Ecological correlates of Himalayan musk deer Moschus leucogaster
Himalayan musk deer (Moschus leucogaster); hereafter musk deer) are endangered as a result of poaching and habitat loss. The species is nocturnal, crepuscular, and elusive, making direct observation of habitat use and behavior difficult. However, musk deer establish and repeatedly use the same latrines for defecation. To quantify musk deer habitat correlates, we used observational spatial data based on presence–absence of musk deer latrines, as well as a range of fine spatial-scale ecological covariates. To determine presence–absence of musk deer, we exhaustively searched randomly selected forest trails using a 20-m belt transect in different study sites within the Neshyang Valley in the Annapurna Conservation Area. In a subsequent way, study sites were classified as habitat or nonhabitat for musk deer. A total of 252 plots, 20 × 20 m, were systematically established every 100 m along 51 transects (each ~0.5 km long) laid out at different elevations to record a range of ecological habitat variables. We used mixed-effect models and principal component analysis to characterize relationships between deer presence–absence data and habitat variables. We confirmed musk deer use latrines in forests located at higher elevations (3,200–4,200 m) throughout multiple seasons and years. Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) dominated forest, mixed Himalayan fir (Abies spectabilis), and birch forest were preferred over pure Himalayan fir and blue pine (Pinus wallichiana) forest. Greater crown cover and shrub diversity were associated with the presence of musk deer whereas tree height, diameter, and diversity were weakly correlated. Topographical attributes including aspect, elevation, distance to water source, and slope were also discriminated by musk deer. Over-and understory forest management can be used to protect forests likely to have musk deer as predicted by the models to ensure long-term conservation of this rare deer.