for National Geographic News
Musk, a strong-smelling secretion produced by the glands of Asia's musk deer, has been used in perfumes and the traditional medicine of China and its neighbors for 5,000 years or more.
It is estimated that musk is currently being used in as many as 400 Chinese and Korean traditional remedies, making it one of the most commonand most valuablemedicinal products to come from an animal.
Musk is used in preparations intended to treat complaints of the nervous system, circulation, heart, and lungsand as a stimulant or sedative, depending on what it is combined with.
But as human populations swell across Asia, demand for musk is increasing while available habitat for musk deer is decreasing.
Though laws exist to conserve the deer in much of its range, recent studies suggest that the illegal trade in musk glands (or musk pods) is dangerously threatening populations of the deer in Russia and Mongolia.
According to ongoing surveys by TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring network, and WWF, a conservation organization, 17,000 to 20,000 musk deer stags could be killed in Russia each year to supply the trade.
That figure is perhaps five times the number of musk deer hunted and traded legally within Russia.
More Valuable Than Gold
"Gram for gram, musk is one of the most valuable products in the natural kingdom and can be worth three times more than its weight on gold," said Stuart Chapman, with WWF-UK in Godalming, England.
Protecting musk deer is therefore important from both a commercial perspective and a conservation perspective, he says.
There are perhaps six species of musk deer (a topic of dispute among scientists), found in 13 countries, including Russia, China, India, Nepal, and other Asian nations. Musk deer are relatively small and antlerless, with a pair of protruding, tusklike teeth.
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