Wong How Man
Dujiangyan, Sichuan - 13 December 2010

This place is secretive like a missile base. Maybe our work is as important as the atomic bomb,” Cai Yonghua said wryly. Camouflaged breeding pen for Musk Deer inside the institute’s farm.Cai is Director of the Dujiangyan Musk Deer Breeding Research Institute. “For us to be able to sell the musk, we need approval stamps from up to six ministries, and only to a few approved client recipients.

“The panda is world-famous as an endangered animal. The Musk Deer, likewise, is Class One protected. The Panda, however, is only good for appreciation, whereas this deer can save a lot of lives. That is, if the government would deregulate and allow us to use market forces to grow this into an industry,” Cai said, revealing his thoughts about the “research institute” over which he is in charge.

Today, a group of Koreans are here, not to discuss purchases, but trying to learn more about the research results and secrets of this project. Russians and Japanese have also eagerly sought information. Over the years, many have come and gone, empty handed. The government heavily censors and restricts any leaks of information regarding the keeping, domesticating, breeding, raising and harvesting of the Musk Deer.

Such secrecy is understandable, given the high price of the musk, used for centuries by leading perfumeries, and as key ingredient of many remedies in Chinese and other Asian traditional medicines. The supply has progressively become smaller and smaller while demand is getting bigger all the time. The perfume industry has long been cut out of the deal and largely uses artificial or synthetic fragrance as a substitute. But traditional medicine has yet to find a worthy replacement for the musk. “Over 400 important medicinal remedies require musk as a key ingredient in traditional medicine, but there is so little we can produce,” Cai said.

The Musk Deer’s natural habitat has shrunken dramatically, leading to a huge decrease in animals in the wild. Hunting is now prohibited, further diminishing the musk supply in the open market. But whenever there is a huge supply shortage, someone will work, or kill, to meet the demand. So poaching by using snares and traps has gone up within the Musk Deer’s range. Almost in all cases, animals caught by such methods die. Only male deer produce musk, and only for part of the year. The indiscriminate capturing method is a huge waste, significantly reducing Musk Deers numbers - including the females which are crucial for species regeneration.

Musk Deer on the move.At any point in recent history, musk has sold at a much higher price than gold, ounce for ounce. Currently, it is quoted at around twice that of gold, that is, after a 23% hike in gold prices in 2010 to more than US$45,000 a kilogram. The Government controlled and depressed prices, putting musk at RMB600,000 a kilogram. This amount is already twice that of 2002 when the government began prohibiting the use of musk derived from wild Musk Deer. At the three sites this institute administers, only about 8kg are harvested each year. Would-be buyers must be extremely well connected to get the actual commodity in their hands. It is one of those hot items for which there is a price, but no product available to deliver, even after one agrees to pay an exorbitant price.

A small amount of this high-priced commodity seems to circulate among a close circle of select high cadres within China. During the height of the SARS outbreak in Asia, my close friend Qijala, then Party Secretary of Diqing Tibetan Prefecture in Yunnan, gave me a tiny packet. He whispered that it contained musk powder and that it was the best preventative from catching the contagious disease. Myth or hearsay, I kept it in my pocket throughout that ordeal.

Due perhaps to Japan’s occupation of northern China and Manchuria in northeastern China in the past, musk derived from the Forest Musk and Siberian Musk from these regions had traditionally been exported to Japan. Before China’s recent economic boom and privatization provided new impetus to more enterprising trading practices, up to 80% of China’s musk went straight to Japan. Even century-old traditional Chinese medicine companies like Eu Yan Sang had to acquire their quota of musk through Japanese sources. Today, almost all legally produced musk is sold within the China market as the internal demand out-paced and out-priced foreign markets. In fact, there is little means to calculate yearly musk yields. After local consumption began to escalate, there has been no accurate data collection. Transactions are conducted quietly before the product reaches the open market.

Despite the mysterious legends surrounding the Musk Deer, few people know what the animal looks like. The Musk Deer - “She Xiang” in Chinese or “Zhang Zi” among the village market place - is a small deer-like animal. It has no antlers. Instead both males and females possess clearly elongated upper canine teeth that project far below the lower lip and are easily visible even when the mouth is closed. Adult males, three years or older, have a musk gland between the naval and genitals at the edge of the upper thigh that secretes a brownish wax-like substance. Known as musk, it is a much valued ingredient used in perfumes and traditional medicine. There are five species of Musk Deer, all of which exist in China, with the Forest and Alpine Musk Deer being largest in numbers.

Yunnan alone host three species of Musk Deer. CERS is now coordinating a multi- year study of this little- known high-value animal to better protect the species, and further develop it for future sustainable use. Field studies and our visit to this Musk Deer farm are part of our program to better understand this animal.

This Dujiangyan facility, and two other facilities under the Institute’s management, hold up to 90% of the captive population of Musk Deer in China. Until three years ago, they totaled almost 1,600 animals. The devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan destroyed much of the fencing and many of the captive deer escaped into the wild. Of about 600 animals in two facilities, only about 40 remain today. The farm at Ma’erkang of Aba Tibetan Prefecture was more fortunate. Of about 1,000 animals, 700 remained.

A juvenile Musk Deer at the farm.At our initial meeting at the farm, Director Cai reminded us that no photography is allowed. As soon as he was out of sight, Chief Engineer Wang Chengxu took us for a tour of the farm where the Musk Deer are kept. Inside the fenced-off grounds, Wang nodded in approval for us to use our cameras. Cai’s cautionary reminder was simply ceremonial, much like a façade for the government regulations. In practice, they keep only technological aspects under wraps, especially guarding against foreign guests. With us they chatted quite openly with our researchers.

CERS resident biologist Dr Paul Buzzard, Science Director Dr Bill Bleisch and PhD candidate Li Xueyou, in charge of our research, asked many questions and Wang was most helpful in answering. We even collected hair and blood samples for DNA classification and analysis.

I managed to get close-up pictures of the Musk Deer, including two newborn fawns, dispelling the myth that this animal is shy and alert and would jump at the slightest noise or scent. I had heard that even the sound of a falling leaf could send a Musk Deer running off into the forest. Here they seemed so well domesticated that our intrusion did not seem to raise the slightest concern. We could approach to within two to three meters of them. In the wild, our scientists had to set up camera traps, hoping to photograph them in deep forest with little to no human activities. My close encounter was most rewarding as I have been contemplating raising a few Musk Deer near our Zhongdian Center.

When we finally rose to leave, we felt a state secret had been partially unveiled. “Let’s hope future study will help unlock the huge value of this animal, and we, too, will no longer have to work stealthily in the dark,” Wang remarked. After all, he has been working in this farm and research institute for more than 20 years, and is just about ready to retire.

Like market forces in all parts of China, I strongly believe that if the government would unleash its strong hold on the technology in captive breeding and musk harvest, we could see a huge increase in the Musk Deer’s population in private farms. This could enlarge musk production in a sustainable way for the future. Perhaps there will be a time when the price of musk would be at par with gold, or even cheaper. It should not be kept artificially high, but become everyone who needs it for medicinal purposes could afford it. Until then, musk’s true value cannot be fully realized.