Chital, or spotted deer, is a calm and beautiful animal found in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Himalayan borders of Asia. As it does not flee quickly, it is adored by visitors enjoying jungle safaris. In some countries, people keep chitals as pets due to their beauty. From the Terai Bhabar region to community forests, it is found in diverse habitats. Chital is social and roams in places like Shuklaphanta National Park and Chitwan National Park.
Globally, deer (family Cervidae) in the order Artiodactyla include 43 species of hoofed ruminants. They are notable for having two large and two small hooves on each foot and horns in the males of many species and in the females of one species. Deer are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica, and many species have been widely introduced as game animals outside their native habitats. Of which the chital or axis deer, also known as the spotted deer, is one.
Chital is a medium-sized deer sporting a golden-brown coat with white spots from legs to belly. Male chitals are larger, slightly darker, and have small black marks in the mouth. Despite their small legs, they're robust, with a short tail and a white or navy belly. Males alone have horns, measuring 50 to 80 cm, while adults weigh between 35 and 85 kg. Females range from 25 to 45 kg. The male's body spans 90 to 140 cm, and shoulder height is 70 to 90 cm. Hooves measure 4.1 to 6.1 cm, shaped fingers. Shed annually, three-pronged antlers harden through mineralisation in males and are absent in females. They can race at a speed of 65 km/h.
Habitat and breeding
Chitals grow in subtropical grasslands and forests. During dry summers, they prefer riverside forests, while in the rainy season, they opt for regular forests. Bardia National Park, Shuklaphanta National Park, Dalla Community Forest, Bardia, and Kumroj Community Forest in Sauraha offer ideal habitats, especially due to lush grasslands.
Feeding mainly on grass, chitals favour new shoots and avoid tall or dry grass. They graze on fallen leaves and buds from trees, switching to dry grass clippings in winter. While grazing, they remain mostly silent, with males standing on hind legs to reach high branches. They enjoy dense forests, avoiding direct sunlight. Chital groups, led by the eldest mother, consist of family members. Their sound vary in different situations, like danger or mating.
Chitals prefer shade when temperatures rise, increasing activity in the evening. During colder days, they graze at sunrise and early morning, resting or moving slowly in midday. Breeding maturity occurs in 14–17 months for females and in one year for males. After a gestation period of 210–215 days, females give birth to one or two babies, weighing 3 kg. The mother cares for the calf until it is six months old. Chitals breed throughout the year, peaking in Asar and Shrawan. In their natural habitat, their lifespan is 9–11 years. Male Chitals sport hard horns and are dominant in courtship. Males fast during mating season, pursuing and guarding females during estrus. Chital pairs engage in mutual licking before and after mating. The reproductive process is continuous, and in case a calf dies, the female may get pregnant again the same year.
Chitals are abundant in protected areas, but outside these zones, they face threats from poaching, habitat loss, and diseases like Mycenae, Lantena, and Cromaleina. Hunting and competition with domestic animals lead to low population densities in many places. Chitals are killed by predators like tigers, leopards, wild boars, pythons, and crocodiles. Immature chitals can be prey for red foxes and golden foxes, too. When scared, especially females and young ones, bark continuously and scream for their mothers. Chitals respond to alarm calls from animals like common myna and langur. Despite some threats, the IUCN lists Chitals as the least concerned due to their wide range and large populations, especially in protected areas. There are strict penalties in Nepal for killing or injuring protected wild animals.
In Bardia National Park, prey density has been studied, and there are about 90 prey per square kilometre, with spotted deer being the most common. Chitals are a major prey for tigers in Bardia. Chitals are smart companions to monkeys and langurs. Chitals help detect predators through their smell, and monkeys shed twigs and leaves from trees where deer feed. Grasslands in Bardia National Park are manually managed to provide tiny grasses for Chitals.
Deepak Rajbanshi, a wildlife photographer, says that Chitals give a special call when they spot predators like tigers or leopards. This call helps predict the presence of these big cats, making it
exciting for tourists and photographers to spot them in the area.
Even experienced wildlife photographers focus on Chital's call during safaris to capture stunning shots of tigers and leopards.
(The author is a wildlife photographer. Photos used in this article are by the author himself.)