his dark fur, and he often acts aggressively during this time (3) (4). During fights, stags may lock antlers, but also rise on their hind legs and crash downwards into their opponent (4).

The female sambar deer reaches sexual maturity at around 18 to 24 months old, and usually gives birth to a single calf after a gestation period of about 8 months (3).  Female sambar deer usually occur in small groups, which are often dominated by a single female. Young males group together close to females, while males over six years of age are typically solitary. Group size is normally at its largest near water holes (3).

The sambar deer is fairly shy and is mainly active at twilight or at night (3). This species is very alert and silent, and will freeze instantly if disturbed. The sambar deer is one of the few deer that attacks sizeable predators, and it prefers to hold confrontations in shallow water (4). When confronting predators, the sambar deer produces a loud alarm bark and the hair on its neck erects. A female sambar deer is also incredibly protective of her young and, if confronted, will stomp and warn off attackers (3).

Sambar deer have a sex ratio greatly favouring females, due to the high mortality of males. This is mainly due to predation by animals such as the leopard, tiger and wolf (4). Predation by tigers (Panthera tigris) is a major cause of sambar deer mortality, with the sambar deer making up a large proportion of tiger prey in many areas (1).

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Sambar deer range

The sambar deer is the most widespread deer in Asia, with the various subspecies being found in the southern and south-eastern parts of the continent (3). There are populations in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and throughout southern China, as well as on the main islands of the Greater Sundas, and throughout the mainland including Thailand and Cambodia (1).

The sambar deer has also been widely introduced outside its native range, in places such as South Africa and Australia (1) (3).

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Sambar deer habitat

The sambar deer is flexible in its habitat requirements, but generally prefers forested landscapes (3). It is also commonly found near water, where it can forage for water plants (3) (4).

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Sambar deer status

The sambar deer is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable

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Sambar deer threats

There has been a 50 percent decline in many sambar deer populations in recent years. The main threat to this species is overexploitation for its antlers and meat. The antlers of the adult male are used in traditional medicine, making the male sambar deer an even greater target for hunters. In addition, the antlers are widely displayed as trophies, and many are sold to tourists as souvenirs. Hunting of the sambar deer is also widespread because sambar deer meat is one of the most sought-after wild meats throughout Southeast Asia. Some hunting is for local consumption, but most meat  is sold commercially (1).

Another contributing factor to the decline in sambar deer populations is habitat loss, with deforestation and conversion to agriculture resulting in the loss and fragmentation of the forested habitat that this species requires (1) (3).

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Sambar deer conservation

There are many conservation challenges for the sambar deer, as its populations are so widely dispersed and it is affected by many local customs, national laws and sometimes civil unrest (3).

However, there are many actions taking place to try and help this species. Even outside hunting regions, legislation has been imposed to protect the sambar deer from hunting, especially in Taiwan and protected areas of India, although this is not always easy to enforce. In places, remaining forest has also been converted to nature reserves, such as the Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam, meaning there is a greater proportion of protected habitat available for the sambar deer. In some protected areas, the human communities that formerly lived there have resettled, therefore removing a source of hunting and grazing competition from domestic livestock (1).

Captive breeding of the sambar deer is also being developed (1), and partnerships with local communities are being established to try and educate local people about this species and draw attention to its conservation (3).

Although the sambar deer occurs in many protected areas throughout its range, poaching and local declines are still occurring. Unless the sambar deer is given effective protection from hunting, there are fears that it will be lost from much of its historical range in the near future (1).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Find out more about the sambar deer and its conservation:

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Authentication

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:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

This species information was authored as part of the ARKive and Universities Scheme.
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Glossary

Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Herbivore
An animal that consumes only vegetable matter.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Boitani, L. (1984) Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Mammals. Touchstone Books, Florida.
  3. Leslie Jr, D.M. (2011) Rusa unicolor (Artiodactyla: Cevidae). Mammalian Species, 43(871): 1-30. Available at:
    http://www.mammalsociety.org/uploads/Leslie%202011%20-%20MS%2043%28871%29,%201-30_0.pdf
  4. Geist, V.(1998) Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
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Image credit

Male sambar deer walking  
Male sambar deer walking

© Francois Savigny / naturepl.com

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