They are certainly the best-looking of deer found in India—and, as a bonus, are endemic, too, (even though they’ve been “exported” to several countries around the world). Chital or spotted deer, with their delicate build, expressive liquid eyes, wearing their burnished gold coats with rows of icing sugar spots are a treat for the eye as they drift through the grasslands and forests of India, grazing or browsing peacefully. Stags, which are antlered, (they have three tines) stand 3 feet high at the shoulder and weigh up to 85 kg, does are smaller and lighter.
But, alas, there’s a curse on these delicate deer and a terrible one at that: They are also the most delicious of the deer species—tigers, lions, leopards, wolves, hyenas, dhole, jackals—and we human beings will vouch for that! This makes them live their lives in a state of perpetual red alert, which could not be good for blood pressure. They’re well equipped to deal with this, with excellent hearing, eyesight and scenting ability. At the faintest sign of danger, a sentinel will stand rigidly to attention, neck held forward, a hoof raised delicately ready to stamp down a “Go! Go! Go!” signal at the first sign of trouble. The warning posture is caught by other members of the herd, who also stiffen and watch and listen. If the threat materialises, they’ll stamp their feet, bark their warnings and be off, drumming away in single file, tails up, reaching a maximum lick of 65 kmph. They’ll head for the nearest patch of forest where they can scatter and duck between the trees. A tiger needs to be fairly close in order to launch a successful ambush, though wild dogs will simply run them down to exhaustion in relays.
Chital are found in forests and woodlands pretty much all over India and I well remember my first wild sighting of them, decades ago in the Borivali National Park in Mumbai. On a grey, monsoon afternoon, while driving down the road to the lakes, (Tulsi and Vihar, I think), two does suddenly stepped delicately out of the emerald green forest and stopped at the edge of the road, looking both ways. We stopped the car, and then very fastidiously they minced across the road and vanished into the forest on the other side. At other times, I have seen them approach waterholes – they need to drink at least once or twice every day – and this is probably one of the tensest moments in their day. They’ll emerge out of the forest into the clearing, and step by timorous step, head towards the water. Bending down to drink is the most dangerous moment of all because not only might they be attacked from behind by a big cat, but a submarine crocodile might suddenly rear out of the water from under their very noses and lunge at them. They have figured out areas where the danger is greater (like around waterholes) or less (in open grasslands) and are appropriately vigilant. And, yes, they too have their own early warning system in place: langurs perched high up in the trees scan the forests around and grunt out staccato warnings when they spot a big cat or wild dogs sneaking up. There’s a bonus, too, because langurs are wastrel feeders and discard a lot of fruit and drop a lot of what they eat, which the chital gratefully pick up. In turn, the chital will bark out their warnings if they smell danger that the langurs haven’t been able to spot from above. Other creatures that provide this security service include peafowl and lapwings, both of which give tongue at the first signs of danger.
In spite of being so popular on the menu of so many, chital have done well enough to earn a status of being of “least concern” as far as danger of extinction is concerned. They may breed throughout the year (even twice a year) and the doe usually has one fawn at a time. The tiny, almost odorless baby is born with spots and is hidden low down in the grass by its mother for the first week or two of its life. Thereafter, it will follow its mom around and remain with her for the next two or three years. Stags bellow loudly when in rut and will defend their ladies fiercely. Sensibly, their butting contests are more like shoving matches and the weaker quickly withdraws before any serious injury may be caused. But there has been at least one recorded instance, when stags entangled their horns so inextricably, that they died miserably together.
These graceful deer are most active in the mornings and evenings, lying up in the shade during the hot afternoons. Grass forms the majority of their diet and they will enter farmers’ fields, too, to graze on crops. They are a favourite in some parks in cities—like Delhi’s Deer Park and Chennai’s Guindy National Park, which house sizeable herds. The right place to admire them, of course, is their natural habitat, wafting peaceably through the grasslands and lightly forested jungles, or standing poised to flee with a hoof raised, eyes dark and anxious, ears twitching, tail up and black velvet nose quivering.