Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus)
|French:||Cerf Porte-musc, Chevrotain Porte-musc, Porte-musc|
|Size||Head-body length: 86 – 100 cm (2)|
Height: 56 – 67 cm (2)
|Weight||15 –17 kg (2)|
Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
As the name suggests, musk deer are responsible for the production of musk, a strong-smelling substance that is one of the most expensive animal products in the world (4). Unlike true deer of the family Cervidae, the male Siberian musk deer does not possess antlers, but instead has two prominent, tusk-like canine teeth, which protrude below the lower jaw. These grow throughout the deer’s life and may reach up to 10 centimetres in length (2). The Siberian musk deer has a stocky body, with relatively short, thin front legs and longer, more powerful hind legs (5). The structure of the legs, the curved spine and large rear, mean that, rather than running, this species moves with a bounding gait (5). The fur of the Siberian musk deer is long and dense, coloured dark brown on the body, and mostly grey on the head, with some brown areas at the crown and around the long, hare-like ears (2) (5). The hooves are long, wide and pointed, with the extra surface area helping to keep the deer from sinking into soft ground and snow (2).
Scent plays an important part in the life history of the Siberian musk deer, hence the male has three kinds of scent gland: the interdigital gland between the toes, the caudal glands at the rear and the musk gland, a smooth, round pod about 3 centimetres wide, located between the genitals and the navel (2) (4). In an adult male, the musk gland produces about 28 grams of musk, a dark red-brown, waxy substance, the smell of which can be detected by humans at just 1 part in 3,000 (4) (5).
The Siberian musk deer is found in the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, northern and western China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea, and Mongolia (3). Five subspecies are recognised each occupying different geographical regions: Moschus moschiferus moschiferus, found in Siberia and Mongolia; Moschus moschiferus arcticus, found around the Verkhoyansk Mountain Range in eastern Siberia; Moschus moschiferus turovi, found in far-eastern Russia; Moschus moschiferus parvipes, found in Korea; and Moschus moschiferus sachalinensis, found only on the southern half of Sakhalin Island (1) (6).
The Siberian musk deer generally occupies forested, mountainous regions. In the Russian Federation it is usually found below altitudes of 1,600 metres, although in some regions it has been recorded at heights of 1,900 to 2,600 metres. It generally prefers north-facing, steep, forested slopes, with rocky areas for rest and refuge from predators. However, in certain parts of its range, the Siberian musk deer will move down into wooded river valleys in the summer, where grassy vegetation is more plentiful (2).
This shy and timid species is generally solitary. It is active at night, mostly feeding at dusk and dawn, and spends the day resting in the undergrowth (4). Lichen forms an important part of the Siberian musk deer’s diet, and it may climb inclined trunks up to four metres above the ground to reach it. On average, 0.8 kilograms of lichen is consumed per day (2) and, during the winter, may comprise 99 percent of the deer’s total food intake (1). Additional winter foods may include small branches, bark, leaves and pine needles, while in summer it may also take grasses, cereals and the leaves of the bilberry and wineberry (2). The Siberian musk deer does not forage particularly far afield, only ranging over a few kilometres per day, with summer and winter feeding grounds located nearby each other (4).
During the autumn and winter, communal defecation sites, and their associated scents, are used to help the deer communicate with one another. Scent is also an important indicator of the male Siberian musk deer’s territory, which may cover up to 300 hectares (4) and is marked out by wiping thick, yellow, strong-smelling secretions of the caudal gland on surrounding vegetation (5). The male’s territory usually contains the feeding ranges of between one to three females and generally, weaker or smaller males will not attempt to enter into it, but on occasions that they do, fighting may ensue.
During the breeding season, the male produces musk, which mixed with its urine, gives it a pink colour and the strong musk smell (5) that is believed to stimulate the female to begin oestrus (2). Breeding takes place in November and December, with females giving birth to one or two offspring after a gestation period of about six months. 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 similar gesture is seen in some other hoofed mammals during courtship (5). The Siberian musk deer is capable of living up to 20 years in captivity, although the average age in the wild is three to four years (2).
The main threat to the Siberian musk deer comes from being hunted for the musk trade (2). For over 5,000 years musk has been a highly valued ingredient in the production of medicines and perfumes (7). While it is no longer in such high demand in the perfume industry, due to the availability of cheaper synthetic alternatives (6), it is still used a great deal in traditional East Asian medicine preparations (7). Legal export quotas from the Russian Federation in 2008 indicated that 1,629 musk pods were obtained in the 2007 to 2008 hunting season (3). However, the number of deer killed to achieve this amount could be three to five times higher than this figure, since non-selective snares kill an average of three to five deer before a male with a large enough musk gland is caught. These legal quotas are, however, dwarfed in comparison with the illegal trade occurring in the Russian Federation. In the period 1999 to 2000, it was estimated that over 80 percent of all musk deer killed in the Russian Federation were poached, potentially representing a loss of over 50,000 deer (2).
The hunting of musk deer is illegal in China, Mongolia and South Korea, although trade is permitted (2). In the Russian Federation hunting legislation varies by region; in some areas it is permitted, but a license is required and quotas are set, whereas in other regions such as Sakahlin (inhabited by the rare subspecies M. m. sachalinensis) hunting the deer is completely forbidden. Unfortunately, a lack of enforcement of regulations has meant they have had little impact on reducing hunting pressure on the Siberian musk deer and there is good evidence that its population remains in decline (2) (7). Improvements in these regulations have been proposed, such as financial incentives for legal hunting, increased enforcement of trading laws, more accurate assessments of the levels of musk in traditional medicine preparations, and research into synthetic substitutes (2) (7).
Musk deer farming, which is practised in China and Russia, has shown that it is possible to extract musk from a deer without killing it, but the farming has proved problematic, with the deer succumbing to disease, fighting and producing musk in lower amounts and of poorer quality (7) (8). As a result, the killing of wild deer has remained one of the most cost-effective means of obtaining musk. It has been suggested that open farming could be practiced, whereby free-ranging musk deer are caught and the musk then extracted (8), 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).
To learn more about wildlife trade issues visit:
- WWF Wildlife Trade:
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- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Lichen: A composite organism made up of a fungus in a co-operative partnership with an alga. Owing to this partnership, lichens can thrive in harsh environments such as mountaintops and polar regions. Characteristically forms a crustlike or branching growth on rocks or tree trunks.
- Oestrus: the time of ovulation (release of an egg from the ovary) in female mammals, when the female becomes receptive to males, also known as ‘heat’.
- 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.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (March, 2009)
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. Available at:
CITES (March, 2008)
- Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker’s Mammals of the World. Sixth edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
- Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
CITES. (2000) Consideration of Proposals for Amendment of Appendices I and II. Proposal 11.29. Eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Gigiri. Available at:
- Ng, D. and Burgess, E.A. (2004) Against The Grain: Trade in Musk Deer Products In Singapore And Malaysia. TRAFFIC, Southeast Asia.
- 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.
United Nations Environment Programme (September, 2008)