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The axis deer is an introduced species in Hawaii that has caused extensive ecological damage. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Axis deer were gifted to King Kamehameha V from Hong Kong in 1868 and later released.

In this comprehensive article, we will trace the full history of how axis deer were introduced in Hawaii. We will learn about their native range, how they came to Hawaii as a gift to the King, and how intentional releases and escapes led to large wild populations on different Hawaiian islands.

Native Range and Ecology of Axis Deer

Native Range in India

The axis deer (Axis axis) is native to the Indian subcontinent. Its historic range stretched across India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. In India, axis deer were found throughout the country, from the foothills of the Himalayas down to the southern tip.

They thrive in a variety of habitats like grasslands, light forests, and scrublands. Major populations existed in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra.

Diet and Habitat

Axis deer are highly adaptable and can survive on various vegetation types. Their preferred habitats are grasslands and open forests with dense grass cover. This agile ungulate browses on grass, leaves, buds, herbs, orchids, shrubs, and crops.

It needs to drink water regularly and is usually found near a water source.

The IUCN Red List classifies the axis deer as least concern given their large, stable population in their native range. However, they are poached for their meat and antlers. Further, they face threats from habitat loss and competition with livestock.

Reproduction and Lifespan

The breeding season for axis deer varies based on climate and geography. In their native range, breeding takes place throughout the year in southern India. In northern India, breeding occurs from September to November.

Females can give birth to one fawn during each pregnancy after a gestation of 7-8 months.

In the wild, the average lifespan of axis deer is around 15 years. With good care in captivity, they have lived over 20 years. Their main predators in their native habitats are tigers, leopards, wild dogs, pythons, sloth bears, and crocodiles.

The IUCN estimates the global axis deer population to be around 1 million. About three-fourth live in India, where their population is considered stable. However, their distribution range has decreased by almost 30% over the last few decades due to various anthropogenic pressures.

Arrival of Axis Deer in Hawaii as Gifts

Gifted to King Kamehameha V in 1868

Axis deer were first introduced to Hawaii as a gift for King Kamehameha V in 1868 according to the Hawaii Invasive Species Council. The ultimate source was India, which has a native population of these deer.

They were brought from India to England, and then gifted from the personal menagerie of Queen Victoria to the King as a sign of goodwill and alliance.

The axis deer were kept by the King in his private collection of plants and animals on Oahu. Due to colonial interests at the time in Hawaii, the King was likely convinced by foreign advisers to display exotic species in the royal collection, which was a trend among royalty.

At first, the axis deer added novelty, but soon grew in numbers too quickly.

Kept in the King’s Private Collection on Oahu

Kamehameha V kept the axis deer near his summer palace in Nuʻuanu Valley, Oahu. He had an enclosed park of 300 acres where the deer ranged freely. The number of deer rose considerably as they had no natural predators and plenty of forage in the valley.

By the time the King died in 1872, the axis deer population had grown to over 100. His successors were unable to curb their spread as they reproduced rapidly.

While initially a limited collection for royal status, the semi-captive population soon grew beyond sustainable capacity. But after the King’s death, the maintenance of the private menagerie fell into disarray.

Some deer escaped as fences fell into disrepair, and additional animals were released freely. Without any management plan in place, they spread widely from the King’s park into the island over years.

Intentional Releases for Hunting

First Release on Lanai Island in 1920

The first introduction of axis deer to Hawaii occurred in 1920 when Hong Kong businessman Walter Fraser transported 4 bucks and 4 does from Sri Lanka to Lanai Island. Fraser had purchased the majority of the 141 square mile island a few years earlier and aimed to establish a game hunting reserve for himself and friends.

Unfortunately, within 2 years all of the original 8 deer had died or escaped the enclosure. Not deterred, Fraser imported another 10 axis deer from Asia to the island in 1924. This batch survived and flourished after some escaped the pens.

By the 1950s, the Lanai deer population had grown large enough that hunting parties were making regular trips to the island. During one season alone in the late 1950s, over 800 axis deer were bagged by hunters on Lanai.

Later Releases on Maui and Molokai Islands

Seeing the success on Lanai, ranch owners on the nearby islands of Maui and Molokai imported and released small numbers of axis deer in the 1950s and 60s also hoping to establish huntable game populations. These batches survived and spread quickly.

Today, population estimates indicate very large and destructive numbers across all three islands: Lanai – 15 deer per square mile, Maui – 19 deer per square mile, Molokai – 7 deer per square mile. In total nearly 50,000 invasive axis deer now roam the Hawaiian islands.

Unintentional Escapes and Population Growth

Escapes from Captivity on Oahu

Axis deer were first introduced to Hawaii in 1868 when axis deer were brought from India to Molokai Ranch for sport hunting. A few years later in 1889, axis deer were also introduced to Oahu island for hunting purposes.

Unfortunately, there were several unintentional escapes of the deer from private ranches and estates over the decades. It is estimated that less than 10 deer originally escaped in the 1890s and formed a tiny feral population.

But additional accidental escapes, likely numbering 20-30 deer total through the early 1900s, enabled the population to slowly grow over time.

The axis deer that roam wild today are believed to be descendants of those early escaped captive deer. Records show that the first sighting of an axis deer in the wild on Oahu was in 1917 in the area near Mount Ka’ala. But their population remained relatively small for many decades.

It was not until the later half of the 1900s that the deer experienced a population boom.

Rapid Population Growth Due to Lack of Predators

The key reason the axis deer population erupted in growth in recent decades is due to lack of natural predators on the Hawaiian islands. Deer roam freely without threat from predators that would normally hunt and cull numbers in their native Asian habitats.

It is estimated today there are over 12,000 axis deer just on the island of Oahu.

The deer cause extensive damage to local vegetation and habitats. And they compete for resources with native animal species. Their fast breeding further escalates the population growth – does can have fawns twice a year and twins are common.

Local conservation agencies now consider the axis deer an invasive species and a threat to Hawaii’s ecological health. Debate continues on the best methods to control and manage the deer population explosion. But few disagreement remains on the negative impacts of these introduced creatures.

Environmental Impacts and Attempts to Control Spread

Overgrazing and Loss of Native Plants

The introduction of axis deer into Hawaii has had significant negative effects on native plant species and ecosystems. Axis deer tend to overgraze and can decimate native vegetation. One study by the U.S.

Fish and Wildlife Service found that the presence of axis deer on Maui led to a significant loss of native plants, with up to a 90% reduction in cover in heavily grazed areas.

The deer preferentially browse on native species, giving non-native invasive plants a chance to establish themselves and outcompete struggling native species. Their intensive grazing and trampling has aided the spread of invasive plants such as fountain grass, ginger, and strawberry guava in some areas.

Competition with Livestock and Other Wildlife

The spread of axis deer across Hawaii has increased competition for vegetation and other resources with livestock and native wild ungulates. Approximately 60-80% of an axis deer’s diet overlaps with cattle in grazing areas, reducing forage.

They have also begun competing with feral goats and native species such as the endangered Hawaiian goose.

There is particular concern that deer could spread out further onto ranching lands designated as critical habitat for endangered bird species. Ranchers have had to adjust cattle stocking rates and move herds more frequently due to the influx of deer.

Unsuccessful Eradication Campaigns

There have been efforts to eradicate or control axis deer since the 1950s, but none have succeeded in significantly limiting their population growth or spread. Early campaigns focused on fences, drive nets, hunting from helicopters, and the use of Judas deer with radio collars.

More recently, newer methods such as GPS tracking collars, infrared cameras, and aerial surveys using helicopters have improved monitoring and culling capabilities. However, scientists estimate axis deer populations continue to double every few years.

Containment and mitigation remain elusive due to the species’ adaptability, high reproductive rate, and lack of predators. Coordinated management with public support provides the best hope to limit future damage.


In this article, we learned how axis deer were gifted to Hawaii’s king in 1868 and later intentionally released for hunting in the early 1900s. Through escapes and rapid reproduction, they have spread across Hawaii and caused extensive ecological damage due to overgrazing and competing with native wildlife.

Attempts to eradicate or control axis deer have so far been unsuccessful. Creative new solutions may be needed to protect Hawaii’s natural environment from this harmful introduced species.

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