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After 1,000 years, the milu returns to the wild

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Few species have come as close to extinction as the milu (Elaphurus davidianus) and survived. For centuries, the rare Chinese animal, also known as Père David’s deer, has existed only in captivity. Now, more than 100 years after the species disappeared from its homeland, it is taking its first steps back into the wild.

Overhunting drove the milu to near-extinction for the first time around A.D. 200. For centuries after that, the deer lived only within the walls of Imperial Hunting Park, near modern Beijing, where only China’s emperor was allowed to hunt. A flood in 1894 wiped out all but 20 to 30 of the animals. The rest were shot and eaten during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

But the milu’s story didn’t end there. A few decades earlier, a French missionary named Armand David brought several milu to Europe, where they earned their Western name, Père David’s deer. The last 18 deer eventually made their way to the estate of England’s Duke of Bedford, where they once again became a private hunting stock.

The deer bred in England for decades, until 1985, when the first milu were returned to China. More soon followed, and the deer continued to breed. The worldwide population, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’s Red List of Threatened Species, today stands at over 2,000.

Now some of these deer are, for the first time, leading "semiwild" lives, according to the China Daily: "About 300 milu at Dafeng [Milu Nature Reserve] are now ‘semiwild’, meaning they are still fed by staff during the harsh winters. The deer are picky eaters, preferring only the tenderest shoots of water plants and grasses, meaning the colder months issue a challenge to their survival."

Of course, the milu’s problems aren’t over yet. Because the entire population is descended from just 18 animals, the species faces a potentially dangerous lack of genetic diversity. The China Daily reports that "inbreeding had led to a number of reproductive problems, including low birth rates affected by frequent abnormal and difficult births" as well asan imbalanced sex ratio.

Meanwhile, potential habitat for the milu continues to shrink. According to Wu Haohan, technical advisor with the State Forestry Administration’s China GEF Wildlife Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use Office, "we have to protect their habitat, because only then can we introduce them into nature. If that’s destroyed, they can only live in captivity."

Still, after so many centuries of beating the odds, it’s nice to see the species thriving, and taking steps toward returning to nature.

For more on Père David’s deer, seek out Robert Twigger’s excellent (but sadly out of print) book, The Extinction Club.

Image: Wikipedia

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  1. 1. frgough 12:25 pm 02/9/2009

    Lesson to be learned: The best protection against extinction is to have value to humans.

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  2. 2. Hrimpurstala 1:21 pm 02/9/2009

    Is it me, or is the title an order of magnitude off? Still, good news though (hopefully there will be enough variety in habitat to create conflicting pressures and increase genetic variability enough).

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  3. 3. karlchwe 10:49 pm 02/10/2009

    Sciam writers must be having a problem with orders of magnitude. Their article about electric de-icing talked about applying 20,000 kilowatts of electricity to a meter of cable. Let’s make sure they aren’t put in charge of Mars probes.

    But does anybody know how to prevent the genetic problems caused by inbreeding? Perhaps by increasing the rate of mutation slightly, and producing lots and lots of offspring, perhaps in vitro? I imagine we will be dealing with this issue with lots and lots of animals very shortly. Like with the polar bear, the cheetah, the giant panda, the Siberian tiger, etc., etc.

    Or we could just let them die out. Wouldn’t that be a pisser.

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  4. 4. Gai 10:43 am 02/14/2009

    Over the centuries and distances, a few rich people managed to do a good thing.

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  5. 5. Gai 10:45 am 02/14/2009

    Over time and distance, a few rich people managed to do a good thing.

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  6. 6. Halo 7:53 pm 03/19/2010

    Get your facts straight. The duke was a leading conservationist and the deer were never hunted. It’s due to his conservation credentials that the last 18 individuals remaining in european zoos were taken to the estate to form the nucleus of a breeding population. Food shortages during WW1 halved their numbers, and during WW2 they were taken to other zoos to remove the threat from German bombs.

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