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150 years has passed since wild sambar first browsed Australian bush, left their prints and droppings on game trails and rubbed soft velvet off their antlers. We have the Victorian Acclimatization Society to thank for their hard work with arranging the delivery of four sambar on the ship ‘Jeddo’ that departed Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1861. There were two stags and two females on board but the journey wasn’t easy for all of them. One of the hinds calved on the voyage but unfortunately both her and the newborn failed to survive the passage across the Indian Ocean. The fact that three out of the four deer were able to tolerate many weeks at sea in conditions that would have tested them to their limits would have been a precursor to the tenacity of this species.
These sambar were held in enclosures at Royal Park to adjust to conditions far removed from their native homeland and it is believed the first release at Mount Sugarloaf took place in 1863. This is an area now located within the Kinglake National Park just to the north of Melbourne in Victoria.
Further liberations points were near Mount Cole in Western Victoria, down at Wilsons Promontory in South Gippsland, on French Island in Westernport Bay and also Coburg Peninsular in what is now Gurig National Park in the Northern Territory. It is a lasting legacy of the species in that even to this day, in all of these release points that encompass such a wide range of habitat and geographical variance, sambar still exist in sustainable numbers. The lack of four legged predation that is found in their native range and minimal hunting pressure in the early stages of release certainly assisted sambar in all of these areas to obtain steady population growth.
Since their initial release animal numbers grew in many locations and in the early 1900’s special permits were issued for the culling of deer that were deemed destructive to farmers pasture and crops. Times were no doubt tough for the locals in that era and large heavy hoofed wild animals were probably the cause for much angst in the farming community. After consultation with the local Fisheries and Game Departments a drive was generally arranged consisting of a group of men, and deer were harvested by members of the team. Probably dogs were also involved in the hunt and would have been a valuable asset in locations where deer lived in heavier cover. Its safe to say that all venison obtained on these hunts would be considered a valuable source of protein for those involved and their families.
1915 was when the first permits were issued to parties of up to five hunters to spend a week at a time on Snake Island. For a princely sum of two pound the hunters could use the cottage on the island and take up to ten deer between them. This must have been quite an adventure for these early sportsmen.
It wasn’t until the 18th of November in 1919, the Department in control of wildlife passed a law that effectively removed deer from the list of protected fauna. Sambar and the other deer species in Victoria could now be hunted year round. That long half century from first liberation to the acceptance of legal hunting would have seemed like an eternity to those with the slightest interest in hunting deer. There was no turning back since this decision and whilst seasons and laws have been modified and adjusted with each new release of the Game Regulations, there has always been the capacity for hunters to head bush, climb mountains and enjoy sambar hunting in very liberal conditions.
The distribution and spread of Sambar
Sambar are large framed, heavily muscled and capable of covering vast distances with ease. They are able to adapt to a wide range of food sources, habitats and climates. When compared to European deer species they make very little vocalization during any rutting period, this makes them impossible to locate through noise associated with rutting. Sambar do not form large herds that are easily visible, they shy away from open areas during daylight hours, are capable of living long lives in the wild and the females are known to occasionally have twins when conditions are ideal. All these factors accumulate making Australian sambar one of the leading deer species around the world that is capable of colonizing new territory and forming sustainable populations within a very short space of time.
Sambar do not need much encouragement to push into new country. They will eagerly utilize river systems and all interconnected forested areas as corridors for travel. Pine and Eucalyptus plantations, nature reserves, coastal scrub and national parks all offer relative safety, cover, food and security for the travelling sambar.
Like all deer species it is generally the young males needing to find new territory that turn up first followed by the females and their offspring. Often when sambar are reported in fringe areas or in locations they have rarely been seen it is these young males in the first few years of their lives that are the animals arriving first. Eventually when a few animals of either sex find a suitable location with all the right attributes, a small nucleus of sambar is formed and given the right set of circumstances numbers will increase to a point where again the young males get pushed out by older males or simply go exploring to find their own territory. This cycle will be repeated over and over as sambar continually expand both their range and population. Pressure from hunters, landowners, pest controllers and predation from dingoes and wild dogs will determine just how quickly these new areas will get colonized by emerging populations and how settled the local resident deer will become. If there is too much sustained hunting pressure they will either adjust the location where their core home range is located or they will become nocturnal in an attempt to evade dangerous conflict.
It must be noted that in many populated areas where sambar are afforded moderate protection from hunting pressure, they are happy to live within earshot of houses, pets and livestock and general human contact. They know where they are relatively safe and certainly have no issue with building herds in these areas.
The Southern and Eastern portions of Australia are dominated by the Great Dividing Range. This fantastic range is simply a natural corridor that will allow sambar to reach sustainable numbers in all suitable locations. This is a large tract of seemingly endless mountains consisting of many headwater catchments, river systems, ranges and deep valleys. There is mixed browse all through the different elevations, much of which sambar find palatable and there is substantial rainfall and snow at the higher levels creating lush spring and early summer conditions to help carry the condition of the deer into winter. On the northern edge of the Great Dividing Range smaller clusters of hills and lesser mountains finally give way to open fertile farming country. The Southern portions do likewise, but in many locations the farmland finishes close to the ocean, creating a natural barrier for all deer movement.
A look at a Google Earth Image of Victoria and Eastern New South Wales will show that big cities, the coast and large tracts of cleared farm country will be the only limiting factors as to exactly where the northern range of sambar will extend to. Travelling sambar are just so tenacious and adaptable that they will either make do with the set of conditions that they find themselves in or they will keep pushing on until ideal habitat and environment is located. There is no doubt the huge system of National Parks in New South Wales will be ideal breeding grounds for sambar. They will relish in these conditions and it will speed up the colonization process undoubtedly. In regards to NSW state forests where there is tightly regulated stalking and hunting access, there will no doubt be sambar taken in increasing numbers but whether it will be enough to control the emerging populations is hard to say. Most likely sambar being sambar, once they form a sustainable base population in any area forested area of decent size in NSW they will all but be impossible to eradicate and opportunistic controlling and harvesting by hunters and land users will be the most likely outcome. There is no doubt that as numbers of sambar increase in NSW the government needs to find a solution utilizing the many licenced hunters in this state to open up and facilitate more regulated hunting on public lands. Hunters in NSW have proven to be efficient at managing feral animals and deer herds on public land but in order to get best effect out of the program certain National Parks need to be managed by these hunters as well.
In terms of population growth and pushing into new areas the survival rate of those travelling through forested areas would be far greater then the fringe country dwellers so whilst some pockets will grow in protected open country on the western edge of the Dividing Range, the areas that will be colonized initially are those with suitable forested habitat as the sambar will simply live longer with reduced human encounters and this creates more opportunity for population growth. Most rural farmers have rifles or neighbours that do and I’m sure there would be no shortage of country shooters lining up to hunt any big brown deer that turn up in new territory. Crop damage and fence issues would be at the forefront of farmers minds, not to mention the appeal of a substantial amount of meat running around that could be put in the cool room.
There are plenty of instances of sambar living in little pockets of bush and scrub on the outskirts of their main range in what many would consider sheep and rabbit country. They will happily live and expand in this type of habitat provided the hunting pressure is light.
The push of sambar into new areas will only be halted by environmental conditions that either aren’t to their liking or locations that allow effective hunting and control due to the lack of heavy cover and bush. Towns and cities will all need to be skirted around by the adaptable sambar but often the local reserves and outer city limits will prove to be attractive for deer with its mixed browse and safety being off limits to legal hunting. Highways and main roads will potentially be hazardous for sambar and the incidents of deer and vehicle collisions will only keep increasing as deer expand and build populations.
Considering sambar are able to adapt to almost all conditions in Australia, the only locations that probably wont see big numbers of resident sambar in the future will be the open rural country on the edges of the Great Dividing Range where the deer simply do not have enough suitable cover to survive and evade those who pursue it. Sambar certainly have no trouble living in open farmland, especially if there is minimal hunting pressure, but the odds of human encounter greatly increase when they live in this habitat and naturally sooner or later hunters will encounter them.
Nobody can accurately judge how far north sambar will progress, but the Great Dividing Range dominates a lot of Eastern Australia and you would be safe to assume that at some stage in the future sambar would have the capacity to occupy every last piece of suitable habitat. They have endured bush fires, logging, encroachment by humans, farming, floods, and intense hunting pressure but against all odds they are surviving and flourishing and there is no doubt they will continue to do so.