Deers and deer products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.

The deer

Dominic Mark Ong Qianshun

The deer is a hoofed mammal belonging to the Cervidae species family. The deer antlers – composed of bone, cartilage, tissue, skin, nerves and blood vessels – are known for their medicinal properties, in Asia and other parts of the world. Earlier, the antlers were collected from several species of deer. Today, the common source of domestic deer antler for Chinese medicine comes from 2 species – sika deer (Cervus Nippon) and red deer (Cervus Elaphus). These two species of deer are not endangered and instead face an increase in population due to deer farms. Furthermore, with countries in the business of producing deer antlers, there is an exponential increase in the number of deer farms. 

Surprisingly, the largest producers of deer antlers are New Zealand, followed closely by Australia and Canada. New Zealand, with 4320 deer farms, has a total of around 1,840,000 deer. The largest consumer of deer antlers is Korea. Undoubtedly, China is also a big player in the production and consumption of deer antlers. However, the fact that there are other big players in the market for deer antlers shows that its use has been growing beyond its consumption in TCM, into more westernized countries.

One particular part of the antler that is commonly used is its base. The scientific name for the deer antler base is Cervus. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is believed that the Cervus helps to nourish one’s Yin (the feng shui energy of relaxation), tone the kidneys, strengthen muscles and bones, and help with blood flow. In China, the antler base is widely used in TCM to treat a myriad diseases such as mastitis, children’s mumps and mammary hyperplasia.

Another common part of the antler that is used in TCM is ‘deer velvet’. Deer velvet covers the growing bone and cartilage that develops into deer antlers. Similar to antler bases, it is also used to cure a wide range of health problems. Some uses of deer velvet include: boosting one’s strength and endurance, improving one’s immune system and even treating other illnesses like high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Landscape with deer, storks, pines, and peach-tree. Artist unknown. Ming dynasty, 1368-1644, China. Freer Gallery of Art
Two Paintings of Deer Antlers. Qianlong Emperor. Qing dynasty (1644–1911). China. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Deer antlers and pharmaceutical industry

Apart from the widely known use of deer antlers in traditional medicine, deer antlers have also been explored and tested for use in the pharmaceutical industry. In a recent study, researchers have tested the use of deer antler to develop efficacious drugs or functional foods based on biological phenomena of the deer antler, in the hope of improving and benefiting human health. One example was that the researchers attached a dead tissue from the deer antler base to a living tissue for over half a year and the results were that a large sized wound was able to heal within a week without any signs of inflammation and negligible scarring.

Deer antler is popular in traditional Chinese medicine for its capability in rejuvenating one’s yin (of the yin and yang). Tests are conducted on mice and their behaviour is monitored after being introduced to deer antler compounds into their bodies. For example, it was said that deer antler base would have anti-fatigue effects, which was seen in prolonged swimming in mice. Although it is currently not being tested on humans, this research indicates how deer antlers have immense potential in benefiting humans. 

 

Zoonoses from deer

​​Apart from waterborne transmissions and blood transmissions, it is suggested in a study that deer are zoonosis carriers for hepatitis E virus (HEV). In the study, a series of cases of HEV infection among people who ate uncooked deer meat 6 to 7 weeks prior to the infection was observed. The study found that deer meat was a carrier of zoonotic foodborne transmission, much like other diseases such as salmonella.

Another virus transmitted from deer, although not directly, is the deer tick virus. A case study conducted  on a 62-year-old man, who had sadly passed away due to an infection, has shown that getting infected with the deer tick virus can cause fatal encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.

References
Dharmananda, S. (2005, January). “Deer antler: to nourish blood, bone, and joints”. Institute of Traditional Medicine Online
Li, C. (2020). “Deer antlers: traditional Chinese medicine use and recent pharmaceuticals”. Animal Production Science, 60(10), 1233.
Mushahwar, I. (2008). “Hepatitis E virus: Molecular virology, clinical features, diagnosis, transmission, epidemiology, and prevention”. Journal of Medical Virology, 80(4), 646-658.
Tavakoli, N., Wang, H., Dupuis, M., Hull, R., Ebel, G., Gilmore, E., & Faust, P. (2009). “Fatal Case of Deer Tick Virus Encephalitis”. New England Journal of Medicine, 360(20), 2099-2107.
Tei, S., Kitajima, N., Takahashi, K., & Mishiro, S. (2003). “Zoonotic transmission of hepatitis E virus from deer to human beings”. The Lancet, 362(9381), 371-373.
Wu, F., Li, H., Jin, L., Li, X., Ma, Y., You, J., Li, S., & Xu, Y. (2013). “Deer antler base as a traditional Chinese medicine: A review of its traditional uses, chemistry and pharmacology”. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 145(2), 403-415.