Deer Antlers

In 1998 export of manufactured articles and shavings of shed antlers of deer were prohibited – it had taken Beauty Without Cruelty six years to convince the Government of India to impose a total ban on trade in so-called “shed antlers” claimed to have been mainly collected from the jungles in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. Consignments had contained not only shed antlers of deer but those of killed deer: either as whole for converting into items such as cutlery and dagger handles; or broken into pieces beyond recognition as “shed antler waste”/shavings. Under India’s Export Policy 2012, shavings and manufactured articles of shed antlers of cheetal and sambhar continue to be prohibited.

In the wild, shed antlers if not eaten by the deer themselves as a source of nutrients, are gnawed at by porcupines causing unseemly marks on them. Even if and when they were shed, had they escaped porcupines, not fallen into rain water and rotted, and didn’t get maggot infested, the natural process of decay itself would cause the antlers to become quite useless within two months of being shed.

Time and again, as in August 2014 when two persons from a village on the boundary of Rajaji National Park in Hardwar district, were caught possessing 100 kgs of barasingha (swamp) and sambhar deer antlers, it was claimed that the antlers were “shed” ones and collected from the ground even though this is also illegal.

A month later Karnataka seized 50 kgs of antlers and horns (along with 2.5 kgs of ivory) of sambhar, cheetal and gaur poached in Bandipur National Park. Around the same time, five poachers were arrested at Oddanchathram in Dindigul district trying to smuggle three long sambhar deer antlers (and two leopard skins) in a jeep from Tamil Nadu to Kerala.

Then in May 2015 (8 months later) 16 antlers belonging to reindeer, spotted deer/cheetal and barking deer were seized from a bungalow in Honnametti Estate in the core area of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve of Bandipur. A tiger skin with head was also found. Since the reserve is a habitat of the animals whose trophies were found and no certificate had been issued under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, for them, hunting was strongly suspected and so the head of the estate was arrested but released on bail.

Incidentally, the blackbuck is not a deer, but an antelope, and it does not shed its antlers so their antlers are always taken from a dead animal, killed or otherwise. These animals are revered particularly by the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan as was proved yet again with them persistently following up for two decades their court cases against famous actors who went hunting blackbuck and chinkara.

In May 2020 the Maharashtra Forest Department Patrolmen arrested two persons under the Wildlife Protection Act and the Indian Forest Act by seizing their rifle, rounds, flashlights and motorcycle, for poaching a chinkara (whose carcass was found with them in a gunny sack) at a forest near the Bori village in the Indapur tehsil.

In September 2021 villagers from Kadbanwadi reported seeing 3 men killing and taking away two chinkaras following which the Indapur range forest officials of Maharashtra tried to locate the culprits but were unsuccessful.

In May 2022 poachers killed 3 policemen in Guna district of Madhya Pradesh when they were caught trying to flee with blackbucks and peacocks they had killed and put in sacks.


Although shedding is an annual occurrence after which new antlers grow (the soft covering on newly developing antlers of deer is called “velvet”), neither the quantity, nor the quality of shed antlers, is said to be good enough to meet the growing world demand.

Antlers of cheetal and sambhar species of deer are mainly utilised for display as trophies (sambhar antlers grow up to 100 cm or 40 inches long) and as cutlery, knife and dagger handles. Whereas antlers of swamp deer and hog deer, broken into pieces beyond recognition were the ones exported as “shed antler waste” to Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore and used for smaller items such as buttons.

The highly endangered Manipur brow antler deer, also known as Sangai or dancing deer, having an estimated population of 150 resulting in the Government of India sanctioning Rs 4 crore in 2015 to save the specie, has not even been spared. In 2016 it was reiterated when the Manipur Sangai deer (in addition to Great Indian bustard, the Ganges river dolphin and the dugong) was chosen by the National Board of Wildlife which constituted a committee to develop guidelines to help them. In 2009 a partially burnt antler of this deer was found along with other poached animal carcasses in the Keibul Lamjao National Park at Manipur (its only habitat) by the Forest Department officials. In fact, the Sangai and phumdi (floating vegetation) on which they “dance” is a great tourist attraction in Manipur – they live in the marshy wetlands of this park situated 45 kms south of Imphal in the southern fringes of the lake.

Antlers are also used in artwork, furniture, chandeliers, and novelty items. Elk antlers, particularly in the velvet stage, are claimed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, probably because they are mostly found on male deer and testosterone is responsible for their growth. The Ayurvedic medicine manufacturer, Dabur said that they used stag horns in a medicine called Mrigsinghbasma but withdrew the product after the government banned the use of wildlife substances in medicines. However, there is no saying as to how many medicines and supplements contain deer antlers clandestinely utilised by manufacturers.

Antlers grow on the skulls of deer as a single structure, whereas, many other species including the Nilgiri tahr or ibex, have horns which are bone with an exterior sheath. Incidentally, poaching was so rampant that in the early twentieth century only a hundred Nilgiri tahr were left. By placing plantain leaves along their path, hunters made them slip and fall after which they were killed for their meat, and some heads with horns were mounted as hunting trophies.

Believe it or not, there is a farm in America whose business is to breed deer and elk, collect urine of does (undiluted with no preservatives) and market it as lure to hunters. Sprinkled, it attracts male deer but when they come looking for love, the unsuspecting, helpless deer are shot dead by hunters lying in wait.

Poaching and Smuggling

Despite the ban on the multi-crore antler trade, periodically traders have been caught. Seizures worth crores (articles and raw stock) have taken place at Mysore, Mumbai, Chennai, and on the periphery of reserves. Yet, poaching and smuggling continues in connivance with the authorities. So much so that after killing the deer for its antlers, skin and venison, if a fawn is also trapped it is illegally kept as a pet.

Kashmir’s state animal, the hungul stag known for its 11 to 16-point majestic antlers, is fast declining in numbers with less than 130 left in the Dachigam reserve. It is poached for its antlers and also for its meat and skin.

Sambar antlers are usually 1 metre long which makes them worthwhile for poachers. Trained hunting-dogs are used to chase the deer into water. Poachers then shoot at, spear or even knife them to death.

Way back in 1995 the Maharashtra State Forest Department seized two tonnes of deer antlers. They had come into Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh and were on their way to Nagpur, booked as railway parcels in fictitious names and marked “buffalo horns”.

Kamptee town of Nagpur district in Maharashtra was once the nerve centre for international trade in antlers. A few years after the ban on trade in antlers came into force, the Wildlife Protection Society of India took a prominent person along with three companies to Supreme Court for hunting, theft and illegal trade in wildlife.

In fact, illegal trade in antlers (and other wild life products) flourishes in Nagpur and only when wild life body-parts are not successfully smuggled out do we get to know, like in August 2008 when twelve antlers were seized at the Kamptee octroi post. Five were found to be of a non-Indian deer species: fallow deer found mainly in Europe and America; whereas, the others were of Indian animals: spotted deer/cheetal and sambhar. This gave rise to a strong suspicion of an international cartel at work.

Significantly, a couple of months later a huge haul of 630 deer antlers was seized in Kokrajhar in Assam which strategically shares borders with Bhutan and West Bengal and is close to Bangla Desh, Nepal and China.

Another huge haul of 560 kgs of antlers were discovered at the Chennai Central railway station in November 2011. They were packed in 32 parcels and addressed to a trading company in New Delhi.

Twenty tonnes of deer antlers worth Rs 2 crore were seized in July 2012 by the Thiruvallur district police of Tamil Nadu from an exporter who claimed to have purchased the antlers from Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. The antlers were used by his company to manufacture buttons, handles of swords and walking sticks which he some how managed to legally export to USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Uganda!

In the last week of January 2013, 6 Nilgai (largest Asian antelope or blue bull with only the males having horns) were electrocuted by poachers in the Pohara-Malkhed reserve forest in Washim district of Maharashtra – a couple of hundred kilometres from Nagpur. (Around that time giving the excuse that the move was to protect crops, Madhya Pradesh was thinking of legalising the hunting Nilgai.)

Earlier that month within a week, 33 spotted deer/cheetal used as prey for tiger cubs in Kanha died apparently due to “extreme cold and weakness”. Some days later when the number of deaths rose to 50 it was said to be due to “eating poisonous plants” but people were simultaneously reassured that the tigers had not been affected! The news did not say how many of them were with antlers or what happened to the carcasses. BWC therefore wrote to the Ministry of Environment & Forests at New Delhi to ensure the antlers, skin and other body parts are not traded, the entire carcasses of each and every deer should be immediately incinerated.

This was immediately followed by 31 of the 38 endangered blackbucks kept in an enclosure at the Kanpur zoo, allegedly being attacked and killed by “wild dogs”. Then in April 2013 poachers beat 9 chinkaras to death (despite the chinkara having been granted Rajasthan state wild animal status) on the highway after dazzling them with bright lights, but got scared and abandoned the carcases in gunny bags near Barmer in Rajasthan. Few poachers get caught. However, a Maharashtra state government Minister was sacked upon being pinned down to having hunted two chinkaras and a hare in 2008. Villagers had noted the registration number of the vehicles that were used and on the basis of the antlers found at the farm house where the deer were cut up, he and seven others were prosecuted.

In early 2014 as many as 21 cheetals were found dead at the Bilaspur zoo. The reason given was anthrax but it was not believed and a probe was ordered. To BWC it’s obvious…

There is just one letter different in the words cheetah and cheetal. Although both were introduced at the Kuno National Park in September 2022, one species (cheetal) was put in for the other (cheetahs) to hunt. BWC condemns the introduction of hundreds of cheetals as “food” for these 8 cheetahs imported from Namibia. Hunting naturally in the wild is quite a different matter to “canned” hunting. That the cheetahs hunt, kill and eat the cheetals is cruel enough, but one must also wonders what happens to the killed cheetals’ antlers which the cheetahs cannot eat. And, will poachers kill the male cheetals with antlers (for their meat/venison too) and say the cheetahs killed them?

Strange Disappearance

When farmers electrify their fencing to safeguard their crops quite often deer get killed and when their bodies are not found it makes one wonder whether the antlers were removed to be illegally traded in, and the venison (deer meat) consumed. For example, in May 2010 in Nanded district of Maharashtra as many as nine blackbucks were thus killed, but carcasses of only four were found. In fact, every couple of months there appears a news item stating that deer have been illegally killed for meat on the outskirts of or within some wildlife protected area – the crime usually points to politicians and their aides.

Behind this backdrop, one wonders how come a large number of deer are frequently found dead in places where they are being bred in captivity. No one investigates whether they had antlers, and what happened to their carcasses.

So then, is it right to put the blame upon poor stray dogs of the area for having frightened and killed them? For example, in January 2012, four chinkaras/Indian gazelles of the Delhi zoo were said to have been killed by stray dogs, but the claim did not stand up to scrutiny.

Ten years later in November 2022 it was again claimed that stray dogs had killed 2 hog and 1 Japanese/Sika deer in the Delhi zoo after having entered climbing an eight foot wall which had barbed wire on most of the top of the boundary wall.

When deer stray into human dwellings like a lone sambar having antlers, that entered Miraj MIDC in November 2022, but then no one could find it, BWC again wonders what could have happened to it.

There are certain tribes that have packs of 20 to 30 trained and hungry mixed-breed dogs (not strays) that hunt wildlife for them, but that’s a different issue and can not be compared to and used as a cover for deer (or peacocks) being killed in urban areas. (An animal welfare society used to clandestinely handover some of the city’s stray dogs they captured for sterilisation to nomads because they saw nothing wrong in the dogs being made to chase and kill small animals like hare. Upon exposure, initially they first denied doing so, later said they’d stop.)

In February 2014 the Forest Department four-year survey found that “chinkaras rule the roost in protected areas in and around Pune”. Antelopes were also spotted. Poaching and trade probably occurred without detection till August 2015 when the Police arrested three persons from the Khadakvasala area of Pune trying to sell deer antlers valued at Rs 12.5 lakh. When in January 2017 a deer was found dead the Forest Department said that it must have ventured out of the Khadakvasala forest area in search of water because last year in summer 4 deer had died in a similar manner. However, this time it was winter, not summer. BWC does not know how many of them had antlers and what happened to the carcasses after post-mortem. Then in July 2017 the National Defence Academy told the media that during the last 6 months as many as 19 spotted deer/cheetal had been killed by stray dogs within their 4,700 acres forest area. They wrote to the Conservator of Forests that large packs of stray dogs infiltrated their campus, preyed on the deer and disappeared. BWC feels the Forest Department needs to investigate whether it is actually stray dogs that are killing the deer in Khadakvasala area or if humans are involved.

If the Government makes sure that the antlers, skin and other parts of killed or dead deer are not auctioned or buried, but the entire carcases are incinerated, there would be no chance of the antlers of such dead/killed deer being illegally traded. In fact, they would not be killed.

It is not at all surprising that in 2018 a study by the Wildlife Institute of India for the Central Zoo Authority found that there were only 91 chinkaras or Indian gazelles left alive in captivity and 70% of them were held in Junagadh’s Sakkarbaug Zoo. The researchers said that the rate of decline was approximately 35% annually. The report also stated that across its distribution range their survival was threatened by extensive poaching and by habitat loss (they only thrive in arid and semi-arid grasslands) even though the specie was placed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

At the behest of BWC, in 1996 the Central Zoo Authority of India directed all zoos in the country to destroy, not auction carcases.

Food for Thought

In November 2012 BWC stated in Compassionate Friend and on its websites that “May be India’s wild life personnel do not know that antlers and “deer horns” (one priced at Rs 8 lakhs) are offered for sale by Indians on the olx website.”


Soon after, in the beginning of 2013, India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau began hiring cyber crime specialists to trail online over a thousand websites that were advertising and illegally selling wild life – alive like Giant Ladybirds, Tokay Geckos, Indian Star Tortoises, Hill Mynas, Tarantulas, Sea Horses, Sea Cucumbers, Parakeets; and animal body parts, not only such as the usual tiger skins, ivory and rhino horns, but also bird feathers, musk pods, bear bile, mongoose hair, snake skins and pangolin scales.

Then at the Interpol and CBI conference in July 2013, the Minister of Environment & Forests stated that wildlife trade gangs had terror links. However, the CBI pointed out how difficult it was for them to investigate crimes against wildlife, because to do so permission was required from all state governments except three (Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh) that had accorded the requisite general consent to carry out investigations under section 50(1) of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Meanwhile, wildlife poachers began to illegally use India Post to smuggle products out of the country – probably those sold on-line. Deer antlers, reptile skins, elephant-ivory and tiger-nails have been intercepted, but unfortunately a high percentage of parcels have left the country undetected. Moreover, the culprits have not been located because the senders’ addresses on the parcels are fictitious. BWC therefore wrote to the Minister of Finance requesting that appropriate action via the Central Board of Excise and Customs be taken. We also alerted the Department of Posts.

In August 2013, a researcher from the Puducherry based Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning demanded that Government of India introduce hunting of spotted deer/cheetal in the Andamans. (Incidentally, British royalty call it deer stalking, not hunting.) The man justified hunting saying that the deer had been introduced as game in the 1930s and were now causing a loss of 1% vegetation every year! He did not however suggest hunting the 31 or so of the 40 elephants that had been abandoned by a timber company which went bankrupt in 1962, and were also responsible (probably to a much greater extent) for the loss of forest cover in the islands. This made BWC wonder the motivation behind the demand, even though the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, forbids hunting of all wildlife. Coming to think of it, there is no difference between poaching and hunting of animals because the animals are killed any way. Poaching is illegal, whereas hunting is legal.

Page last updated on 25/01/24