The mouse deer, Chevrotains (Tragulus versicolor), is commonly known as kanchil in its home of Southeast Asia. Although it looks like a miniature deer, the Asian mouse deer is neither deer nor mouse — but a unique family of bovids more closely related to antelopes. In Malaysia and Indonesia, this curious creature has a big reputation. Dubbed “Sang Kanchil,” he is the hero of colorful folklore, and is deemed brave, clever, and wise.
The Asian kanchil is one of the smallest known hoofed mammals (ungulates). Its body size is comparable to that of a rabbit, with a height ranging from 12 to 18 inches.
Like deer, they have thin legs, large eyes, and a sleek brownish coat. They are mainly solitary creatures, and are territorial. Mouse deer males lack antlers, however, and have to make do with elongated canines to protect their territory and secure mating rights.
The somewhat-larger water-chevrotain lives in Africa, but most chevrotains are found throughout South and Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. Here, they subsist solely on plant material, foraging for fruits, berries and other vegetation. Predators like tigers, crocodiles and canines will make a quick meal of them if given the opportunity, thus they are very timid by nature.
Legend of ‘Sang Kanchil’
This small animal made a big impact on Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, when, according to legend, it showed great bravery during the founding of the Sultanate of Malacca.
In the late 14th century, Prince Parameswara of Palembang was defeated in a battle to take the throne of the Majapahit kingdom. He and his followers sought refuge in Temasik, but were expelled by invaders from Siam. They then withdrew to Muar, and later Sungai Ujong, finally stopping at Bertam, near an estuary of the Melaka River.
As they rested under a tree, their hunting dogs came across a white mouse deer. Before the dogs were able to attack, the mouse deer gave one dog a good kick and escaped. Parameswara went on to form the state, naming it after the tree he rested under; the Malacca tree.
From this point on, the mouse deer enjoyed great renown in Malaccan culture. He was given the honorary title of “Sang” — an Old Malay honorific meaning “revered,” and many new fables emerged with Sang Kanchil as the hero. He is generally depicted as clever and wise, as we see in the following tale:
One very hot day, a crocodile is resting under a shade tree. He is fairly comfortable, and falls asleep – until a strong wind blows the tree down. Painfully pinned under the tree, the crocodile cries for help. A passing water buffalo takes pity on the crocodile and lifts the tree to rescue it.
Rather than expressing thanks, the crocodile wants to be carried across the water to the other side of the river. The water buffalo is willing to help, and crosses the river with the crocodile on his back. Suddenly, he feels the sharp pain of the crocodile’s teeth. This time the water buffalo cries for help. Clever Kanchil deer comes along, and asks to see a re-enactment.
The crocodile is carried back across the river, and the fallen tree is placed back on the crocodile. The crocodile complains about the weight, but the mouse deer won’t let the water buffalo help again. The crocodile is squashed for his scheming deeds and his inability to return a favor.
Other than stories, the mouse deer has found its way into modern iconography. It is recognized as the state animal of Malacca, and the state’s coat of arms features two mouse deer supporting the emblem, celebrating the brave deer that faced Parameswara’s dog. The Malaysian carmaker Perodua even named one of their cars “Kanchil.”