This April marked the start of the birthing season for the milu deer. As the herds across the mainland grow each spring, they mark a rare conservation success story in a country suffering from pollution and other environmental challenges.
“Our protection of the milu is about protecting our living cultural heritage and natural heritage,” said Guo Geng, vice director of the Beijing Milu Ecological Research Centre.
Today, there are about 5,500 milu deer in China, with as many as 600 living in the wild in Hubei and Hunan provinces along the Yangtze River.
The deer were among the animals brought from around China to live within the emperor’s hunting grounds in what is now the south of Beijing during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The number of milu deer living in the wild decreased due to loss of habitat, before finally dying out in 1900 in the hunting grounds.
In 1865, French missionary Father Armand David introduced the species to the West, enabling it to make its way into European zoos. Then, in the same years the final milu deer were dying in China, the 11th Duke of Bedford in Britain gathered 18 on his estate in England to create what became the world’s only surviving herd.
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In the 1980s, Slovak-born American zoologist Maria Boyd took an interest in the milu deer.
Boyd’s late husband happened to be friends with the 14th Duke of Bedford, or the great-grandson of the man who saved the herd. In 1985, the duke tasked Boyd with reintroducing 37 deer to China.
The late Boyd wrote an account documenting the reintroduction, drawing on documents kept in five suitcases over the years, including the invoice from Air France for the flight that transported the first batch of 22 deer. Her surviving partner is co-writing the book and expects it to be published in China this summer.
Boyd initially planned to stay in China only until the reintroduction project was completed, but was still living there when she died last year at age 72.
“She would not let the deer go,” said her partner, Dominic Bacquis, from France.
Boyd had expected it to be picked as a mascot for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Bacquis said. It lost out to other animals, including the much more famous panda. When she died, Boyd was holding out hope for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
“The panda doesn’t have such rich experience across the world,” said Guo.
Edited by Ginny Wong