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