In the course of preparations for the reintroduction of the Milu, our Team worked at the Beijing Museum of Natural History in Dongcheng District. The architecture of the building does not compare to the distinctive colonial style of the Shanghai Museum of Natural History, but it was the first large scale natural history museum created in China.
Its collections include paleontology, ornithology, mammals and invertebrates and the number of complete large ancient mammal fossils ranks second in the world. The Stegodon zdanskyi (an ancient elephant) is the most famous and precious in the collection. I still remember the all-pervasive smell redolent of moth-balls and cleaning liquid.
The afternoon was the best time to visit the museum as there were fewer visitors and one could truly enjoy oneself. I often wondered whether at night, after all staff had left, the animals were somehow coming back to life and going around the museum. I could visualize the sea shells clicking together while dancing to sea waves …. A bit like in the movie “Night at the Museum”. Quite an eerie feeling.
A team of experts in zoology, paleontology, botany, ecology and animal behaviour and other fields was allocated to the reintroduction project. Professor Wang Zongyi, who is a top calibre zoologist, acted as my counterpart on the Chinese side. There were also people from the farm to which the land of the Milu Park used to belong and I was the only foreign expert. A translator was always with me to ensure that I would know exactly what was done (or not done for that matter).
My key role was to coordinate all activities and ensure that, despite any potential breakdown in communication and lack of mutual understanding due to cultural differences, we would be able to work together as a Team to create the perfect and safe environment for the Milu upon arrival and once released at Nan Haizi.
After the agreement was signed on July 17, 1985, the final arrangements were made. Two weeks before the deer were supposed to land in Beijing, I flew to London to meet The Marquess of Tavistock to get the final brief. The deer were going to be trucked across the English Channel and then loaded onto an Air France Combi 747 in large crates. At the time, Air France was the only carrier flying 747 Combi to Beijing and it was therefore the best option available. In China, they would make their final journey to Nan Haizi by truck from the Beijing airport.
One week before the deer left the UK, I flew back to Beijing from Paris on a similar flight as the deer would take. At each stop we made (Karachi, Delhi), I had made arrangements to meet the people responsible for providing fresh and clean water for the deer to make sure all would be in order. It worked well.
The Marquess of Tavistock personally oversaw the transfer of the deer to Paris and the loading on to the plane. His eldest son, Lord Howland, travelled with the deer and he was accompanied by the head deer keeper and the person who had been in charge of the quarantine of the deer in the UK.
All arrived safely at the Beijing International Airport on August 24th. After a brief moment of panic when two large crates went “temporarily missing”, and when I had a horrible vision of Milu running on the tarmac with people trying unsuccessfully to catch them, the deer crates were loaded on trucks for the slow two-hour trip to Nan Haizi.
Chinese regulations required a two-month quarantine before the animals could be released. A special section fenced with bamboo had been set up accordingly and all worked according to plan.
On November 11, 1985, as the cold wind from the North China plains was blowing, the long awaited release took place in the presence of the Marquess of Tavistock, Vice Mayor Zhang Jiangmin, Mr. Qu Geping, Director of the National Environmental Protection Agency, numerous scientists and environmental experts, their families and the media.
Mr. Qu and the Marquess of Tavistock opened the bamboo doors of the quarantine area. At first the deer did not want to leave their warm quarters but some keepers entered and gently nudged them to leave their cozy surroundings.
Thus after 85 years of absence the Milu had returned back to its homeland. As the Marquess of Tavisotck mentioned rather emotionally: “Returning a herd of these deer to China is something I wanted to do since I was a child – when my grandfather showed them to me and told me their story. It must be a unique exercise in conservation to return a species to virtually the precise spot where it last lived. It is also satisfying to be able to complete the conservation efforts my great grandfather began at the turn of the 19th century”.
Within the next couple of years, the project produced many significant benefits. The reintroduction aroused popular enthusiasm and brought much needed attention to wildlife conservation in general. Birds that had not been seen for many decades started to return to the park such as spoonbills, storks, white egrets and others. And the deer adjusted well to their new environment.
The ultimate hoped-for aim of the reintroduction in Beijing (which was to build up the population of Milu so that eventually sufficient animals would be available for translocation in other parts of the country where they used to live freely in the past) was getting closer to reality. This would eventually take place eight years later in Hubei province, along the Yangtze River. But that is another story.