Taxonomically speaking, the mouse-deer is not a deer at all for it belongs to the Tragulidae, a group apart from the true ruminants. Nevertheless it is called a deer in all languages, and even illiterate junglies have always thought it a deer, the most diminutive of the tribe.
No wonder, then, that it is called mouse-deer. It is much nearer an outsize hare in size, but its diminutive build and furtive, creeping habits, and the way it bolts when flushed, not bounding along like a hare but scurrying past on dainty frantic feet, justify the name. And what a noise it makes in the dry undershrub when it bolts! In the deciduous jungles, the animals that make much noise when getting away are all small — the monitor lizard and the dinky little mouse-deer probably make the most impressive exits.
I remember the fright I got once, when scouting for a lone elephant in such a jungle. There was a shifting breeze and the glimpse that I caught of the elephant through the bushes in between clumps of giant bamboo only told me that the animal was a tusker. Cautiously I approached a bamboo clump that seemed to offer a vantage point, when suddenly a tornado broke lose in the tangle of dried creepers and shrubs around me. Then a mouse-deer darted out of the cover and rushed between my legs and the noise of its progress till it gained the clearing behind me seemed enough to alarm the entire jungle. That was a yellow-letter day for me! When I finally crept up and got a fair sight of my quarry, I discovered that it was one of the camp elephants, turned loose to graze.
Being crepuscular and even nocturnal, this little deer is not often seen; one gets a blurred glimpse of its scurrying form when it is flushed accidentally from its retreat, or in the course of a beat, and that is all one sees. But it was in a beat that I had the longest chance I have had to watch this creature.
That was a general beat, and there were several optimistic guns. I was in a machan with one of the guns, who promptly and sensibly went to sleep crouched as he was. Anything from a tiger to a hare was expected in that beat, and I had been specially warned to be on the look out for bears. Well, the beat began about half a mile away and presently a mouse-deer crept out of a bush, had a good look around and proceeded to trip slowly away from the noise, stopping now and again to nibble at the carpet of herbs. There was nothing furtive or skulking about the animal&’s gait as it tripped past on short, slender legs and disappeared into the bushes beyond — mouse-deer, when alarmed, creep stealthily away if they can. A little later it came back, stepping daintily and easily as before, and took refuge in a bamboo clump 10 yards away when the beat was almost in a line with us.
From the total lack of rifle shots, it was clear that no one had seen anything worth shooting. The party assembled below our machan and bemoaned its luck — a couple of mouse-deer at least, it was generally felt, would have saved a blank day and assured a zest for dinner. There were two gourmets there who had not sampled mouse-deer curry and the others dilated ecstatically on the dish; they even retailed Frank Buck&’s story of how, in Malaya, this little creature is worshipped as the Spirit of the Wild and how people there just love it in a curry. And all the time the object of their desire was within yards, and I, vegetarian, derived a powerful satisfaction from keeping this knowledge to myself, and leading the others away from there before that mouse-deer could take fright and break cover.
In summer, it is said, mouse-deer congregate in small parties and spend the day in crevices between boulders and similar cool, dark retreats. They have been driven out of such shelters and netted and four of five adults have been taken together Maybe they associate in small parties during the day, but they no longer keep together when they venture from their retreats in the evening. I have seen mouse-deer several times by night during summer, and always they have been by themselves or in a pair.
Once I saw what was undoubtedly a family party, a mouse-deer and two tiny young exquisite little miniatures of their mother.
Mouse-deer have no horns, but have the upper canines well developed — these needle-sharp teeth project downward from the lips of the bucks and are used in intra-specific fights, but I do not think the bucks use them against enemies in self-defence, as barking deer do. These little creatures can swim well, and in Africa there is a cousin of theirs that is semi-aquatic in its habits.
The petty toes (above the hooves) are also well developed, so that the mouse-deer can achieve a grip where its tiny hooves alone would slip. I have seen a captive specimen climb the bole of a sloping tree in its yard, and enter a hollow in the wood some four feet above the ground.
This was published on 31 december 1961 in the sunday statesman