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Wild axis deer grazing on a green hill on the island of Maui

Invasive Axis Deer

Wild Venison

Wild axis deer foraging on Maui. Because of their voracious grazing, native foliage has given way to invasive grasses, now a main food source for them. Photo by Seacat Creative

In the rainforests and watersheds of Hawai’i, growing numbers of invasive axis deer thrive on native foliage, endangering a unique and fragile ecosystem. Our partners humanely harvest these deer to limit the population, conserve native species, and produce a bountiful supply of tasty, lean, wild meat. None of the venison goes to waste: It feeds local communities in Hawai’i and is the main ingredient in our Lightly Smoked Venison Links.

A long cheese and crutide board is covered with fruits, cheeses, and Patagonia Provisions Venison Links and Breadfruit Crackers

Nutrition: Fed by Nature

A cheese board with Patagonia Provisions Lightly Smoked Venison Links. Photo by Amy Kumler

Invasive Hawaiian axis deer forage on lush grasses and a variety of other plants, giving their meat outstanding flavor and nutrition.

The deer eat mainly grass, but also browse a wide range of other plants, including glycine beans (a nutrient-rich, nitrogen-fixing vine related to soybeans) and the sweet, nutty beans of the kiawe tree. The meat has a rich array of nutrients—iron, riboflavin, niacin and vitamins B12 and B6—and an exceptionally clean, mild flavor. It’s very lean, with less than 1% intramuscular fat, and has about as much protein as beef (26 g per 4-oz serving). Compared to feedlot beef, axis deer venison has a much higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, thought to benefit heart health. Also, feedlot animals are often dosed with antibiotics (to stave off disease) and growth-promoting hormones. Wild venison is entirely free of both.

A sunlit hillside landscape shot on the Hawaiian island of Maui
Although much of the Maui landscape has already been altered by their grazing, invasive axis deer still find a varied buffet of wild plants to eat. Photo by Seacat Creative
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A herd of axis deer graze on a hillside on Maui

Sourcing: A Hawaiian Solution

After 70 years of unchecked population growth, the invasive deer count on Maui has exploded to around 60,000. Photo by Seacat Creative

Our venison comes from the Hawaiian island of Maui. Working with private ranches, our partners humanely harvest the invasive wild deer according to rigorous USDA standards.

Our venison partners at Maui Nui see themselves as stewards of the land above all. “We’re never going to have sales goals. We’re only going to have [ecosystem] management goals,” says Maui Nui co-founder Jacob Muise. Harvesting is done at night to minimize stress to the deer, and a USDA inspector, whose presence is state-mandated for food safety, accompanies the team the entire time. Using infrared technology so that the invasive deer are not aware of humans, the team harvests each animal individually in the field. A second USDA inspector approves the animals before processing.

Harvesting the deer this way means they’re never penned or trucked to slaughterhouses—the most common, and stressful, fate for commercially raised meat animals.

Workers process wild axis deer on the island of Maui
The Maui Nui team process wild, invasive axis venison, humanely harvested in the field under USDA supervision. Photo by Seacat Creative
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Hands plant koa trees on the island of Maui

Enviro: Restoring the Balance

On a swath of Maui watershed denuded of native flora, the reforestation group Leeward Halea-kala plants indigenous koa trees. Photo by Seacat Creative

By selectively harvesting invasive axis deer, our partners give the land a chance to recover while providing a much-needed source of meat for the local community. They also work with a reforestation group to regenerate the land.

As invasive species, axis deer have no natural predators in Hawai’i and breed often, so their numbers grow exponentially. The result? Catastrophic impact on delicate ecosystems. Here’s what happens: The deer devour native Hawaiian plants and tree saplings—which are replaced by invasive grasses (a). Some of those native plants, like the koa tree (b), absorb 30% more rain than non-native plants. When these trees dwindle, delicate watersheds dry out. Animal and insect species that depend on native plants begin to disappear too (c). Overgrazing also leaves the soil bare (d), and without plants to hold it in place, the soil erodes into the ocean, choking coral reefs and killing marine life.

Illustration of axis deer in the Hawaiian ecosystem
Illustration by Ilka Hadlock

To control the surging deer population, Maui Nui uses a balanced management approach versus trying to eradicate the animals completely. The benefits are threefold: First, impacted wild ecosystems begin to rebound. Second, farmers no longer lose crops to marauding deer herds. And third, the community gets a steady supply of good, clean, nutritious meat, which Maui Nui offers at a discount to resident Hawaiians and donates to people in need. Having a local source of meat strengthens food security in this island state, where 85% of what people eat is imported.

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1842 illustration of axis deer

History: The Origins of Invasion

Axis deer hand-colored lithograph by Gebhart, from Georg Friedrich Treitschke's Gallery of Natural History, Naturhistorischer Bildersaal des Thierreiches. Liepzig, 1842. Photo by Florilegius / Alamy Stock Photo

Axis deer are native to the Indian subcontinent, where they’re known as chital and were regularly hunted by the maharajahs. Their meat is widely considered to be the most delicious venison in the world—flavorful, tender and mild.

In 1868, a herd of seven axis deer arrived on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, a gift to King Kamehameha V. In the absence of predators, by the end of that century the population had soared to around 7,000, and government officials sounded an alarm about the damage to forests and agriculture. Despite this, deer were released on Lana’i in 1920. Local hunters appreciated the meat, but supply quickly outstripped demand, and now there are two deer for every human on Lana’i. In 1959, after much debate, a few deer were brought to Maui to create hunting opportunities for World War II vets. By 2020, the population had exploded to 60,000, causing an annual $1 million in agricultural and property damages on top of destruction to the native ecology. Transferring deer between islands is now illegal.

Lush tropical valley on the Hawaiian island of Maui
With judicious management of invasive axis deer, lush tropical rainforest valleys like this one on the Road to Hana in Maui can remain intact. Photo by Don Landwehrle / Alamy Stock Photo
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Aerial photo of the Hawaiian coastline on the Island of Maui

Partners: Guided by Science

When invasive deer erode the landscape by grazing, precious Hawaiian topsoil erodes into the ocean, choking the coral reefs. Photo by Seacat Creative

To manage the invasive deer population for the benefit of ecosystems and communities alike, Maui Nui relies on field science, technology, and a few key collaborators.

When Maui Nui co-founder Jacob Muise was forming his company, he relied on the research of wildlife biologist Steven C. Hess, an expert on invasive ungulates (hoofed mammals) in Hawai’i.

Through his continuing work with Hess and ecological groups like Leeward Haleakalā, Muise has been able to determine Maui’s total “carrying capacity” for axis deer—the number the land can withstand without being degraded. “If we can eat them fast enough, we can get ahead of that population curve,” he says. “The deer at balance will offer the greatest total value to our community.” With Hess and marine biologists, Muise is working on a cohesive impact statement that will show, per deer harvested, the offset in damage to land and water ecosystems and the pounds of food delivered to the community. The first of its kind, the statement will be subject to rigorous third-party audits—and could be used as a model for deer management on other islands.

 Muise, co-founder of Maui Nui
Jacob Muise, co-founder of Maui Nui. Photo by Seacat Creative
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A person sits by a lake, holding up two Patagonia Provisions Wild Venison Links and flashing a peace sign

Shop Venison Links

Two is better than one. James Q. Martin at peace with his afternoon snack choice. Humboldt County, CA. Photo by Amy Kumler

Our Lightly Smoked Venison Links, made from invasive Hawaiian axis deer, are a savory meat snack that helps protect paradise.