Rusa by Zac Mckenzie

Species guide: hunting rusa deer

The Javan rusa (Rusa timorensis) is one of Australia’s least known deer. They are abundant in the Illawarra region of NSW, south of Sydney, are also established in other coastal areas of eastern Australia: on the NSW North Coast, southeast Queensland and further up the Queensland coast. They are also present in the southeastern corner of SA and in a few isolated inland spots of NSW and Queensland.

Stags stand about 1.0-1.2m at the shoulder and weigh 120-140kg before the rut; the hinds stand 80-90cm high and are significantly lighter at 60-80kg.

Rusa by Zac Mckenzie
An excellent trophy like this doesn’t come along often for rusa hunters

The pelage is light brown darkening towards the hindquarters, often with a reddish or blonde hue. Some hinds and fawns in particular will show a much lighter colour in summer. Stags will often be a much darker brown than hinds, but they are still lighter than sambar. All rusa will have a lighter underbelly in a dirty white or cream colour. At no stage will they have the spots we associate with some species.

Rusa are well known for their white bib, a white patch from their chin going down the front of their throat. During the rut, stags grow a mane similar to sambar, but it should retain some of the white colour. The hairs will be brown/white, coarse, crimped and by the end of the rut most stags will be missing large patches along their neck. They are well known for being poor quality skins and capes due to their sparse hair and many hairless patches.

Antlers are cast late in the year, with the larger stags starting mid-November and the young boys usually finished by mid-January.

Velvet will grow until late April, when it will still be soft, and by early- to mid-May the velvet will harden and dry out. Rusa will wait until the velvet has dried before they start rubbing them; they do not strip the velvet the same way fallow do. It is rare to see stags outside this cycle, unlike sambar which can be seen at any stage of antler growth throughout the year. Rusa stags will rub to polish their antlers and scent-mark their territory on small trees, from saplings up to about 40cm diameter — similar sized trees to sambar but not like chital, who prefer very large gum trees.


The Illawarra herd of rusa occupy a mostly rainforest-style habitat with vines, thick lantana, cleared paddocks, urban streets, sporting fields, beaches and creek lines along the escarpment. Outside the rut, they mostly follow a pattern similar to that of red deer, coming out to feeding areas late in the afternoon or early evening, feeding overnight and then returning to their bedding areas in the morning.

However, rusa also will have their 11am-2pm feeding session, which may be due to their close proximity to human schedules. Rusa have adapted extremely well to the urban environment and with the middle of the day being fairly quiet in terms of human movement, they will take advantage of this quiet time.

Stags will become more mobile during the rut, as the younger stags will be pushed out and roam, looking for any opportunity with a hind. Many sightings happen at random daylight times in areas that deer normally only frequent during the dark of night. Every year during the rut there are calls from the public to cull deer as they are ‘spreading’. However, the paddock the deer used to feed on now has 200 houses in it. So they just stroll through, eating the gardens instead, with more eyes on them.

Rusa by Zac Mckenzie
A rutting stag in his finest reedy headdress stands guard over one of his hinds

Anyone who lives in the Illawarra and southern Sydney will no doubt know somebody who has deer frequenting their property, whether it’s farmland, urban family house or the beach. They have us figured out just as well, if not better than we know them. Many people are often greeted by deer in the carport or driveway at 2am and will never see them during daylight.

It’s not uncommon to have deer eat the lawn or garden flowers of any house within about five streets of bushland, or to see prints on a beach or park that seems as though it’s nowhere near the bush. A small creek with scrub will provide access corridors for these deer into areas that seem completely urban. These corridors can provide protection, but can also add pressure to the council to remove the deer.

For the main herd, these patterns extend from the north of the Royal National Park around Sutherland and Bundeena to Macquarie Pass in the south. The steep escarpment on the western edge keeps them mostly contained. There are also pockets of rusa outside these areas to the west and south.


When looking for sign, lantana is always a good place to start. Rusa bed in these thick areas close to food sources, whether it is a paddock or a garden. They can be as little as two metres into cover and may exhibit similar behaviour to sambar, watching people walk past unaware of them.

Stag scat will often be large ‘grenades’ while hinds leave pellets. Like most deer, the greener and slimier it is, the fresher it is. Blacker and drier is older.

Wallows are great places to sit and wait for deer to come. Rusa wallow extensively around their boundaries. Urine-stained mud is transferred to rub trees and surrounding saplings, a very similar behaviour to sambar.

Rusa share many behaviours with sambar due to their close historic relationship, however it seems sambar scrape much more regularly than rusa. Scrapes do exist, but rusa prefer wallowing for scent marking and communication, with most activity occurring before and during the rut.

The rut is longer than for fallow and reds, typically going for six weeks, beginning late June and ending early August. Like any rut, it can be shorter or longer and could also start early or end late, but July is usually the best time to hunt. The intensity can vary greatly from day to day, location to location, or year to year. But as a rule, the more stags there are, the more intense the rut.

Rusa by Zac Mckenzie
A rutting stag showing the distinctive rusa bib down his neck

If each stag can hold his harem with little competition, he will be less inclined to expend energy roaring, patrolling, marking and fighting. With more competition, he’ll have to work harder to hold his harem, leaving himself open to silly decisions that leave him exposed.

Hunting with a bow will be most successful if you sit and wait over a wallow or in a stand over a game trail to a feeding area. If, like me, you’re a bit less patient you’ll want to walk around. In the scrub treat them like you would sambar: walk a couple of steps and glass ahead. Move slowly. It’s common for rusa to watch you, and they will bark and break away after some time.

Using a rifle, I like to sit on the opposite side of a clearing that they enter and wait for them to expose themselves. If it’s morning and they have already moved back into cover, you can follow the game trails into the scrub and catch them before they go to bed. Rusa are just as likely to browse as they are to graze and will spend some time feeding on their way back.

Their sense of smell is quite well developed, a weakness that can be exploited. If they hear you but can’t smell you, rusa will often stand with their nose in the air trying to sniff you out. If they do break off without having smelt you, often you can pull them up with a “meep” and see the iconic rusa look of turning their head 180 degrees, but if they get a whiff they’re gone.

I’ve only shot a few rusa with the bow, but I’ve had 260-spine arrows pass through with 125gn broadheads without any trouble from my Matthews set at 70lb. The same applies with any bow hunting: razor-sharp broadheads and shot placement are the most important factor in a quick kill.

I prefer to hunt rusa with a rifle, using frangible projectiles. My favourite round is a basic .308 Hornady SST 150gn. I’ve only lost one rusa with this round and it was my first stag, so I’m certain it was more shot placement from buck fever than the bullet. Almost every other rusa shot with this round has run less than 50m.

In my experience, larger, faster rounds like the .300 Win Mag are too much and will pinhole the deer, allowing it to run further. Smaller rounds with a frangible projectile are effective.

The vast majority of shots I’ve taken at rusa have been under 100m, so a scope of 4-12x is more than sufficient. Many shots are at close quarters in thick scrub or across a small clearing.

Rusa exhibit many interesting behaviours and just when you think you have started to figure them out they will surprise you. The best way to optimise success is to spend more time in the bush and more time watching them go about their normal business.




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Zac McKenzie