In Search of the Formosan Sambar

The Formosan sambar deer, which lives in the high mountains, is Taiwan’s largest herbivore, and it was once driven to the verge of extinction by hunting and the destruction of its natural habitat. The success of conservation efforts has reversed this trend in recent years, and the population is expanding. Because the sambar has no natural enemies, however, new challenges have gradually become apparent. The past and future of this iconic species should prompt us to think deeply about the close relationship between mankind and the environment, especially the high mountain environment.

The Formosan sambar deer, which lives in the high mountains, is Taiwan’s largest herbivore, and it was once driven to the verge of extinction by hunting and the destruction of its natural habitat. The success of conservation efforts has reversed this trend in recent years, and the population is expanding. Because the sambar has no natural enemies, however, new challenges have gradually become apparent. The past and future of this iconic species should prompt us to think deeply about the close relationship between mankind and the environment, especially the high mountain environment.

 

Imagine a mountain without its animals—even with the beauty of the landscape intact, it would be like a mountain without a soul. The Formosan sambar deer, which lives in the high mountains, is Taiwan’s largest herbivore, and it was once driven to the verge of extinction by hunting and the destruction of its natural habitat. The success of conservation efforts has reversed this trend in recent years, and the population is expanding. Because the sambar has no natural enemies, however, new challenges have gradually become apparent. The past and future of this iconic species should prompt us to think deeply about the close relationship between mankind and the environment, especially the high mountain environment.

 

The Formosan sambar prefers a habitat that includes coniferous forests and Yushania bamboo grasslands.The Formosan sambar prefers a habitat that includes coniferous forests and Yushania bamboo grasslands.

As its economy began to flourish in the early 1980s, Taiwan was more able to focus on wildlife conservation. “The establishment of Ken­ting National Park in 1984 was a milestone,” says Wang Ying, a professor in National Taiwan Normal University’s School of Life Science. “We finally had an official agency and a geographic location for protecting Taiwan’s wildlife.”

The birth of the Wildlife Conservation Act

Wang took part in the drafting of the 1989 Wildlife Conservation Act. At that time, the Convention on Biological Diversity (a treaty signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit) was being widely discussed, and the international community was taking a greater interest in local wildlife and local communities, especially the rights and traditional practices of indigenous peoples.

Sambar hinds and fawns often travel in groups of  three to four.Sambar hinds and fawns often travel in groups of three to four.

After the Wildlife Conservation Act took effect, discussion turned to which species were endangered and most in need of attention. Taiwan’s largest herbivore, the sambar, was extremely rare at that time. Mountain walkers and climbers described catching sight of the deer as akin to winning the lottery, a rare piece of luck indeed. This sparked the interest of Wang Ying, who was already conducting research on wildlife conservation.

Wild sambar on the brink

In the past, deer breeding farms required a supply of wild sambar for their genetic input. To meet this demand, Aborigines set out to capture them. “In those days, a large sambar could fetch as much as most people’s annual earnings,” Wang says.

Overhunting driven by the sambar’s high commercial value led to rapid depletion of the population.

Sambar researchers lug heavy equipment on mountain treks  for two to three days to reach their research sites.Sambar researchers lug heavy equipment on mountain treks for two to three days to reach their research sites.

A research team led by Wang conducted a survey of the commercial consumption of sambar in 1986-1987, and found that sambar meat was in short supply in restaurants serving mountain game dishes. Moreover, a tuberculosis outbreak at deer farms in 1989-1990 caused the population of wild sambar to plummet, making a bad situation even worse. “While the population of Reeves’ muntjac deer numbered in the tens of thousands, sambar could be counted in the hundreds,” Wang says. “It is no easy task to revive a population that has dwindled to such an extent.”

A research milestone

Yen Shih-ching, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Animal Science and Technology at National Taiwan University, recalls his first experience capturing a sambar. Lugging two nets, each weighing nearly 20 kilo­grams, the research team, with two Aboriginal hunters as guides, climbed into the mountains. On the first day it rained, and carrying the wet gear alone was exhausting. After two days of hiking, they reached the western peak of Mt. Panshi and set up camp in a spot called “Exclamation Pond,” a small valley-shaped depression that resembles an exclamation mark when the water level is low. After setting the nets, all the men in the party had to urinate on them, because human urine attracts the sambar.

Researchers trapping a sambar.Researchers trapping a sambar.

During the day they practiced strategies to drive a sambar into the nets, if one should appear nearby. The tent was about 20 meters from the nets, and when all was ready, the team waited for a sambar to walk into their trap. Suddenly they heard a noise outside. “Quick! Get the tranquilizers ready.”

Yen and another researcher charged from opposite directions. Shouting and turning on lamps, they made the animal turn and bolt directly into the nets.

Once the net closed around the sambar, the other team members held down the netting, then the vet quickly tranquilized it. After about ten minutes, the tranquilizer took effect, and they could finally open the net. At that point, some of the stronger members of the team rushed ­forward. One bound the hind legs, another bound the front legs, and yet another secured the head. Tennis balls were used to cover the antler tips to avoid injuries. Next the sambar was weighed, and the vet drew blood, collected samples of body parasites, measured the deer’s height, length, and neck circumference, and fitted the animal with a transmitter collar. When the team was finished, the vet injected the animal again to revive it, and it was released back into the wild. It was July 15, 2009, when Wang and Yen led the first research team to successfully capture a sambar and fit a tracker on it. It can be counted as a milestone in the quest to track and study the Formosan sambar.

Trouble on the mountain

The research team’s base camp at “Exclamation Pond.”  They generally spend up to a fortnight at the camp.The research team’s base camp at “Exclamation Pond.” They generally spend up to a fortnight at the camp.

Of course research can’t proceed so smoothly every time. One night the skies opened and rain came pouring down. The tent was pitched in a small ravine with rock walls on both sides, and the sambar trap was situated off to the side. After sleeping for a bit, Yen got up to get a drink of water. He discovered that the tent’s groundsheet was soft and squelchy underfoot, and quickly looked outside. To his dismay, he saw that slippers, metal cups, and pans were all afloat. After scrambling to wake the rest of the team, they moved everything to higher ground. They then assumed that their troubles were over, but after sleeping a couple more hours, they found that the flood waters had risen again. For the rest of the night the team was forced to move again and again. It continued to pour outside, and inside the tent everyone was soaked to the bone despite their rain gear. Meanwhile a group of sambar looked on as if watching a comedy as Yen and his team scrambled about, spending a miserable night.   

Emerging environmental concerns

Each deer has its own personality. Mature bucks are generally the boldest. The picture shows a particularly inquisitive sambar—named “Nosy” by the researchers—gazing unafraid at the equally curious onlookers.Each deer has its own personality. Mature bucks are generally the boldest. The picture shows a particularly inquisitive sambar—named “Nosy” by the researchers—gazing unafraid at the equally curious onlookers.

The success of conservation efforts in recent years has led to exponential growth in the sambar population, and with no natural enemies, the deer have begun to negatively impact the forests. This has been especially noticeable in high-elevation coniferous forests. Recent incidents of large-scale tree loss have occurred primarily in forests of fir and Taiwan hemlock trees. Yu­shan National Park has been particularly hard hit.

According to the preliminary findings of a research team led by Weng Guo-jing, associate professor at ­National Ping­tung University of Science and Techno­logy’s Institute of Wildlife Conservation, parasites are more prevalent in sambar droppings collected in some areas of Yu­shan. After measuring levels of condensed tannins in the droppings and in samples of tree bark and of Yu­shan cane (Yushania niitakayamensis), the bamboo species that is the sambar’s main food, taken from various areas where the deer feed, the researchers discovered that while the barks of different trees had differing levels of tannins, the substance was undetectable in the bamboo. The tannins can help kill parasites in the digestive tract, and this medicinal benefit might explain why the deer strip tree bark. Research is ongoing, and we will have to wait for more conclusive results to confirm whether this “self-medication” hypothesis holds water.

Dr. Yen Shih-ching holds up an antenna to get a fix  on the location of a sambar.
Dr. Yen Shih-ching holds up an antenna to get a fix on the location of a sambar.

While research is raising some worrying questions, it is also delivering some good news. Sun Li-jhu, head of the Conservation and Research Section at Ta­roko National Park, points out that data resulting from four years of cross-regional monitoring and the collection of more than a thousand excrement samples indicates that Taiwan’s sambar population can be divided into two major groups—the sambar found in the area of Taroko and Shei-Pa national parks, and those of the Central Mountain Range. The division resulted from habitat changes some 100,000 years ago, as alpine glaciers receded and snow­lines rose following an ice age. This is a major discovery and gives us a better understanding of the sambar family.

Balancing ecology, economy, and conservation

“Thirty years ago,” Wang Ying notes, “we talked of preservation rather than conservation. At the time, the United States was dealing with animals on the verge of extinction, and therefore they sought to ‘preserve’ them. Only after an animal’s population grew did they switch to ‘conserving’ them.”

Sambar stags have antlers, while the hinds have none.Sambar stags have antlers, while the hinds have none.

Wang feels that the term “conservation” is best used to describe the management of an animal population after it has been protected and has regained the ability to breed successfully. Once its population has recovered, it can also be exploited economically. Yen points to the case of sika deer in Japan. About a century ago, the sika had nearly gone extinct in Japan due to overhunting, and because of their scarcity hunting was prohibited. But not long after the hunting ban, the sika’s natural predator, the Japanese wolf, was itself hunted to extinction. Subsequently the sika population flourished, growing exponentially. As a result, hunting was once again permitted, and today in Hok­kaido 80,000 sika are culled each year. The deer population, however, remains too large, and the animals cause considerable damage to farms and forests. 

The situation of the sambar in Taiwan today resembles that of the sika in Japan a half-century ago. Wang thinks that the increase in the species’ population thanks to conservation can pave the way for ecotourism, which allows people to appreciate the sambar firsthand, cultivates a reverence for the animal’s natural habitat, and raises popular awareness of ecological conservation in general. The population growth should also allow for the establishment of designated areas in which Aborigines can hunt. This would help limit sambar numbers to a suitable level and reduce environmental degradation. It would also help preserve traditional Aboriginal hunting rituals and the dignity of hunting culture by preserving time-honored ancestral hunting techniques. Moreover, it would enable the sambar deer to act as a bridge linking ecology, conservation, and economic needs.