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A Success Story of Wildlife Conservation

Landscape Conservation is only one (small) actor in the effort to bring back an animal on the brink of extinction to where it belongs – safe and thriving in its original habitat.  But now there is one thing without doubt - the Milu (Elaphurus davidianus, or Pere David’s deer) is roaming free again in the reed beds in the central China Yangtze River basin.

A Brief History of Milu

The historical range of the Milu is uncertain; unearthed fossil records show that Milu were widely distributed along the eastern seaboard of China, and in the alluvial plains of the Yangtze River (Beck & Wemmer, 1983).  This uncertainty has also partially resulted from the word Milu, (‘Su-bu-xiang’, meaning ‘four un-alikes’ i.e. with tail of the donkey, hooves of a cow, neck of a camel and antlers of the deer). Unfortunately, the term ‘Su-bu-xiang’ is given to any bizarre looking animal; be they camel, reindeer or others - as we can see in the writings of a Chinese traveller returning from western China and seeing a herd of ‘Su-bu-xiang’- at Kokonor.  These were obviously camel and not Milu. The species was probably extirpated from its natural habitat many centuries ago.  It is certainly well adapted to living in the boggy wetlands of central China, and the current accepted thinking is that the Yangtze River valley is the most likely area where the species evolved, although there are reported fossils of the Milu elsewhere, including Japan.

Hunting, urbanisation, land change and conflict issues were all almost certainly ultimately responsible for the demise of the Milu.  It isn’t known what highest population levels were, but a reasonable guess would be several million animals, roaming freely through eastern China. Ancient Chinese literature cites thousands of Milu swimming in the waters of coast of Shandong province.

By the time Father Armand David first saw the species – inside the Imperial Hunting Park (IHP, now the Beijing Biodiversity Conservation Research Centre, at Nan Haizi, south of Beijing) – there were no other known herds roaming freely in China.  He recognised that this was a species that didn’t fit any descriptions of other deer, and postulated that this was a ‘new species to western science’ (Trans. 1949).  Through a series of gifts and ‘negotiations’, some Milu were shipped to Europe.  Whatever the rationale was at the time, the decision to take some animals out of China ultimately saved the species from extinction.

In 1896 there were eighteen animals in Europe.  Herbrand, the 11th Duke of Bedford decided to collect all remaining animals in Europe and bring them to his family estate, Woburn Abbey.  As the Milu were faring poorly in the European zoos at that time, the Duke instructed his animal dealer, Mr. Hagenbeack, to gather them into a single group of animals (Boyd & Wang Zongyi, 1989).  It was a good job Woburn were as committed as they were.  In 1895 the wall of the IHP collapsed and was never repaired.  Over the following few years the deer inside the IHP left, or were poached (this was also the time of the collapse of the Imperial dynasties of China and there were a great many changes taking place), with the result that the last herd of Milu in China was gone.

Early Conservation Efforts

Eighteen animals left in the world isn’t many.  In fact, with such a low number, the chances of a single virus wiping out the entire herd are pretty high.  It has been calculated that the world population derives from only 11 individuals.

Nevertheless, the heavily inbred Père David’s deer safely passed though the genetic bottleneck of inbreeding and adopted the vast open parkland of mid England estate.  At the end the WWII, the size of the Woburn Abbey herd reached 250. To avoid to putting all the eggs in one basket, the Duke of Bedford decided to relocate some of the Milu.  Since then Père David’s deer have been shipped to other locations, first to other sites in England, mainly zoos, then to other parts of the world.

Back to the Present

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that serious planning took place to return the deer to their natural homeland, and ultimately the area where they had most likely evolved. Lord Robin Tavistock who later became the 14th Duke of Bedford and great-grandson of Herbrand, was instrumental in returning the deer to China – fulfilling his dream by organising that 22 Milu would be  first sent to China on August 25th 1985, from the herd at Woburn Abbey to the old Imperial Hunting Ground at Nan Haizi.  

The desire to return the Milu to their known former range however, meant that conservation efforts didn’t stop with the introduction of the animals at Nan Haizi.  Maja Boyd, one of the original team involved with the repatriation of the Milu, together with Chinese scientists, carried out extensive research to identify a suitable site in the Yangtze River valley for release.  They concluded that an area on the north shore of the Yangtze River, with natural boundaries, in Hubei Province, close to Shishou City, would be the most appropriate for reintroduction, and planning proceeded.  In 1993, thirty animals were translocated from Nan Haizi to the ‘Shishou Reserve’.

Putting a large ungulate back into the wild however is not a straightforward thing.  Although the Milu are a highly protected species in China (‘Class 1’, the highest level of protection there is), the deer’s ability to breed in large numbers, and to forage widely, meant that it wasn’t long before they came into conflict with the farmers growing crops in the region.  In an effort to address some of the concerns of the local people, the Hubei Environmental Protection Bureau (who have responsibility for the species within Hubei) gave permission for a deer fence to be erected around the release site.

This certainly helped alleviate some of the tensions with the local people, but it gave rise to another challenge – that of managing what was now a captive population, albeit one living in a area that could sustain a large number of deer.  In addition, the flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998 resulted in several cohorts of deer leaving the initial release area and forming permanent herds in other parts of the Province, as well as around Dongting Lake, in Hunan Province.  These ‘escapees’ – unplanned as part of the original reintroduction strategy – now form the basis for the several hers that roam freely in their former range. 

Future Plans

What now for the Milu in China?  The current IUCN status is EX – Extinct in the wild (Jiang  & Harris, 2008), yet this is clearly incorrect, as the evidence is overwhelming.  The Reserve at Shishou regularly monitors the herds, and the use of drone technology has made the job increasingly easier and more accurate.  All in all we estimate that there are over 500 free-living Milu. In August 2018, President Xi visited Donting Lake and saw the wild Milu for himself, declaring them to be a ‘national treasure’.

The Milu are well and truly back where they belong.