Malaysia deer farm proud home to 1,000 species

Prized for their hides: Visitors at the main hall of the Ulu Perak deer farm (Top), Pusat Ternakan Haiwan Lenggong, where deer roam freely. The farm sells deer products only to the local market and hasn't yet got into commercial production. Pictures: Liz Price

Sunday, February 3, 2008

WE WERE on our way to climb a waterfall but when we went past a deer farm claiming to be the largest in Malaysia, we decided to stop for a look. I was surprised that we could see no deer at all, so when we entered the building, my first questions was "where are all the deer?" Encik Wan Yup, the veterinary assistant explained that the farm is large and therefore the deer are somewhere in the far reaches. He went on to say they have more than 1,000 deer of different species.

I know that deer meat is popular in the food industry, but I hadn't realised that deer hide is also used in the world of fashion. While we were looking around, some locals arrived to buy some frozen deer meat, or venison. I assumed that this farm would supply hotels and restaurants, but Encik Wan said they only sell to the local market. Although the farm was opened in 2000, it hasn't yet got into commercial production.

The deer farm, Pusat Ternakan Haiwan Lenggong, comes under the Jabatan Perkhidmatan Haiwan or Veterinary Services Department. The original farm was at Tanjim Malim in Perak, but had to make way for the building of Proton City, so was relocated to this site near Lenggong in Ulu Perak in 1997. And another farm was set up near Taiping, covering 3500 acres. The farm near Lenggong has 1500 acres, which is split into 1000 acres for deer and 500 for cattle and goats on the other side of the road. Behind the office buildings are the staff quarters and behind those are rolling hills where the deer roam. Part of the land is open grassland whilst the rest is still wooded. There is a watchtower on one of the hills.

The majority of deer are Rusa Timorensis (Cervus timorensis), commonly called the Java rusa. Originally from Indonesia, these deer are smaller than the Sambar. The farm has about 60 Sambar, (Cervus unicolor). These are the commonest deer in the southeast Asian region and they prefer the forest whereas the Java rusa can inhabit open grasslands. The Sambar have longer antlers and I learnt that the antler velvet is a valued commodity. Velvet is the soft downy skin that covers the antler whilst it is growing, and before it hardens into bone. The young antler is basically soft tissue covered with fine soft hair or velvet. Male deer grow antlers every year.

The velvet from the Rusa timorensis sells from between RM50-350 ($22-152) a kilogramme, depending on the grade.

For over 2000 years, the velvet antler of male deer has been prized by the Chinese for its powerful health-promoting properties. The traditional uses of velvet antler are many and various, such as body strengthening, helping the immune system and blood cell production, and for cardiovascular health and function. A popular use in Malaysia is as a sexual enhancer, taken in powder form.

It seems that all parts of the animal can be used. The most obvious use is the meat, which averages around RM30 a kilo. Under certain conditions it is possible to buy a live male animal, but you have to fulfill strict requirements re the transport of the animal. Deer are very nervy creatures and do not travel well, so you are only allowed to buy livestock if you have a vehicle suitably equipped. An average male Rusa timorensis can weigh 130kg.

The skin is used in the fashion industry. The offal — heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs — can all be used, as well as the tongue and bones. The mature antlers as well as the teeth are used as carved decorative items. For traditional medicine, the tail, testes and penis, sinews, skull and even the foetus are used.

I was surprised to learn the latest product is keropok kulit rusa (deer hide crackers). To make the crackers, the hide must be immersed in water for at least a week and scraped to extricate the hair before it was boiled for at least a day. The resulting gel is mixed with tapioca flour, boiled and cut into chips. Then the chips are left to dry in the sun before frying. It is an expensive snack at RM50 per kg. However, these keropok cannot be eaten in large amounts; they should only be taken a few pieces at a time, as they are said to be "heaty". Making keropok from animal hide such as buffalo and cattle was popular in the olden days and this practice is now being revived.

There are 26 staff at this Lenggong farm. The deer are fed in the morning, or if it is raining, it is delayed till the afternoon. They are fed on a special formula, but as they are free roaming the deer also feed on pasture and leaves. I asked about Mouse deer and was told they have a few, as well as the Hog deer or Rusa axis. The latter resembles a Sambar but is much smaller.

Having learnt so many interesting facts about deer and their products I then wanted to see some live animals. Encik Wan lead us out to the fields at the back, but sadly the deer were far away on the hill slopes and were awaiting the tractor which was delivering their morning feed. Still, it was good to see them roaming freely and not confined to cages or even small enclosures. It's a pity we were unable to taste the meat, but that will give me a reason to go back.The Brunei Times