Thorold’s deer (Przewalskium albirostris)

Also known as: white-lipped deer
Synonyms: Cervus albirostris
GenusPrzewalskium (1)
SizeHead-body length: up to 227 cm (2)
Male weight: c. 204 kg (3)
Female weight: c. 125 kg (3)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

An inhabitant of the Tibetan plateau, Thorold’s deer has many adaptations for this cold and harsh environment. Its brown coat consists of long, thick, coarse hairs with a fine underwool (3), providing much-needed warmth in winter, while the relatively short, stout legs and large, broad hooves are well suited to roaming in the rugged landscape (2) (3). The summer coat is darker than the winter coat and the underparts are generally creamier in colour (2) (3). The face is darker and has a distinctive white nose, lips and chin (2) (3), giving rise to its other common name, the white-lipped deer. It also has long, narrow ears and large preorbital glands (3). Male Thorold’s deer have large, showy antlers, measuring up to 140 centimetres in length (3).

Occurs in eastern Tibet and the adjacent parts of central China (2) (4).

Thorold’s deer inhabits open, rocky areas between 3,500 and 5,000 metres above sea level (3), as well as coniferous forest and rhododendron and alpine grassland (2). This deer is not only adapted to a harsh landscape, but also an extreme climate; the average annual temperature in this region is -1.76 degrees Celsius, and there can be as few as 12 days each year in which there is no frost (3)

During the winter, this gregarious deer roams about in large herds of up to 300 individuals (3) (4). With the arrival of summer, these herds break up and move to higher elevations where they roam less and stay for longer periods, grazing in the rich alpine meadows on grasses, sedges, alpine forbs, and occasionally foliage from shrubs (3). These meadows are often situated below large, rocky ridges, which the Thorold’s deer may move up into to escape predators if need be (3).

With the return of cold weather in September, the males and females will descend to their winter range, in time for the mating season. The rut lasts for around 80 days, between late September and the end of December (3). During this period, the males can become highly aggressive (2), and will display with high-pitched bellows and thrashes of their antlers (2) (3), sometimes resulting in sparring or serious fighting (2).

After the rut, the old males depart from the herd, leaving the females with the young males (3). Calving takes place between late May and early June (4), when pregnant females segregate themselves from the group and give birth in hiding (3). The new born calf remains hidden on high ridges, or at the edge of forest, whilst they grow rapidly; the mother remains nearby, very alert, and visits the young frequently for suckling (3).

Populations of Thorold’s deer have become seriously depleted as a result of hunting, competition with domestic livestock, and habitat conversion and fragmentation (2) (4), and now inhabit a tiny proportion of their former range as a result (3). Thorold’s deer is hunted for its meat, as well as for its antlers and other organs which are much in demand for traditional Chinese medicine (4).

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Chinese government established a number of farms where deer were bred for their antlers, in order to reduce pressure on wild populations and prevent poaching. Many of these had closed by the end of the 1980s, as overproduction in farms in other countries led to cheaper imports (4). Today, Thorold’s deer occurs in two protected areas, Ja-Ling and West-Sea in the Qinghai Province, which were both created especially for the protection of this Vulnerable deer. In addition, it is classed as a protected species in China (4). While these measures are important for the conservation of Thorold’s deer, further actions have been recommended, including assessing the present status of government farms, identifying potential reserve areas, and conducting long-term ecological studies (4).

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  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)