Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor)
Sambar (now Rusa unicolor – previously Cervus unicolor) inhabit eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales and comprise the most important herd in the world outside of their native countries where the available habitat is diminishing daily outside of pro- tected areas and where their IUCN status is listed as Vulnerable.
Sambar are the largest of Australia’s wild deer and the third largest of all deer species behind moose and wapiti. They are extremely wary and shy and have a well-earned reputation as one of the hardest to hunt of all the world’s game animals. It is quite normal for the majority of the human population to be unaware of the existence of sambar populations in our forested areas.
They are strong and tough animals with a thick hide and coarse hair of a uniform brown colour on the body. This brown colour fades to a light buff colour under the chin, on the inner legs and along the under-body. The rump is usually ginger. The ears are large and round and the inner ear is pale with tufts of longer hair at the base. Sambar are expert at standing completely motionless and it is only an occasional movement of their prominent bat-like ears which sometimes betrays them to an experienced eye.
Stags can stand up to 130cm at the shoulder (about the height of a Jersey cow) and weigh over 300kg. Hinds are smaller and can grow to about 115cm and weigh in the vicinity of 230kg. Although they are plainer than most other deer species there is noth- ing to match the magnificent presence of a sambar stag or the beauty of a sambar hind.
A sambar antler is typically three tined and the outer top tine is usually the continua- tion of the main beam while the inner top tine is somewhat shorter. This is not always the case and there are many instances of stags with ‘shanghai’ tops where the inner tine matches or exceeds the length of the outer tine. If there is any rule about sambar antlers, it is that, though similar, they are almost never identical
Sambar were obtained mainly from Sri Lanka with a smaller number coming from Su- matra. They were first released in the early 1860s at Mount Sugarloaf in what is now the Kinglake National Park, and at Harewood, near Tooradin, on the edge of the then Koo Wee Rup swamp. Later releases were at Ercildoune, between Ballarat and Mount Cole and at Wilsons Promontory and French Island in Westernport Bay. Another release was made on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.
From their original release points, the sambar dispersed into almost all of the forested country in eastern Victoria, in a slowly moving ‘wave’ pattern. Behind the wave, the sambar gradually rebuild their numbers at a rate dependent on the quality of the habi- tat. Natural events such as floods and wildfire, and human activities like forestry and fuel reduction burning, play their part in producing good or bad habitat for wildlife and the sambar respond to these changing conditions in the same way as native mammals.
In the mid 1990s, sambar have colonised most of the forested country in eastern Victoria, and the main part of the expanding wave of sambar is now in far East Gipps- land. Sambar do not recognise State borders and are now establishing themselves in southern New South Wales and parts of the ACT. Large sections of the huge Kosciuszko National Park are ideal sambar habitat and they will steadily colonise its rugged terrain in the early part of the twenty-first century. Their benign presence will pass unnoticed by most visitors although NPWS officers are aware of their presence and attempt to control their numbers.
The main herd is in a continuous state of change, and future management will only be successful if the managers are prepared to adopt flexible and suitable guidelines. The very large bushfires that have devastated much of eastern Victoria in the last decade, certainly killed many thousands of sambar but also created ideal conditions for their resurgence.
The Mount Cole sambar have been isolated from the remainder of the Victorian herd and have formed a fairly stable population. Isolated individuals have been reported at other places in western Victoria, but it is highly unlikely that any viable group exists there apart from those at Mount Cole except for sambar that may have been illegally released in the Otways.
A small group of sambar has survived on French Island for many years and individual deer have been known to swim back and forth to the mainland. There are occasional reports of sambar on Wilson’s Promontory and Snake Island and numbers are building in the South Gippsland forests.
The population of sambar on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory is stable and not expanding its range.
If ever there was a deer that had the adaptability to do well in Australian conditions it is the sambar. Although steadily increasing its main range, it has yet to be established that it has ever had any major negative influence on its new environment even after the passage of nearly one hundred and fifty years.