the lost deer of china


(Photo by Jiang Jun.)

In the south of Beijing, there is a park called Nanhaizi Milu Yuan (南海子麋鹿苑) where the imperial hunting grounds used to lie.   This would be interesting in and of itself, but what is even more unusual about this park is that it is dedicated to the preservation of an endangered species: the milu.

The story of the milu (麋鹿), also known as 四不像 (the four unlikes) is a fascinating tale of how just one person can make the difference between life and death for an entire species.  It’s a story that involves an eccentric British aristocrat, a French missionary, the Boxer Rebellion, and more.  Described as having “the hoofs of a cow but not a cow, the head of a horse but not a horse, the antlers of a deer but not a deer, the body of a donkey but not a donkey,” the milu has brushed uncomfortably close to extinction several times.

The first mention of the milu appears in Chinese records more than 2000 years ago.  They appear in Chinese folktales, notably as the mount of Jiang Ziya, who appointed all of the Chinese gods and goddesses.   They were also symbols of the imperial throne and its power.

According to this article in China Today:

Bucks’ horns sprouted in spring and were shed in autumn, in line with nature’s cycle, but Chinese ancients interpreted this phenomenon as a sign from heaven, and regarded the David’s deer as an auspicious animal. Emperors believed that imperial authority was God’s will and wanted their power to be passed on forever within their dynasty, in the same way as the horns of the David’s deer would continue to be discarded and replaced. The emperors would therefore hold grand ceremonies outdoors every autumn, to observe the spectacle of David’s deer shedding their horns.

The milu used to roam on the banks of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, but since their natural habitat was open marsh, they were easy prey for hunters.  By the 19th century, when a French priest named Armand David came to know of their existence (their name in English is Père David’s Deer) , their numbers had dwindled down to an imperial herd that the emperor kept in the south of Beijing–again, as a symbol of imperial power.  In keeping with those Victorian multitaskers, Père David was both a missionary and a zoologist, and he wrote some of the first European accounts of animals like the Giant Panda and the milu.

But the milu came even closer to extinction during the Boxer Rebellion, when starving troops broke into the imperial grounds and hunted the milu for food.  At that time, they were functionally extinct in China.

Because of Père David, Europeans became curious about the milu, and some were smuggled out of China for exhibitions and breeding purposes. One person who was especially interested in the milu was Herbrand Russell, Lord Tavistock, the 11th Duke of Bedford.  After painstakingly gathering a herd of 18 milu from European zoos, he bred them on the ducal estate at Woburn Abbey, which is now also home to other conservation efforts and a safari park.   The herd grew in size until it numbered over 600 milu.  For most of the 20th century, this was the last herd of milu in the world.  All of the milu in Nanhaizi are descendants of those 18 deer.

(Image from Wild Animals Online)

It wasn’t until 1985 that the milu returned to China, in a gesture of Sino-British friendship.  After the milu began to thrive, more deer were sent over from Britain.  In this article on Ding Yuhua, China’s “father of milu”, there’s a wonderful scene when the milu return to the Dafeng Milu Nature Reserve in Jiangsu Province:

Ding Yuhua vividly remembers the day when his old lost friends came back from the dead. It was a sweltering summer day in 1986 and the young student heard the cries of his mentor Ma Jianzhang, an established expert on wildlife protection: “The milu deer have come back!”

You can also read Lord Robin Russell’s thoughts on the return of the milu in his college alumni magazine. (PDF link)

These days the milu are doing extremely well, with over 2,000 milu in China alone.  There is even a small herd that lives in the wild, after efforts were made to repatriate the milu.  They’ve been taken off the red list of endangered animals published by the World Conservation Union.  You can see them roaming around Nanhaizi, romping around in their old stomping grounds.  

But amongst all the stories you hear of animals going extinct, the milu stand out.

The story of the milu has also inspired a book, Robert Twigger’s The Extinction Club. (The reviews are extremely mixed.  The author sounds like a bit of a twat.)

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2 Comments on "the lost deer of china"

  1. Grace
    12/07/2008 at 2:53 am Permalink

    more reasons why dukes are the most amazing and wonderful people in the world =D

  2. nao
    17/07/2008 at 3:41 am Permalink

    oh my goodness, we have these at the zoo! i know them as “pere david’s deer”!!

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