“Yura, shut up!” A man who was sitting on the floor, motionless near a huge wooden sliding door, jumps up and pushes it suddenly, closing one access, freeing another. A superb maral deer [Cervus elaphus sibiricus ou élaphe de Sibérie], who was running towards him, brakes suddenly and tries to turn left, along the barrier, but there and behind him comes the chorus of scouts, hissing. The animal, after a few seconds of panic, launches itself towards the opening that appeared on its right. The door closes behind him, he calms down and, moments later, he is already munching on a thick grass without paying the slightest attention to the noise that continues behind the fence, nor to his congeners, who join him little by little. in this second corral. This is not the end of their torments, only a moment of rest: the next day they will be pursued into narrow corridors of boards, and when at last we have immobilized them, they will remove their royal crowns. It’s hard to say who is more to be pitied, him or the other 500 marais caught in the first enclosure and then released. These will have to go through a collection again (and probably more than once) and the selection that follows. And sooner or later, but never later than mid-July, depending on the state of maturity of their antlers, they will pass under the same ridge, in a narrow stall.
The maral is the Altaic subspecies of the deer [ou élaphe] which inhabits the forests of the temperate zone of Eurasia, from the Irish Sea to Japan. Everywhere it is considered a game of king. However, if in the West their horns had the sole interest of ending up as a hunting trophy, in the East they are given a great therapeutic value. It is not the smooth, hard horns that are used as weapons by the adult males during their autumn tournaments, but the spring horns, still coated in velvet and irrigated by a very dense blood network. They begin to grow as soon as the deer loses the antlers of the previous year (which in the Altai marals occurs between the end of February and the beginning of April) and reach their final size after three and a half months, at least in animals that live in freedom. Breeding deer are stripped earlier: their ninety-day-old antlers have reached their final size, but are still rich in active substances.
It is not known exactly what these substances are. It is believed that very rapid growth of the horns (almost one centimeter per day!) can only be achieved thanks to an exceptional concentration of hormones, vitamins and other trace elements. And although official science attributes to the antlers of these deer (or more precisely to what is extracted from them) only a minor role as a natural stimulant of the nervous system and heart muscle, Eastern tradition attributes to it very extensive applications. , fountain of youth, aphrodisiac, healing and active against skin diseases. Demand comes from the Far East, with South Korea alone consuming 90% of the wood.
Since the 1930s, animals have not been killed to saw off their horns.
In the past, hunters took them from the carcass of the slaughtered animal, but XXcentury, we realized that killing a maral to catch something that grows back each year was too great a luxury. The first farms, therefore, appeared in the 1930s in the Upper Altai (present-day Altai Republic). The oldest and most important, the Novotalitsky sovkhoz, which became an “experimental farm”, has been around since 1951. In summer, the life of these marais hardly differs from that of their wild counterparts; in winter they are forage fed as there is not enough land to provide enough to subsist, the norm in marais breeding is 2 hectares per head. But in early summer, males are captured to saw off their horns. The method is the same everywhere: a large fenced area, within which a set of barriers leads, like a funnel, to a first enclosure.
In the morning, the entire team, about ten people, saddle the horses and head to the heart of the breeding park. The maturity of the horns coincides more or less with the birth of the young, the males have already been separated from the females, who need absolute tranquility. The men collect the animals and push them towards the funnel.
Gradually, they quicken their pace, shout and, in crucial places, dismount: curiously, the maral is more afraid of a man on foot than a man on horseback. [qu’il assimile au cheval]. The goal is not to let him look for another way out. This herd of several hundred superb animals with precise movements trying to escape a dozen horsemen offers a spectacle worthy of a ballet. Finally, they all find themselves parked in a clapboard corral that the men close over them. After a brief smoking break, they separate them: the deer are led, in groups of a few dozen, to an adjacent enclosure with a sliding door. There, the person in charge identifies those whose antlers are ready and parks them in a third enclosure. For this time, they’ll be a good twenty. We won’t touch them anymore, they can get enough of the weeds that don’t grow in the forest, drink and calm down. Cutting will begin the next morning, as the cold lowers the risk of mortality from stress.
In groups of four, the marais are pushed into a corridor, the end of which, narrow enough that they cannot turn around, is divided into small stalls whose doors are operated from the outside by long poles. In a few minutes, the marals are in place. One of the men then pulls a lever, and a rudimentary pneumatic mechanism brings the sloping, rubber-covered stall walls closer to the animal’s flanks until it is fully held. Another mechanism removes the floor from under his legs and he remains suspended. Three men then approach its head to a “pillow” – a bag of rags – its horns are tied at the base by a thick rope and securely fastened on either side. One of the men picks up a saw with a blade coated with a manganese solution. A chainsaw would pose a lot of danger: even immobilized at best, the animal remains susceptible to sudden movements. During the entire operation, which takes no more than five minutes, he is silent, even when half of his ear is cut off to mark him, which means he is no longer productive enough and will be slaughtered in the fall when he has put on weight. a little.
In Novotalitski’s creation, a male who disappeared without a trace seven years ago remained in everyone’s memory. Nicknamed Effronté, he calmly entered the stall, let his magnificent 18 kg antlers be removed without hesitation (the average weight is between 4 and 7 kg) and, released, left without hesitation. He lived 28 years (the usual longevity is around 20 years) and apparently did not die of old age, although in the last two seasons his horns were small and ugly, a sign of old age.
Despite falling prices, maral wood is a profitable production
Once cut, the horns are immediately suspended. The males that are more imposing are left aside: in the autumn, they will be the breeders. We can, therefore, consider that the function of the horns – to guarantee success with females – is, however, respected. Then begins a slow and complex preparation. The men take a horn, sit by a huge cauldron placed on a stove, and dip the wood into it. The water is at 95°C and must never boil. After ninety seconds, sometimes two minutes depending on the size, they take it out and put it on the shelves. This operation is repeated three times, then the wood remains for twenty-four hours to dry in the open air. After three such cycles, drying will be completed in the oven. The aim is to preserve all the active chemical elements they contain. Horns treated in this way will have lost 62% of their initial weight. Dry and light, it can be stored for several years.
The water in the cauldron is not renewed throughout the season, it is simply added as it evaporates. The substances from the forests and the blood that flowed from them are concentrated in this water. Novotalitsky has a health center that uses the healing properties of this water, where a ten-day stay costs 1,200 rubles. [300 FF]. On the more modest farms, these baths are a privilege reserved for those who take care of the marais or people useful to the farm.
The profitability of this activity gives rise to rumours. Currently, according to the director of Novotalitski, Nikolaï Borissov, it does not exceed 10 to 15%: “In recent years, the price of antlers has fallen sharply, and this for three reasons: competition between old farmsUSSR since they are free to export; the arrival of new producers, such as New Zealand or Canada; but, above all, the Asian crisis.” Recently, the kilo exceeded 1,000 dollars. Now there are 200. However, even under these conditions, marais breeding here is considered profitable. The average monthly salary of an employee is approximately 750 rubles, while in the same sovkhoz, but for a different type of production, it does not exceed 150 or 200 rubles. Maral parks are multiplying and expanding. The isolation of this remote mountainous part of the Altai, the absence of river communications and the low density of the rail network deprive any local agricultural production of the slightest chance of being competitive. Thus, maral horns are an ideal product: compact, quite expensive and, above all, impossible to manufacture elsewhere.