Further to my first post on The Milu (please click here to read), here is the continuing story…..
In the early 1980s, The Chinese government put two animals on their list of top endangered species to save: the Panda and the Milu deer. From that time, and without any doubt, the most loved and the most money-spinning animal in China was, and remains today, the Panda.
In 1984, I befriended an animal activist whom I nicknamed “Miss Panda”. One day, she took me to meet a famous Chinese painter, Mr. Wu Zouren who just finished a series of Panda paintings. He had created one collection of 1,000 paintings – each numbered and autographed, as it was believed that there were only 1000 Pandas left in the wild.
Despite all my efforts, and no matter how hard many scientists, researchers and I tried, the lovable Milu remained a distant second. No artist ever created a collection of Milu paintings.
And for the 2008 Olympics, the Milu was not used as a mascot despite the fact that it was successfully reintroduced in Beijing after a hiatus of some 85 years in China.
In the West, we know the Milu as Pere David’s deer, named after the famous French Lazarist missionary, Pere Armand David, who discovered it while looking over the high walls surrounding the Imperial Hunting Park at Nan Haizi. Pere David was born in a small town in French Pyrenees called Espelette (the famous Espelette peppers come from there).
The story began in China in 1864 when, on one of Pere David’s frequent trips out of Beijing, he saw, as he described it in his diary, an animal resembling a deer but with strange features. It is interesting to note that Pere David’s interest in zoology and botany was such that he enriched the flora and fauna with some 58 species of birds, some 100 species of insects and several species of mammals including the Panda, the Golden Monkey and the deer that now bears his name.
He mentioned the discovery of this “strange” looking animal to the Director of the Natural History Museum in Paris. When his official request to collect samples failed, he resorted to a stratagem.
In his diary he penned: “Luckily, I know some Tartar soldiers who are going to do guard duty in this park and I am sure that I shall get hold of a few skins”. Sure enough, he got soon thereafter, some skins and bones of a male and a female.
As soon as he was able to, he sent these findings to Paris where the Director of the Natural History Museum, Mr. Alphonse Milne-Edwards, named the deer in honour of the French missionary, Pere David’s deer.
In China, one of the names given to this deer is “si bu xiang” (or the “four un-alikes”) as it has the antlers of a deer, neck of a camel, hooves of a cow and tail of a donkey. Another name is Milu, meaning deer that lives in swampy areas. It is almost certain that at the time of discovery of the Milu for western science, the deer had been extinct for some 1500 years in the wild. The last herd of approximately 120 animals lived only in the Imperial Hunting Park at Nan Haizi.
According to ancient legends, great things are foretold when a white Milu is in a herd. But it is said that when a pregnant lady sees the Milu the child may be born with four eyes.
There are many such legends ……… As a child, Emperor Qian Long of the Qing Dynasty was so impressed by a spectacular set of Milu antlers he saw at the Palace Armoury (shot apparently by his grandfather), that he later demanded to know where these antlers came from. He was amazed to hear that they came from his own Hunting Park at Nan Haizi and he was so moved that he inscribed on one of the antlers the deer’s antler cycle.
In 1894, the river that ran through the Park flooded. The walls around the park were damaged and the deer escaped to the surrounding countryside. It is believed that, by the turn of the century, none had survived.
However, there were a few specimens left in zoological gardens in Europe. Herbrand, the 11th Duke of Bedford, heard about the fate of the Milu in China from his animal purveyor, Mr. Hagenbaeck. He instructed him to buy all the deer spread around Europe and bring them to his estate at Woburn Abbey. Thus the remaining 18 Milu were released on some 3000 acres of wooded grassland with scattered lakes at Woburn Abbey Park.
Herbrand and his family later managed a successful captive breeding program for the species over several decades saving the Milu from extinction. Under the watchful eyes of the 11th, 12th and 13th Dukes of Bedford, and then the Marquess of Tavistock (who later became the 14th Duke of Bedford), a large herd of Milu was roaming freely at the Woburn Deer Park, 45 miles north of London.
In 1981-82, Lord Tavistock responded positively to preliminary enquiries from the Chinese government about the possible reintroduction of the Milu back to its homeland. This is how I came into the picture. At that time, I was studying animal behaviour and ecology at Oxford University focusing on the Pere David Deer at the Woburn Abbey Deer Park.
I first became interested in deer while living with my family in Slovakia in the wild Carpatian Mountains where my father was Director of a Research Center. The station was in the middle of “nowhere” and I used to watch wild deer coming out of the forest to feed on alfalfa that was grown for rabbits. Every evening in the late spring, summer and early autumn, I used to go with the night watchman, whom we called ‘dedko Vidovic’ (grandfather Vidovic) to graze the goats and, during these evenings, he told me countless stories about deer and other wild animals.
I remember one evening he told me that the deer come out of the forest early morning, around four o’clock and graze in the field. I immediately asked him to wake me up at 4 am the following morning but “forget” to mention this to my parents when I returned home. True to his promise, dedko climbed to the first floor of the building where we lived banging on empty metallic drums to wake me up. My father jumped out of bed not knowing what happened asking dedko whether anything bad had happened. Dedko simply said that he just came to wake me up to see the deer grazing.
Before anyone could say no, I was dressed and out we went. We slowly and quietly walked to be closer to the deer. Dedko had a thermos bottle of warm tea, and thus we sat down behind a bush watching these magnificent deer as they grazed. Dedko was supposed to beat the metallic drum to scare them so they would not eat all the alfalfa but they were so spectacular that I begged him to let them feed.
Back to 1983-84: After successful initial contacts between the Chinese Government and the Bedford family, unforeseen difficulties from the British side had to be ironed out for things to proceed. Indeed, the British Government and a large international conservation organisation were keen to handle the reintroduction themselves.
The Marquess of Tavistock remained firm and said that he would work on this project to fulfil the wish he made several decades earlier when he heard the Milu story for the first time from his grandfather: to bring the Pere David’s Deer to China.
The reintroduction was moving forward.