The homecoming of Pere David's deerBeijing, China: Eight timid milu deer were released into the wild by zoologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in November 1998 - and for the first time in 80 years these animals roamed freely over their home territory. This historic event was the result of a gift 15 years earlier from a British nobleman, the Marquess of Tavistock, who sent 22 milu to China from his stately home - followed by another 18 two years later.
The deer were the descendants of animals bought between 1894 and 1901 by the marquess's great-grandfather, the 11th Duke of Bedford, and kept on his estate at Woburn Abbey. The duke, in fact, saved the animal from extinction and all surviving milu - also known as Pere David's deer - are descended from the Woburn herd.
Pere David's deer are unique to China and were abundant there before being wiped out in the wild. They are fond of a watery and damp habitat and their original distribution appears to have been confined to the great alluvial plains of north and eastern China, as far south as the Yangtze and Qiantang estuaries. They have antlers resembling those of other deer, with one prominent backward-pointing tine. They have necks like camels', ox-like hooves and tails resembling those of donkeys.
The species was unknown outside China until 1865, when Pere Armand David, a French missionary, discovered it for the West. After working for more than a decade in China, David heard that there was a special animal at the Nanhaizi Imperial Park. He bought an antler and two hides and took them back to France for identification. Reports of the new finding created a stir among zoological circles in Europe, and soon afterwards live deer were being displayed in collections across the continent.
The deer reintroduced to China from England bred well. Young from the Nanhaizi herd have been sent to parks and zoos in other parts of the country, and have multiplied to more than 100 head today. The Nanhaizi reserve itself maintains a herd of more than 180, with another herd of 150 in central China. As part of the plan to return the deer to their natural habitat, 39 head (13 males and 26 females) from five zoos in England were released at Dafeng Milu Reserve, Jiangsu Province, in August 1986, by the conservation organization, WWF, and the Chinese Ministry of Forestry. The herd has since grown to 354 in number, an encouraging sign for the milu's prospects in the wild.
Zhang Yuhua, the reserve director, said: "When I arrived here, my first thought was to develop this species." The reserve has fenced off 420 hectares and grown more than 20 hectares of forage grass, planted more than 100,000 trees, and dug drinking water ponds.Other animals, including hares, ring-necked pheasants, peacocks and monkeys are also kept at the reserve, which was visited by a million visitors in 1997.
But the most exciting achievement of the reserve's zoologists so far has been the release of milu into the wild. To them it meant that the milu was finally home again, and they have committed themselves to doing all they could to keep it there.
* Zhao Qinghua works for China Features