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The Deer That’s Trapped in Conservation Limbo

Photo: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS.

In April, the Bronx Zoo welcomed four little bundles of joy: two male and two female Père David’s deer fawns (see a video of the new additions here).

It’s big news because while the species is thriving in zoos, they are technically extinct in the wild.

The Père David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus), also known as the milu, looks like most deer at first glance. However, there are several ways to identify them. They have a shaggy coat, long tail, and branched antlers. Their hooves are large and splayed, indicating that they are adapted to live in wet, swampy grassland. But no one knows for certain what habitat these deer once lived in; that’s because by the mid-19th century, they were already nearly gone.

Père David’s deer are native to China, but centuries of hunting and habitat loss decimated the population. By the 1860s, the world’s only herd belonged to the Emperor of China and was kept isolated and heavily guarded in his Royal Hunting Garden.

A French missionary, Père (Father) Armand David, smuggled several animals out of China to Paris in 1866.

Photo: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS.

In the following years, the Chinese herd was subjected to misfortune after misfortune. In 1894, a flood came through, destroying the Royal Hunting Garden. Many deer drowned, and those that were freed were quickly eaten by starving peasants. Then during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, troops stormed the garden and ate the remaining deer. The Père David’s deer was now extinct in its native land.

Meanwhile, the few deer sent to France were bred for private collections throughout Europe. In the early 1900s, the Duke of Bedford ended up with 18 of the deer. All of the Père David’s deer alive today, in captivity around the world, stem from this herd.

When the species was assessed for the IUCN Red List in 2008, they were officially declared extinct in the wild, although this is no longer totally accurate.

Photo: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS.

Reintroduction efforts began in the mid-1980s and today there are 53 herds of Père David’s deer living in China. Although the deer were originally released in fenced-in areas, a 1998 flood allowed some to escape from their reserve. The descendants of these escapees now make up four wild populations numbering about 600 deer.

Most of the herds in China have fewer than 10 deer. The small herd sizes, combined with their isolation and lack of gene exchange, have conservationists and researchers concerned about the long-term health and viability of the wild population.

Today, most Père David’s deer live only in human care. They are found widely in zoos, deer parks, and hunting ranches around the world. The herd at the Bronx Zoo, which was established in 1946, has produced 165 fawns as part of the Species Survival Program, a cooperative breeding program designed to enhance the genetic viability of animal populations in zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The future of the Père David’s deer is uncertain. The species was saved from extinction, but doesn’t truly live free in the wild. It remains to be seen if those few deer living outside nature reserves in China will gain a hoof-hold and be able to establish and maintain healthy, independent populations. For now, the Père David’s deer is in conservation limbo, surviving but not quite wild and free.

 

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