The Japanese Serow: Wraith of the Forest
It comes as a considerable surprise to visitors to Japan to find that the country is home to quite a number of large animals.
Among more than 100 species of mammals native to Japan, there are even two species of bears, a monkey, a large deer, and a rather strange creature, rarely heard of outside Japan, known as the Kamoshika or Japanese Serow.
This extraordinary beast roams the mountains of Japan from the northernmost part of Honshu, the Shimokita Peninsula, to the mountains of eastern Kyushu. This primitive herbivore is found only here, making it a Japanese endemic species. The Kamoshika has been protected as a natural monument since 1934, and as a special natural monument since 1955.
As if it were in a medieval European bestiary, Kamoshika, has been variously described, and rather unflatteringly I feel, as a cross between a cow, a donkey, a pig and a goat! Such a poor description does scant justice to this wonderful creature; but I can agree with the more common description of it as a "goat-antelope", for glimpsed in the shady forest, or forging a way through deep snow, that is how it appears.
They browse rather poor quality fare: buds, leaves, herbs, and bamboos, and spend a considerable amount of time chewing the cud. Kamoshika occupy a rather specific ecological niche in the forests of Japan, where, surprisingly, they share one habit with rhinoceroses and raccoon-dogs and another with tigers! Like rhinos and Tanuki they deposit their droppings, not randomly like deer, but regularly in a latrine. Like tigers, males and females have a particular style of overlapping home ranges.
Like forest wraiths, Kamoshika are silent, secretive wanderers, browsing through their forest territories. Attractive, compact, stocky animals, with a combined head and body length of about one meter and a shoulder height of about 75 cm, and weighing in at around 30-40 kg, their coarse, ashy, grey-black hair, camouflages them well in the shady undergrowth.
They have a delicate face, with a long muzzle, and two weeping glands, just below the eyes, give them a sorrowful expression, as if constantly crying. The head is topped with a pair of short, prong-like black horns, about 14 cm long with pointed ends. Strong ridges, or annual rings on the horns are indications of their age. Powerful legs and a muscular body make them well suited to pushing through tangled vegetation, particularly wiry dwarf bamboo, and of course deep snow.
Kamoshika are quiet, solitary creatures on the whole. They move slowly, and deliberately, pushing through deep snow in winter and dense vegetation in summer, marking their territories as they go, by touching that distinctive preorbital gland to twig tips and leaves in passing.
Among Japanese Serows, males and females both occupy territories, with the territories of one male overlapping those of several females. Scent marking allows them all to keep track of each other's movements. Males and females are rarely seen together, except during the October/November rut, and for the remainder of the year go their separate ways. The females give birth to their single, occasionally twin, calves during early summer in May and June, so if you encounter more than one serow at a time it is more than likely a female with her youngster.
Somewhat secretive, solitary and easily overlooked, Kamoshika are often to be seen at Yaen-koen, in Jigokudani, Nagano Prefecture. Take a train to Nagano and then a bus to Kambayashi Onsen and walk through the woods from there along a well-marked and well-signed trail. The monkeys in the lower valley and around the hot spring are a major distraction, but to spot serows you must scan the wooded slopes of the valley. Binoculars will be a great help.
Text and Photographs: Mark Brazil
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A writer, naturalist and wildlife guide, Mark spends half of each year travelling in search of wildlife and the other half writing about it from his base in Hokkaido.
Born and educated in England and Scotland, Mark spent more than ten years involved in the making of natural history documentaries for television, and nine years as a professor of biodiversity of conservation at Rakuno Gakuen University near Sapporo.
He began contributing his column, Wild Watch, to The Japan Times newspaper in April 1982, and has been writing about natural history and travel ever since.
His latest book, a field guide, Birds of East Asia, was published to considerable acclaim in 2009, by A&C Black and Princeton University Press.
You can learn more about Mark and his work via his website: www.japannatureguides.com