Encounters with hog deer

Through a gap in trees, I saw a female hog deer browsing (featured photo). I didn’t remember seeing hog deers before. The colour of the fur, the two lines of white spots flanking the spine, and less well defined lines of spots further down the body reminded me of a Cheetal’s colours. But this was much smaller, and looked more muscular. It took some time to notice us, then looked at us carefully, and decided we were no danger. Poaching is not unheard of in this forest, but this behaviour probably meant that poachers seldom target hog deer (Axis porcinus). I haven’t explored the protected forests below the Himalayas further west, which is also part of the range of this animal, so it is not unlikely that this was really my first sighting. A. porcinus are endangered because of tremendous loss of habitat, but they are fairly common in Kaziranga. After this first encounter, I kept seeing them again and again.

A very pleasant sighting was of a mixed group at a water hole (photo above). In a group like this my eyes first fix on the largest animal: the rhino. It was completely caked in mud and was grazing determinedly. We kept this rhino in sight, and it raised its head and sniffed at the air only when our jeep’s engine coughed a little. The baby hog deer was more than six months old, since it also browsed. The two adult deer were both female. The behaviour of hog deer is fairly plastic. When food is plentiful, as it is here, they are fairly solitary, with the males becoming territorial. Encounters between females are peaceful and occur by chance. When food is restricted, the deer do associate, but herding is uncommon.

The birds in the photo are very interesting. The large one on the right is one of the endangered greater adjutant storks (Leptoptilos dubius). At this distance I could not see the pouch which distinguishes it from the lesser adjutant stork (Leptoptilos javanicus). I had to resort to the secondary distinction, which is that the back feathers of L. dubius are an uniform colour, whereas the L. Javanicus has a lighter and darker shading on the back. Worldwide there are about 1000 of the greater adjutant storks, and Assam is one of the last breeding grounds, since it went extinct in Myanmar and Laos. The vulnerable L. Javanicus fares marginally better, since there are more than 5000 individuals left across Asia. These are among the largest of storks; so large in fact,that at an archaeological site in Vietnam, 6000 years old digging tools made of the bones of L. dubius were found. The nearby egret is barely larger than the bill of the adjutant.

It took me a while to encounter a male hog deer. Here is one: startled, and not quite sure whether to run. The antlers seemed to fork at the end. When I looked through binoculars I could see a nub of a branch lower down, but it was not very well defined. I’m fascinated by the association of birds with grazers. The two great mynas, identifiable by the tuft of feathers over the beak, sit on their backs not only for a better view, but also to jump on insects disturbed by the cropping. I’ve seen this kind of bird behaviour translated to urban settings, where a family of egrets spent a couple of generations following gardeners as they mowed a lawn.

I got a closer look at the antlers when I saw a male hog deer resting under a tree late in the morning. There was a small branch close to the base, with the main branch curving out to fork again at the tip. The difference between this individual and the other probably means that the antlers are slightly variable. Hog deer have disappeared from all of south east Asia in the recent past, except possibly in small patches in Tailand and Myanmar. Little is systematically recorded about it in Pakistan and Bhutan. There are conservation efforts in India and Nepal. I probably saw one of the few stable populations world wide.

Forests-full of rhinos

Let’s get this over with: when you go to Kaziranga expect to see Indian one-horned rhinos everywhere. We saw many of them grazing on the grass in the distance, several crossing the road, others cooling off by floating in water. We saw one bad tempered brute chase another off its patch of short green grass. Elsewhere we saw a badly injured male: gored by another’s horn in the plate between its shoulder and neck, its own horn broken, and possibly another injury on a back leg. Such fights are uncommon, but a grazing rhino is not to be trifled with. Kaziranga is a conservation success, having brought the Rhinoceros unicornis back from the brink of local extinction: there are more than 2000 individuals in the park now.

“Do tigers hunt rhinos?” I asked The Family. She didn’t know either. But our question was answered by one of the jeep drivers who heard from the grapevine that one jeep had just seen a rhino charge at a tiger and drive it away. There are reports of tigers killing rhino cubs. But the armour and temperament seems to be a defense not only against tigers but also against larger extinct predators. The genus Rhinoceros is about 50 million years old. They were hunted in the past by giant crocodiles, dog-bears, giant proto-hyenas and humans. The evolution of Indian rhinos 2-3 million years ago carried forward the armour plates of earlier species, and perhaps also their short temper.

The IUCN red list lists this species as vulnerable, a step up from endangered. It reports that the population is in excess of 2500 individuals, and increasing. Nevertheless, the species is vulnerable because 70% of the population is found in Kaziranga. Strangely, in spite of the huge conservation effort, there have been few studies of the species. I could not find a definitive list of the plants it eats, nor much about its life cycle. How long do most individuals live? As with so many other vulnerable species, there is much to be learnt yet.