Sambar tales

Print edition : October 17, 2014

A stag in rut. An interesting behaviour shown by rutting stags are stamping in wet areas and wallowing in mud. Photo: Aditya Singh

A doe in oestrous and a rutting stag, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan. Photo: Aditya Singh

A doe and its suckling fawn. Usually, one fawn is born after an eight-month gestation period and twinning is rare. Photo: Manoj Nair

A stag that had just come out of a wallow, Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan. Photo: Manoj Nair

A tiger advancing towards a sambar, not in the picture, in Ranthambhore. Photo: Gobind Bhardwaj

A tiger chasing a sambar doe in Ranthambhore. Photo: Gobind Bhardwaj

A tiger with its kill, a sambar fawn, in Ranthambhore. Photo: Gobind Bhardwaj

A camera trap picture of a tiger chasing a sambar doe in the Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. Photo: Bivash Pandav

A magnificent sambar stag in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. Photo: Balan Madhavan

A sambar doe in Korakundha Organic Tea Estate, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, during the rut season. The sore patch of the Bandipur sambar is missing here. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A doe and a stag in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. Coinciding with rut, a sore patch develops on the ventral surface of the neck of both sexes of the sambar found here. Photo: Kalyan Varma

A group of sambar in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

This deer habitat in Chilla Range, Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, seems to be degraded. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Speeding vehicles have killed hundreds of sambar over the decades. Photo: Bivash Pandav

An ensnared sambar fawn. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

If it is true that the sambar population in India is declining because of habitat degradation and increased poaching, it is bad news for the country’s conservation efforts in general.

WISPS of early morning mist lingered in the forests as repeated alarm calls of sambar deer made me hurry to Thavarakatte, a large pond less than a kilometre from Bandipur village. The forests around the pond are frequented by tigers, and I rushed to the shooting hide built by the Mysore Maharajah decades ago imagining that I might see a tiger hunting sambar as these large deer also frequented the pond and the dense bamboo-lantana jungle around. Sitting on the tin roof of the hide, I scanned with binoculars the view line in front of the hide, which had been well maintained in the past. In the maharajah’s time, tigers were driven towards the hide for him to shoot through the holes in its mud walls.

As I watched and waited, at the end of the view line a large sambar doe appeared, raising its tail and alternately stamping its forefeet and giving alarm calls. I could see that it was following an animal which, however, was not visible to me from my sitting position. I became curious and stood up on the roof. I then found that the sambar was making the alarm calls seeing a jungle cat carrying a mouse in its mouth. This was a surprise to me for I never imagined that such a large deer would make agitated calls on seeing a jungle cat.

On another occasion, repeated sambar, chital and langur alarms drew me to Kakanahalla, a nallah that runs between the Mudumalai and Bandipur Tiger Reserves, and to my amazement, I discovered that a large Russell’s viper had induced these prey animals to raise an alarm.

The sambar— Cervus (Rusa) unicolor—is the largest deer in South-East Asia, and it occurs widely, from China to Sri Lanka and from Gujarat (India) to Vietnam and Taiwan. As a result, many subspecies have been recorded, and the ones that occur in Borneo, Taiwan and the Visayan islands of the Philippines are reported to be relatively small in size.

Being a grazer and a browser, the sambar occurs in a wide variety of habitats: for example, in India, they are seen in the thorn forests of Gujarat, Rajasthan and some other States, in the dry and moist deciduous forests of peninsular India, in the semi-evergreen and evergreen forests of eastern India and in the pine and oak forests of the Himalayan foothills up to an altitude of about 3,000 metres. Sambar thrive well in the hills and therefore in a State like Uttar Pradesh, where there is not much hilly terrain, their number is exceedingly low. Sambar in India attain the largest size, and the recorded weights of hunted stags come close to 340 kilograms. On an average, a stag can easily weigh 225 kg and a doe 180 kg. Well-grown antlers usually measure around 90 centimetres, but record lengths of about 1.25 m have also been documented.

Sambar in Australia

Interestingly, around 1870, sambar from Sri Lanka were introduced into Victoria and a few nearby places in Australia. In the absence of predators and with good availability of suitable habitat, they rapidly extended their range and now occupy an area of mountain forests, approximately 560 km long and 240 km wide, in eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales. This range is slowly expanding. The estimated population is around 350,000, and every year nearly 20,000 hunters go after the sambar and kill about 35,000 animals (which can easily support 1,000 tigers). The information on the Australian sambar is beautifully compiled by Erold Mason in his three-volume Secrets of Sambar.

The best time to observe sambar in Indian forests is winter, when they actively rut (breed) and are often blind to the observers around. Breeding is followed by an eight-month gestation period, and usually one fawn is born and twinning is exceedingly rare.

Once, I was walking along a forest road in Bandipur, and a doe came running along the road closely followed by a large stag sporting a set of magnificent antlers. I stopped in the middle of the road as soon as I saw the deer trotting in my direction. The doe, which was in the lead, saw me when it was about 8 m away and abruptly veered to the side and galloped away. The stag stopped, looked at the doe wondering what had happened, and then walked past without even noticing me!

Rut and the sore patch

One interesting phenomenon I observed in the sambar of Bandipur in winter, coinciding with rut, was the development of a sore patch on the ventral surface of the neck. Both the sexes developed this patch. It began as a spot and then grew big—as big as 20 cm long and 15 cm wide. The patch at its peak appeared reddish and a fluid oozed out which attracted a lot of eye-flies ( Siphonculina funicola). This in turn drew white-browed fantail flycatchers ( Rhipidura aureola) which hovered around the neck of the sambar and fed on the flies. It, however, appears that sambar all over their geographical range do not develop sore patches.

George B. Schaller, who undertook a pioneering scientific study on tigers in the Kanha National Park in the 1960s, observed some sambar developing sore spots. Sambar in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttarakhand do not develop sore patches but those in north Bengal and Assam do. Observing the presence of sore patches in the sambar of the foothill forests of the Western Ghats, I was about to conclude that all sambar in south India developed sore patches. Then I travelled to the Upper Nilgiris in 2010, where I saw that sambar did not develop such patches. Sambar in Sri Lanka do not develop sore patches either; as a result, the thousands of sambar in Australia do not exhibit them. To date there has been no suitable explanation for this phenomenon. The function of scent-marking attributed to sore patches may not be correct because in that case all sambar, irrespective of location, should develop them.

Other interesting behavioural traits of the rutting sambar stags are stamping in wet areas, wallowing in mud and “preaching”. For preaching, stags often select a large branch of a tree growing horizontal to the ground at a height of three metres. They rise on their hind legs and rub their preorbital gland secretions on the branch.

I observed them doing this very intensively from November to March; as a result, the ground below the branch became bereft of leaf-litter and the branch bore the dark stains of the preorbital gland secretions. Some hair from the face was also seen sticking to the branches near the rubbing sites. It appears that some of the large trees have been used by generations of sambar for preaching, and such trees are usually in the valley habitats where there are wallows. In a forested habitat where sambar prefer to live, wallows and preaching sites are the signposts of the stags, leaving a message for other males and females. The height at which a stag preaches can possibly indicate its size to other males and to females, warding off potential rival males and attracting the females.

Sambar are extensively hunted by all the large predators of India—the tiger, the lion, the leopard and the dhole. Dholes with their exceedingly good teamwork are particularly efficient in killing sambar. In India, there may not be any overlap between the occurrence of the sambar and the snow leopard, but such overlap occurs in Bhutan, where the sambar inhabits areas as high as 3,780 m, and in such locations fawns may be killed by the snow leopard. The leopard may not frequently kill large adults but they often prey on fawns. The tiger, the lion and the dhole kill fawns, does and stags. The sambar is the most suitable prey for the tiger behaviourally (as it often occurs alone, is not aggressive and is crepuscular to nocturnal) and ecologically (it prefers dense habitats). Therefore, in the hilly areas sambar conservation is tiger conservation. Interestingly, while studying lions in the Gir forest with Ravi Chellam in the 1990s, I observed that sambar were more vulnerable to lions in summer when they sought water, which was largely confined to the reservoirs and rivers. In summer, once in a week we walked along the Hiran river, which drains into the Kamaleshwar reservoir, for a distance of seven kilometres, looking for kills. Every time, we came across four to six sambar kills. Summer being very hot in Gir, sambar would seek water, largely at night, and lions find it relatively easy to kill them under cover of darkness along the riverine track. In winter, sambar may approach water sources even during the day, which gives the lions very little opportunity to kill them. During the rainy season, there is water everywhere, and therefore, it again becomes difficult for the lions to kill sambar. So in winter and in the rainy season, we seldom saw kills along the Hiran river.

Baying in water

Once in Bandipur, the alarm calls of several sambar echoed around Thavarakatte, and when I carefully approached the pond, I saw 39 sambar baying in the water to escape dhole which were hunting. Baying in water is an anti-predator strategy of the sambar when it is hunted by dhole. This behaviour may not be displayed when sambar are hunted by the tiger or the lion. If the water is not deep and if the pond is as large as a volleyball court, two sambar in water, keeping their rumps together, can keep away a pack of dhole. In such contexts, the sambar, on seeing the approaching dhole, often hit the water with their forelegs and sometimes rise on their hind legs and very powerfully hit the water with their forelegs, which frighten the predators and make them to retreat to the shore. Also in Bandipur, once, from the perch of a teak tree, I observed two sambar with a fawn baying in a pool. The dhole pack then had 15 animals, and whenever the dhole made an effort to approach the sambar, they had to swim in the water. The sambar then hit the water with their forelegs, which made the dhole retreat. That day, the pack waited for 45 minutes and thereafter left the area, possibly hoping to kill chital which were much more plentiful than sambar in Bandipur. The chital may bay in water but it cannot defend itself against dhole. But this strategy of baying in water may not work for the sambar in places like the Periyar Tiger Reserve, where there is no alternative easy prey like the chital, and once sambar enters the deeper waters of the reservoir, they are not in a position to use their forelimbs as effectively as in Bandipur. So dhole often succeed in killing sambar in the Periyar Tiger Reserve even when they bay in water.


On the first day after I joined the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in 1985, I visited the Rajaji National Park in present-day Uttarakhand and was saddened to see a dead sambar fawn caught in a snare (a steel cable) tied to the base of a small lantana bush. The poacher was obviously inexperienced as he did not realise that tying the snare to such a small bush would enable the deer or the wild pig to uproot the bush and run away with it, as had happened in the case of the sambar fawn. In this case, the fawn died while escaping with the snare as the bush got entangled in a barbed wire fence.

Poaching sambar with well-trained hunting dogs is still common in some parts of the country. In February 2013, in the Nandhour valley in the eastern part of Uttarakhand, while on an over 50-km trek with some of my colleagues and forest staff, we encountered poachers twice with their hunting dogs. Chased by the dogs, sambar often bay in water. Even when men approach them, they stay in the water. This allows the men to kill them, by shooting or spearing them. Even when approached with a knife, a sambar that is surrounded by dogs will not leave the water.

Once, in summer, there were forest fires in the Shivalik hills near the Dholkhand forest bungalow in the Rajaji National Park. Two days after the fire, in the evening, I walked along the valley and was amazed to see nearly 80 sambar on the burnt hill slopes. Possibly, they were feeding on the ashes and burnt grass.

Research by Bivash Pandav and Abishek Harihar of the WII indicates that in the Shivalik and the outer Himalayan hills of the Rajaji National Park, sambar attain a high density of approximately 20 animals per sq. km. Although the valley habitats of the Rajaji National Park are full of weeds such as Adhatoda vasica, Clerodendron infortunatum Lantana camara and Parthenium hysterophorus, the hills provide excellent forage species such as Dendrocalamus strictus, Grewia elastica, Neyraudia arundinaceae, Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, Ougeinia oogeinensis and Zizyphus xylopyrus, leading to an abundance of sambar. Common langur feeding up in the canopy often drop leaves and fruits which are eaten by sambar. Another reason for the abundance of sambar in places such as the Rajaji National Park and the Corbett Tiger Reserve (in Uttarakhand) is the absence of the dhole.

Effects of continued drought

Is the sambar flourishing in our forests? I am not sure; in fact, I fear that they are declining in many of our protected areas as a result of the paucity of quality forage and the abundance of weeds like Lantana camara which are toxic. Continued drought also can affect the sambar seriously. In the summer of 1988, a severe drought killed ungulates in the Sariska Tiger Reserve (Rajasthan). Sambar, particularly large males, suffered high mortality (as high as 103) compared with the chital (32) and the nilgai (18). In November-December-January 2013-14, in the lantana-dominated Bandipur-Mudumalai-Nagarahole forests, where a near-drought condition prevailed, I drove 300 km, morning and evening, and saw only about 20 sambar. Between October 1976 and July 1978, while pursuing dhole in Bandipur, I had 1,995 sightings of different groups of sambar and the total number classified was 4,437. Single animals and groups of two formed 36 per cent and 31 per cent respectively. In the absence of sufficient and suitable forage, sambar often feed on the tender shoots of L. camara, and I am uncertain about the ill-effects of long-term feeding on such toxic species.

Predation of sambar by dhole and tigers continue to be heavy. Sambar, for example, have disappeared from States such as Tripura and Sikkim.

While the introduced sambar in Australia may be increasing in number and range, the reverse may be taking place in India—once its native stronghold—as a result of habitats becoming unsuitable to support high densities of sambar and poaching becoming widespread. If it is true, it will be a tragedy for predator conservation in India.

Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh is with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and WWF-India.