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There is no doubt over the last 15 years we have witnessed remarkable growth in the sambar population. A combination of large scale bushfires, snowballing deer numbers and expansion into new regions has all contributed to population levels that have never before been seen in the history of wild sambar in Australia or anywhere else in the world outside of their native range. We are currently living in an era where antler growth is unprecedented in certain areas and we are at the top of the curve in regards to all aspects of sambar and the hunting of this great resource.
It seems 32” deer are the new 30” stags and 210-215 douglas score is the benchmark for a big mature deer with stylish even antlers where previously anything over 200 douglas was considered a giant and in the running to take out the Arthur Bentley annual trophy.
Many hunters are celebrating the fact that you can go hunt sambar in most locations they live in and expect, rather then hope to lay eyes on a deer. Often multiple deer are encountered each hunt and over the course of a weekend in good sambar country many deer are usually seen. Hunters are thinking its great to be continually seeing deer, and it will only mean more stags to hunt at a later date. But it doesn’t always work like that and even now hunters are seeing many hinds and young stags in between mature stag sightings. Often a hunter can look over 40, 50 or even 60 deer before an 8.5 year old or older male is located. In some areas, a lot more deer then these figures needs to be glassed up or stalked past before a decent stag is located.
Some hound crews are reporting annual deer tallies well into the triple figures, yet only a handful of mature stags amongst those taken. And you only need to point the 4wd towards deer habitat after dark and we seem to be continually dodging sambar crossing the roads and feeding on grass along the edges.
How many hunters are giving thought to the fact that at some point, if sambar numbers continue to increase they will outgrow the feed availability and sooner or later we will see levels of sambar that are at or above the holding capacity of the environment they live in. You only have to look at some areas with large populations of sambar where pictures and accounts are filtering through of skinny malnourished deer and smaller then normal body frames, muscle mass and antler growth. Certain water catchments that are off limits to hunting that have long held massive numbers of sambar show evidence of over population and deer that are in poor condition when compared to other locations. The saving grace for sambar in some regions is their access to improved pasture on farmland, but this also puts pressure on farming communities, competition with livestock for feed, conflicts with damaged fences, illegal hunting and increased risk of personal injury when travelling on roads after dark. Nobody accurately knows just how many sambar we have and there is probably a lot more deer across their range then what we actually think.
What we now need to be asking ourselves is how long will this last?
History shows rapid population growth of any species can’t go on forever. We need to be considering and implementing strategies to ensure longevity with the health and welfare of our wild sambar herds and always be looking into the future across their entire range throughout Eastern Australia.
Part of the issue in regards to the exploding sambar population is that there are large tracts of non-hunting regions across the entire range. From areas of state and national parks that are off limits to any form of hunting, to large catchment areas that are regulated by departments to huge areas that are closed off for vehicle access inside the Alpine National Park over winter there are just so many areas for the deer to have refuge and build up in numbers. Animals will naturally filter out from these locations and transgress into new areas to expand their range and populate more accessible or legal hunting areas and the cycle will keep on continuing until either greater access is allowed for hunters or there is an increased harvest of female deer on an annual basis in the areas hunters can legally pursue deer. It will only be when improved access is facilitated across the sambar range will hunters have more impact on the overall deer numbers. Until then we are only capable of doing so much within the restrictions we have placed on us.
Unfortunately we do not have the full support from game agencies to help us monitor our deer herds and give guidance on harvest. We have no real management plan, no regional studies on age, health, sex and weights of both live and harvested deer from different areas, we have no specific studies on the dietary intake, the distribution of our wild herds and the home range of males and females. We have no limits or quotas in any region; in fact all we have are estimates from licence sales of hunter participation and approximate harvest numbers.
Considering the annual expenditure hunters inject into the community participating in the pursuit of sambar, we are a long way behind the management that is taking place in many other countries where deer are considered game animals and a valuable resource to associated businesses and the community.
The bottom line is there is an exploding deer herd where hunters are rejoicing and state departments and national parks are trying to figure out how to curb the growth as effectively and efficiently as they possibly can.
Many younger hunters will not realize how hard it was for sambar hunters in the 1980-1990’s with much lower deer numbers and very limited information available to help them find areas to hunt. Back then there was a far greater effort required to locate decent stags and every encounter was treasured and remembered. We are living the good old days of sambar hunting and whilst many hunters will probably not accept it will never change from where we are now, we need to adjust our mindset in order to manage the herd and more specifically deer numbers.
If you have a read of any wildlife studies on deer herds around the globe you will understand over a period of time that animal numbers never stay the same in any area. There are always peaks and troughs with the population and age class trends and these are influenced by many factors. Predation, loss of habitat, disease, harvest by hunters, fawn survival rate, rainfall, feed availability, bushfires and severe weather can all impact on how many healthy deer make it through the year in any area. We are extremely lucky sambar are so tolerant of a wide dietary intact, so robust and resilient to extreme weather changes and disease and are naturally elusive and cunning in all forms of habitat they occupy.
The fact they live to a lengthy age positions them nicely in the ability to recover and grow a herd in any area providing there is not excessive annual reduction in numbers due to harvest by either man or predator. In regards to predation, it is certain eagles would take the odd sambar calf, dingoes/wild dogs no doubt eat their share, a few get hit by vehicles but the main predator and controller of sambar is man.
It is important that every single hunter must realize that they can do their part towards maintaining a healthy balanced herd in the locations they hunt.
If anybody wants to read a good case study on how deer herds can fluctuate, google ‘Kaibab deer’ and read the documented reports. In a nutshell, the early 1900’s seen a shift in policies of the mule deer on the Kaibab Plateau in Northern Arizona. A national park was declared, deer were protected and heavy predator hunting was implemented. The deer population soared from approximately 4,000 to 100,000 and then crashed very quickly to 10,000 all within a very short two decades. Whilst there are many variables with mule deer and the habitat they live in compared to our sambar, it still gives an idea of deer population trends in a given area and how extreme fluctuations can and do take place if effective management practices are not initiated by hunters.
Our sambar will be no different to other deer species around the globe in that if we are not careful and mindful with our harvest, then it is quite possible we will also see the effects of mismanagement and potentially experience a period where populations are at the opposite scale to where they are today. We have only seen the upside to a growing sambar herd and it’s hard for many to think there could be anything less then plenty of sambar around for future generations to hunt.
Hinds are the breeders, they are the animals that multiply herds at alarming rates when not kept in check and it’s a pyramid effect. Every hind that is capable of breeding from around two years of age and onwards will either give birth to a male or female calf. Gestation period is 8-9 months and hinds will commence cycling again shortly after giving birth. At a guess, probably 80-85% of calves born make it to a breeding age, half of these will be males and the other half females. By the time a single female sambar deer has lived well over ten years of age, if you start doing the maths, you can work out very quickly how many animals can potentially be added to a population. This is not including twins that are born, and not taking into account the percentage of female deer that are capable of breeding who will die or get harvested under this decade and a half window. At a rough guess it is possible that only 10-15% of all female sambar alive will get harvested before they reach double figures with age. This leaves a lot of female sambar to fully mature and a lot of breeding to be done by those when they are alive. The figure of 10-15% is an estimate only, and it could actually be lower or slightly higher then this.
Whilst hunters take many female sambar each year it simply isn’t enough to slow the population growth that is surging ahead even with an increase in hunters heading into the field. So why aren’t we shooting more female deer? Part of the reason is that some hunters tend to focus on antlers and are quick to shoot a young stag in order to consider the hunt a success rather then letting the male deer live to mature and shooting a female instead.
It’s the old mantra of antlers are better then meat and targeting sambar with antlers makes the hunter feel better and accepted in the fast paced world of clubs, social media, internet forums and hunting circles.
One only has to look at forums to read the hunting reports in regards to sambar. There are far greater numbers of successful hunts on stags then there are reports on hunts where a hind was taken. I can accept that some hunters like the challenge of harvesting stags and are happy to walk past hinds in order to not alert other deer in the area. I can understand that some hunters only shoot a handful of deer a year and are keen to put a set of antlers on the wall and I get it that some hunters will search for many years to harvest a lifetime goal of taking a fully mature stag. There are many other factors as to why hunters will walk past hinds in the hope of finding a stag, but often there are many circumstances where a hind can be taken and not disrupt the hunt.
The results of proper management of our sambar herds might see less sambar in an area, or at least containment of their numbers, but better ratios of male to female deer and in an ideal situation an increase in the age structure of stags in the area who are doing the breeding. Whilst this can be hard to achieve through random harvesting of female sambar on public land, it is a step in the right direction and if all hunters are at least talking about reducing hind numbers then a common goal can be worked towards.
Hound hunters for many years have been the most effective management tool that the government and sport hunters have had in regards to harvesting female deer and controlling numbers. If it wasn’t for the large collective annual harvest of female sambar by the hard working hound teams, then our sambar would unquestionably be in much higher numbers then where they currently are.
When hunters are going to harvest female sambar they need to be aware of a few factors. It’s probably best if a young calf is at foot to let them walk, rather then shooting a hind and having the dependent calf depart and potentially starve to death. If there is a yearling (12 – 18 month old deer) next to the hind then it can handle itself and the hind is ok to shoot. If you had to choose between a yearling and its breeding mother, the older hind is better to harvest as it is already a breeding animal and will be much wiser then the yearling. If you can physically manage it try to shoot both of the deer, as the yearling, if it is a female, will have a lifetime of breeding ahead of it and they will fill your freezer with incredibly healthy free range organic meat. When sambar are young it can be hard to determine male from female deer, especially if the spikes haven’t grown and they are feeding in bush habitat with reduced visibility. You probably don’t want to shoot a young yearling thinking it’s a female and it turns out to be an immature spiker, you don’t really come out ahead there, so look for the larger bodied older hind if possible, she normally wont be far away, then take a yearling if the second opportunity presents.
If your serious about contributing to herd management, animals you should be leaving are the younger stags. It is healthy for any deer herd to have an even balance of male and female deer and a good population of young to middle aged sambar stags allows the healthiest mature males to breed the hinds and always ensures a strong crop of up and coming stags waiting for their chance whenever a mature animal is either harvested or approaches old age and cannot battle the younger males. Remember every young stag you shoot is only a few years away from potentially being a trophy class animal and who knows, maybe all of us at some stage have shot good stags that were let go by some forward thinking hunter when they were young deer.
We will go over the repetitive shooting of young stags by hunters in a future article.
Hunters need to accept the fact that it is up to us to nuture and manage our sambar population and to make the right choices in regards to what animals we are shooting and why we are taking those deer. Engage with your mates down at the hunting club, educate the youth on the importance of herd management, discuss population dynamics around the campfire with your mates and display a mature mindset when posting images and stories of hunting sambar in the magazines, on forums and through the various social media outlets.
It is very simple really, shoot more hinds, let the younger stags live and the benefits of a managed sambar population will be positive for everybody in the community.