A herd of female and subadult Pere
David's deer at Dafeng Milu Nature Reserve. (Source: China
BEIJING, Feb. 4 -- The story of the Pere David's
Deer is one of a species wiped out on its native Chinese soil and taken halfway
around the world - and to the brink of extinction - before staging a dramatic
homecoming and revival.
After nearly 1,000 years, the critically endangered
species - once numbering only 18 - is taking its first steps back into the wild
at Dafeng Milu Nature Reserve in Jiangsu province's Yancheng coastal wetlands.
The population of milu (the species' Chinese name) in
Jiangsu hovered around 600 when the United Nations Development Program and
General Environment Facility Wetland Project began in 1999, identifying Yancheng
among four key protection areas. Today, 1,317 - about a third of the world's
milu population - roam the 78,000-hectare Dafeng reserve, all descendents of the
39 shipped from the UK 22 years ago.
"The project shows the role human beings play in
biodiversity loss and the role we can play in biodiversity gain," UNDP China's
resident director Khalid Malik says.
"It also shows we have to be very conscious of the
way we develop, because the random and spontaneous destruction of species is no
longer possible, no longer desirable and no longer necessary."
While more than a million Pere David's Deer roamed
China's wetlands 3,000 years ago, over-hunting claimed the last wild milu around
A herd of about 200 - the last milu in the world at
that time - was kept at Imperial Hunting Park near Beijing in the 1800s. After
French missionary-cum-naturalist Father Armand David identified the species in
1865, about a dozen were imported to Europe for exhibition.
Those who imported milu for their own amusement had
little inkling these deer would become something of a Noah's Ark for the
species. An 1894 flood that inundated the park and a citizenry famished by the
strife of the Boxer Rebellion claimed China's very last milu.
In the following years, the Duke of Bedford rounded
up the world's last 18 at his abbey in England to breed.
In 1985, several deer were sent from the UK to
Beijing's Milu Park as an international goodwill gesture.
"At that time, China had just started with wildlife
and nature conservation, so, along with the giant panda, the deer marked an
important event in Chinese wildlife conservation," says Wu Haohan, technical
advisor with the State Forestry Administration's (SFA's) China GEF Wildlife
Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use Office.
The following year, 39 milu were shipped to Dafeng,
where they rapidly bred to become the world's largest single population.
In 1998, 54 of Dafeng's deer heralded the first
generation in a millennium to return to the wild. That herd has since grown to
118, which roam the reserve's 2,600-hectare core zone.
About 300 milu at Dafeng are now "semi-wild", meaning
they are still fed by staff during the harsh winters. The deer are picky eaters,
preferring only the tenderest shoots of water-plants and grasses, meaning the
colder months issue a challenge to their survival.
The rapid expansion of the Jiangsu population is
particularly incredible, because inbreeding had led to a number of reproductive
problems, including low birth rates, affected by frequent abnormal and difficult
births, and an imbalanced sex ratio.
On April 11 this year, Beijing Nanhaizi Pere David's
Deer Park staff reported the birth of the first test-tube milu fawn.
"It will take a long time for the milu to regain
genetic diversity," Wu says.
"Generally speaking, if a species is in different
environments with different natural conditions, that will increase genetic
diversity. But it will happen over many generations."
He explains most of the herd from the Beijing reserve
had to be relocated to the Shishou Milu National Nature Reserve in Shisan, Hubei
"The environment had already changed and wasn't
suitable for the deer," Wu says.
"That's why we have to protect their habitat, because
only then can we introduce them into nature. If that's destroyed, they can only
live in captivity."
Neither the herds in Beijing nor those in Hubei have
flourished like Jiangsu's.
Milu are also known as sibuxiang, which translates as
"four ways of being unalike", because they are said to have a horse's face,
cow's hooves, stag's antlers and a donkey's tail. They are among the world's
largest deer, with adult males weighing about 250 kg and females 160 kg.
Herds gather during the mating season in late May
when males sling mud on their backs, adorn their antlers with grass and engage
in several eliminative rounds of combat, through which a single prevailing buck
wins mating rights to all does.
"Rescuing this species is also good for sustaining
the local environment and providing an important resource for the future," SFA's
vice administrator Yin Hong says.
About 500,000 visitors buy the 35 yuan (5.1 U.S.
dollars) admission ticket to the 78,000 hectares reserve annually in the hope of
catching a glimpse of the deer.
"The story of the deer also demonstrates that humans
and wildlife can coexist in a harmonious way," Yin says. "So I believe this
story has an educational aspect as well."
(Source: China Daily)