Poachers Target Musk Deer for Perfumes, Medicines

John Pickrell in London, England
for National Geographic News
September 7, 2004
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 common—and most valuable—medicinal products to come from an animal.

Musk is used in preparations intended to treat complaints of the nervous system, circulation, heart, and lungs—and 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.

Only adult male musk deer have musk glands. It is thought that they use their strong-smelling musk secretion to mark out territories.

China and Russia are home to the majority of musk deer. However, until recently, precise data on the scale of poaching in those countries has been lacking. One 1999 report argued that the Russian musk deer population had dropped by as much as 50 percent in the previous decade due to overhunting.

"Musk deer are declining in most regions because of direct poaching of musk for use in traditional medicine, and are at risk of quickly becoming seriously endangered," said Volker Homes, wildlife expert with TRAFFIC-Europe in Frankfurt, Germany.

Homes is editor of the recent TRAFFIC report that provides the best data yet on the illegal trade in musk pods. The report reveals that poaching is rife in some parts of Mongolia and Russia.

According to figures compiled by Homes, 400 to 450 kilograms (880 to 990 pounds) of raw musk pods were traded illegally from Russia each year in 1999 and 2000. That translates to 17,000 to 20,000 musk stags killed, each with an average 23-gram (eight-tenths of an ounce) musk pod.

And the problem could be even worse than it appears, he said. Snares catch musk deer of all ages and both sexes indiscriminately—but only adult males have musk glands.

Three to five deer are usually captured for every musk-bearing stag, Homes said. He estimates that a total of 60,000 musk deer could be killed each year in Russia to produce the 400 to 450 kilograms of musk smuggled out of the country.

The report also revealed that in one part of Russia sampled (the Altay region), musk deer populations are now at only 10 to 25 percent of the levels estimated in the 1970s.

Though hunting of musk deer is totally prohibited in neighboring Mongolia, the report reveals that at least 12,000 of the animals were poached between 1996 and 2001.

Important Income

Musk is worth U.S. $2 to $3 per gram, meaning that the pod of a single stag can easily fetch $70—a huge sum of money to hunters in far-flung regions of Russia or Mongolia.

"There are few opportunities to earn money in Russia's remote, nonindustrial regions," Homes said.

"Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a fall in Russia's economy, the problem of poaching has been exacerbated," commented Michael Green, a conservation biologist and musk deer expert now with the Broads Authority in Norwich, England.

"In rural areas people will go to whatever lengths necessary to survive," he said.

Green, former vice-chair of the World Conservation Union's Deer Specialist Group, conducted one of the very first long-term studies of musk deer in the 1970s.

Poaching is a significant problem in many countries across the musk deer range. Green points to the example of one Nepalese valley, where he observed a density of 500 to 600 snares per square kilometer (0.6 square mile).

"The musk deer has been persecuted for many centuries for cosmetics and medicine," Green said, though trade in musk for cosmetics has become much less important over the last decade.

"Musk was still commonly used in perfumes by top perfumers in Western Europe and Japan during the 1980s," he said.

Today perhaps only 5 per cent of all musk traded is used in perfumes. In 1999 the European Union banned the import of musk, forcing cosmetics producers to switch to synthetic alternatives.

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