Sambar deer are light brown or dark with a grayish or yellowish tinge. The underparts are paler. Old sambars turn very dark brown, almost the color black. Their coat of dark short hair is coarse, and their undersides have creamy white to light brown hair. The color of the coat is usually consistent around the body, but it can vary from almost dark gray to yellowish-brown. Males have unique stout, rugged antlers with three points, or tines. Their tail is quite long for deer, generally black on top and dirty white or whitish underneath. They have long, strong legs, the upper color being dark brown, with the inner parts of the legs a paler or dirty white. Their brownish-gray ears are long.
Sambar deer are native in India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Sri Lanka, Burma, the Philippines, southern China, Taiwan, Borneo, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Java. They also have been successfully introduced in New Zealand, Australia, California, Florida, and Texas. They inhabit both the gentle slopes and the steeper parts of forested hillsides. They prefer to live near cultivated areas like gardens and plantations, where they can find food but are also seen in swamp forests, thick forests and open scrub.
Sambars are mostly nocturnal and they rest during the day under the cover of heavy forest. They are solitary but sometimes form small groups during breeding seasons. Groups of 6 females or fewer, along with their dependent young may be seen traveling together. Young males form groups close to females, with males older than six years being typically solitary. Male animals are nomadic and will establish their territory primarily during the breeding season. They often gather near water, and they are good swimmers, being able to easily swim with their body fully submerged with only their head above water. Their senses are highly developed, which is of assistance in detecting predators. When they perceive danger, they make a repetitive honking call.
Sambars are herbivores, eating various grasses, foliage, fruits, leaves, water plants, herbs, buds, berries, bamboo, stems, and bark, as well as a wide range of shrubs and trees. At certain times of the year, they like eating different types of fruit.
Sambars are polygynous, one male mating with multiple females. Males are very aggressive at the time of the breeding season. They guard their breeding territory and attract female deer by means of vocal displays and smell. There is no specific breeding season, though it most commonly takes place between September and January. Usually, just one fawn is born, after a gestation period of about 9 months. Calves at birth are very active. Their hair is brown with lighter spots, which soon disappear. They begin to eat solid food from 5 to 14 days and ruminate once they are 27 to 35 days old. They stay with their mothers for approximately 2 years.
Hunting and habitat encroachment are the main threats. Sambars have developed more of a nocturnal activity pattern as a response to hunting by humans, who hunt them for trade and for food. Natural predators are leopards, tigers, dholes, wolves, and crocodiles. They are sometimes captured for zoos.
The IUCN Red List and other sources don’t provide the number of the Sambar total population size. According to the University of Michigan (Museum of Zoology), the population size of this species in India exceeds 50,000 individuals, and in Australia Sambars number more than 5,000 individuals. Overall, currently, Sambar deer are classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today are decreasing.
The main role of the sambar is dispersing seeds throughout its native range.