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Pere David’s Deer Free Again in China

Male Pere David's deer (photo: Damson)Modern zoos are often seen as present-day Noah’s Arks, due to the fact that their resources are mainly dedicated to saving endangered species from extinction. Several classic examples are known from the past where species owe their existence to zoos and wildlife parks. One of the most famous of such animals is the Pere David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus), also known as milu. The species has been extinct for more than a hundred years in its original habitat, but thanks to captive breeding, Pere David’s deer can now be found in China again.

Pere David’s deer occupies a special place among the 56 species within the family of deer (Cervidae). It is the only extant member of the genus Elaphurus, and the most closely related species to the deer of the genus Cervus. Fossils prove that three more Elaphurus species (E. bifurcatus, E. chinanensis, E. lantianensis) have lived in China and on the island of Taiwan, and that the extant species (E. davidianus) was distributed in a large area in East China and Japan in the Pleistocene. However, wild populations have decreased for thousands of years due to hunting and to the conversion of marsh habitats to rice fields by humans. According to some sources, Pere David’s deer has been extinct in the wild for 2.000 years.

Female Pere David's deer (photo: Damson)The Imperial Hunting Park (Nan Hai-tsu Park) in China, funded by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was situated south of Beijing along the Yongding River. Pere David’s deer were kept for hunting purposes on this 200 km2 fenced, marshy area. By the time Armand David (1826-1900), a French Lazarist missionary discovered the species for the ‘Western world’ in 1864, it is probable that Pere David’s deer only lived in this area of China. He realized that the species was unknown to ‘Western science’, therefore he convinced the Tartar patrol who guarded the hunting park to give him Pere David’s deer skins and skeletons. He sent these to Paris in 1866 to Alphonse Milne-Edwards (1835-1900) French biologist, who described the new species. Milne-Edwards gave the deer the name ‘davidianus’ out of respect for Father David. The name of the genus Elaphurus is derived from the Greek ‘elaphos’ (deer) and ‘oura’ (tail) words.

The fate of Pere David’s deer was sealed in 1895 when the Yongding River flooded and many deer drowned. In addition, the flood destroyed the fence of the hunting park, the remaining animals escaped and were hunted down by the hungry, neighbouring residents. Only 20-30 deer survived. Then, during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, fighting troops occupied the area of the hunting park and hunted the remaining deer for food. The species became extinct in its original habitat in China at this time. Other resources say that the last Pere David’s deer was hunted down in the coastal area of the Yellow Sea in 1939.

Male Pere David's deer with developing antlers (photo: Damson)However, the species escaped extinction. Some deer were transported to Europe, the United Kingdom, France and Germany before the Boxer Rebellion to show and breed these animals. When the news of their extinction got to Europe, zoo directors decided to send their Pere David’s deer to Herbrand Russell, the Duke of Bedford. He collected 18 animals at Woburn Abbey (United Kingdom), of which 11 deer were fertile. This population increased to 90 animals until World War I started and after World War II, more than 300 animals lived at the Abbey. This was when the second phase of the Chinese history of the species started.

Two pairs of Pere David’s deer were sent to Beijing Zoo by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in the spring of 1956, in spite of political resistance. Only one of these four animals and an offspring survived until 1973, both were males. Therefore, two more pairs of deer were transported from London to Beijing at the end of this year. By 1979, seven offsprings were produced in Beijing, but two of these were stillborn. This revealed that these specimens were not suitable to be the basis of a future reintroduction project.

Female Pere David's deer (photo: Damson)Another 22 animals arrived from Woburn Abbey to China on 24th August 1985. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also contributed to the transportation. 2 of these 22 deer were sent to Shanghai Zoo, and the other 20 animals – 5 males and 15 females – were set free on the 60 hectare area of the former Imperial Hunting Park. The park is called Milu Park or Milu Yuan since then. The Pere David’s deer returned home after nearly a century.

Thirty-nine additional deer arrived to China from 5 zoos of the United Kingdom on 14th August 1986. An extensive search was conducted to find a suitable habitat for these animals. Finally, the Dafeng Milu Nature Reserve was established in the coastal region of the Yellow Sea, where these animals got three fenced areas, each about 100 hectares. Fossils, that prove the former occurrence of Pere David’s deer, were found here. The area of the Reserve was doubled in 1995, and it was declared as National Nature Reserve in 1997. Approximately 950 Pere David’s deer lived in this area in 2006, and the annual average population growth rate was 17.01%. According to a source, 2027 animals lived in the Reserve in 2013, having the largest population of Pere David’s deer at present.

Two weeks old Pere David's deer calf (photo: Damson)Meanwhile, the population in Milu Park near Beijing also increased: the annual average population growth rate between 1987 and 1997 was 17.3%. In addition to keeping a breeding herd of 100 animals, deer were sent to other regions of China: to the area along the Yangtze River and to Hainan Island. Thirty deer were transported to Tianezhou, a peninsula on the Yangtze River, in October 1993, and 34 additional animals arrived to this area the following year. The annual average population growth rate is much higher here than in other areas: 22.2%. As a result, 522 Pere David’s deer lived in Tianezou in 2006.

Male Pere David's deer (photo: Damson)The first deer from the fenced reserves were set free in 1998, eight animals walked out from behind the fences in the area of Dafeng Milu National Nature reserve. They were followed by other deer in 2002, 2003 and 2006. 2015 specimens of Pere David’s deer live in the wild these days. Approximately 200 animals live in Shishou, Hubei Province, a herd of 60 deer lives in the area of Dongting Lake, Hunan Province. These animals escaped from the flood in 1998 and produced offsprings in the wild.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classified the Pere David’s deer as Endangered in 1990. Its status was changed to Critically Endangered in 1996, with less than 50 animals in the wild. As only captive populations existed for more than one hundred years, (apart from the above mentioned herd, of which the long-term fate is not yet known), the species was classified as Extinct in the Wild in 2008. It seems that in spite of the population bottleneck – the current population is originated from only 11 founders – genetic problems do not seem to occur within the species. The continuously growing captive population in China paints an optimistic future in which more herds of Pere David’s deer will live again in the wild.

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