Musk Deer

Musk or kasturi obtained from the male deer has led to the wholesale slaughter and near extinction of the Himalayan Musk deer. The extremely odorous substance derived from its musk pod (near its naval), is used as a fixative in expensive perfumes, an ingredient in paan for its aphrodisiac properties, in Ayurvedic medicines, and is utilised for religious purposes by temples.


One musk pod yields no more than 25 grams of musk. And, the international price of musk in 2016 was US$ 45,000 (Rs 30 lakh) for 1 kilogram.

The teeth of the musk deer are also prized, as is its meat or venison.

Musk Deer Farming Unsuccessful

Decades back musk deer farms were established by the then Central Council for Research in Ayurveda & Siddha (CCRAS) at three places, but the animals did not bred successfully in captivity. They obviously needed the difficult to obtain musk for their formulations. Despite the failure of the musk deer farms, when in 2016 a 3-month-old male musk deer was found by chance by a rapid response team of the Forest Department, it was introduced in Kufri with the hope of restarting breeding.


One such farm was at Kufri in Himachal Pradesh which was visited by BWC in the late 1970s. The night before the musk was to be extracted the male deer was deprived of food. The next day it was drugged to explore its genital organs and find the musk pod. When located, a cannula was pushed into the area so that the hardened musk granules/grain stuck to it when removed.


The other method utilised was to extract of liquid musk for which the deer was caught, forcibly held down, genitals explored and palpated for the musk which was then painfully scraped out with a sharp knife.


In both procedures, the animals got highly traumatised, panicked and tried to flee. They remained very confused and excited, often jumping high into the air hitting and injuring their heads against the enclosure tops. And many died due to such injuries.


Another similar musk deer farm set up by CCRAS in 1973 was at Pithoragarh, Uttar Pradesh. Musk was extracted once in a decade at this farm following the death of a deer during surgically extracting it. Yet, they got an annual grant of Rs 25 crore. In 2017 the Ayush department under which the farm was functioning said that of the 20 musk deer 3 had died due to unknown causes in just one month, and the farm itself had become non-productive.


The third musk deer farm that was established by CCRAS was at Chamoli, also in Uttar Pradesh. Here too the musk deer did not survive and the 4 that did developed a soil-bound disease.


Despite these grave disasters, in 2002 the Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare proposed musk deer farming in Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. BWC immediately sent a detailed protest letter to the Minister, pointing out drawbacks and failings and appealed that they not proceed with such plans.

Around 2005 it was reported that the CCRAS was maintaining a musk deer breeding farm containing 20 animals at Mehroori in Kumaon Hills. It was also reported that musk deer were being bred at their Regional Research Institute of Himalayan Flora, Tarikhet, Ranikhet. In 2012 it was revealed by 4 persons working in this institute that the fertility rate of musk deer was declining and their mortality rate increasing, as also habitual abortions.

Inadequate Protection

Although the musk deer is Uttarakhand’s state animal and is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, and is listed as an endangered species in the Red List Data of International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), it receives inadequate protection in its habitat at Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary where a couple of hundred animals are found. In the 1980s there were about 1000 deer.


In 1982, with 5 musk deer, a captive breeding centre for was set up inside the sanctuary. They increased to 28, but died due to snake bite, pneumonia, stomach disorder or heart attack. In 2006, the centre was closed and the one surviving musk deer was shifted to a Zoological Park in Darjeeling.


In 2015 to every one’s surprise camera trap images and droppings revealed that there were healthy musk deer in the Kedarnath Sanctuary.

It is estimated that for every male (with musk pod) that is killed 3 to 5 musk deer are poached. The latest method of poaching involves setting fire in the wild to block off their escape routes or using snares and traps. Poachers strike in winter when the musk deer move to lower altitudes. In 2015 residents of Munsiyari and Pithoragarh district saw billowing smoke in the foothills which turned out to be for cornering musk deer.

Between 2010 and 2016 six seizures of musk pods and teeth took place at Dehradun, Haldwani and Pithoragarh.

Kasturi in Demand

In May 2014 the Chief Secretary of Odisha wrote to the Government of India informing them of the shortage of kasturi at the Jagannath temple at Puri and seeking their assistance in procuring it for the Navakalebara festival which will be held next in 2015. On knowing this, BWC requested the Secretary of the Ministry of Environment & Forests to investigate the matter on priority and intervene to stop its import and use. Simultaneously, the temple authorities were made aware that kasturi was obtained by killing deer and therefore they should reconsider its use.

Ironically, many Jain temples also utilise kasturi illegally.

Demand from China also results in musk deer (and tigers) being killed by Tibetan hunters along India’s North Eastern border. Unfortunately, it is difficult to catch such poachers since it takes ten days of trekking to reach such places.

In January 2024 the West Bengal Forest Department arrested a retired senior official of the Sikkim Police from a Hotel in Darjeeling district with 2 smuggled and musk pods (and an exotic Himalayan flying squirrel skin) he was hoping to sell to someone probably coming from Delhi.

Page last updated on 22/01/24