Although largely unknown in the west, the Milu has iconic status in China. The Milu stands with the Panda, the tiger, the Yangtze dolphin (now believed to be extinct), the finless porpoise, the Yangtze sturgeon, the Chinese alligator, the Przewalski horse and the Crested Ibis on the list of China and the world’s most endangered species.
The extinction of the Milu in its homeland and its successful reintroduction more than 80 years later make a great story and Milu has been in the news ever since information of their reintroduction captured the imagination of people in China and abroad.
My first interview regarding the Milu took place much earlier than the actual reintroduction. While in the US in 1982, I met by chance a reporter working for The Christian Science Monitor and during our chat I mentioned the Milu. She was very interested and eventually published a story featuring the Milu saved from extinction by the Bedford family. It was followed by an interview with National Geographic Magazine. The editorial team had read the story in Christian Science Monitor and wanted to put together a full fledged article on the Milu. Entitled “Saving Pere David’s Deer”, it remains one of the most interesting interviews I ever did. I found the editor, Larry Kohl, well informed and very interested not only in the saving of the deer as such but also interested in many aspects of the ancient history of the Milu: literature, porcelain and paintings among others. Following the initial interview, National Geographic actually organized a trip to the UK where Kohl and photographer Bates Littlehales spent one week at Woburn Abbey. Larry had extensive chats with the Marquess of Tavistok and did additional research to collect valuable information for the article. National Geographic published a second piece on Milu in 1989 entitled “Return of the Native: Deer Go Home to China”.
Soon after, the Marquess of Tavistock and I did several interviews with various newspapers in the UK. The first British paper was the Daily Telegraph. The Marquess of Tavistock was a great interviewee as he had many anecdotes for the media. He talked about the first time he heard the story of the Milu from his grandfather; the promise he made to himself at age 13 to, one day, return the Milu to China; his immense pride that four generations of the Bedford family managed, on their own, a successful captive breeding program that saved the Milu from extinction; and the reintroduction of the animal to its homeland when animal conservation and environmental issues were of little concern to most people in the world. He also spoke of his happiness in being able to pass the baton to his eldest son (Andrew, now the 15th Duke of Bedford) to continue in the footsteps of his ancestors; and his dream to see a free living population of Milu in China. Sadly he did not live to see his dream become reality as he passed away in 2003, aged 63, twenty years after he started discussion with Chinese authorities about the return of the Milu to China. In 2005, the Beijing authorities honoured the Duke’s memory by unveiling his statue at Nan Haizi during celebrations of the 20th Anniversary of the Milu reintroduction in the presence of his widow, Henrietta, Dowager Duchess of Bedford, and his three children, Andrew, 15th Duke of Bedford, Lord Robin Russell and Lord James Russell. It is very unusual for Chinese authorities to honour a foreign national in such a way and it showed the deep respect and immense gratitude that they felt for him and his family.
The first interviews with Chinese media took place on August 26, 1985, at the Beijing Capital Airport. Several journalists were among the group awaiting the arrival of the Air France 747 Combi and they wished to know everything about the Milu, how they were saved from extinction by the 11th Duke of Bedford, and how did someone born in Slovakia, married to an American, who studied at Oxford was handling their reintroduction in China on behalf of the Bedford Family. To this day I regret that my husband, Johnny, passed away before he could see the success of the reintroduction. He was a zoologist, specializing in birds. He spent several years studying the Emperor penguins in the Ross Iceshelf near McMurdo Station in the Antarctic and he was a close friend of the Marquess of Tavistock.
During the first few years, several journalists were keenly interested in the reintroduction project and contributed greatly to the cause (so to speak) by generating awareness among the general public outside of China and also in scientific and conservationist circles. One was Nigel Sitwell from England. He travelled several time to Beijing to see the Milu at Nan Haizi and he closely followed their progress and translocations to various places in China. The other one was Hong Kong-based British free-lance journalist, Jane Ram. She has regularly featured the Milu reintroduction in various publications from the early days. Jane came several times to Nan Haizi and once to the Hubei Shishou Milu National Nature Reserve during the preparation of a Master Plan (2012-2026) for the creation of a Center for Excellence on Conservation at the Hubei Shishou Milu National Nature Reserve.
In China, interest in the Milu never stopped following the reintroduction. In 1987, the birth of the first 10 fawns was welcomed as the confirmation that the reintroduction was a success and the future of the Milu in China ensured. Interestingly, many media published the news using the same picture.
Some media in China also featured the “legend of the Milu” or more precisely its origin: According to Chinese legend, when a tyrant called King Zhou ruled the land more than 4,000 years ago, a horse, a donkey, an ox and a deer went into a cave deep in the forest to meditate. On the day when the King conducted an execution, the animals awoke from their meditation and turned into humans. As such, they learned of the King’s heinous acts and decided to take recourse against him. To do so, they transformed themselves into one creature that combined the speed of the horse, the strength of the ox, the donkey’s keen sense of direction and the nimble agility of the deer. The Milu was born! The Lord of Heaven, upon learning of the animal’s quest, dispatched the creature to one of his disciples, the sage Jiang Ziya, who was battling King Zhou. Jiang Ziya rode the creature to victory over the King and helped found the Zhou Dynasty. After fulfilling its vow, the Milu settled in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and became a symbol of good fortune.
The Milu story still generates coverage internationally and last year I read with interest a piece on the science blog of the Nature Conservancy on how Milu survived the odds from the brink of extinction.(//blog.nature.org/science/2013/09/23/pere-davids-deer/).
In China, I continue to scrutinize media coverage of the Milu looking for any errors. Last month (July 2014), an article featuring endangered species in China mentioned that the Milu was found in Tibet. The following issue of the same publication went on to state that the Milu was illegally sent overseas in the late 19th century. Both are totally incorrect. The Milu was legally obtained by the French and British Missions in Beijing and sent to several European Zoos at the turn of the 19th century from where the 11th Duke of Bedford gathered them onto his estate and eventually saved them from extinction. I called the Editor in Chief to complain about this total nonsense and hopefully she will publish a correction in a future issue. I always get very upset when I read misinformation about the Milu and their reintroduction. Sadly, despite my calls, corrections appear very rarely in any publication. Fortunately, nowadays people interested in nature conservation can easily access correct information on the Internet. The most recently published news about the Milu Park mentions that it is one of the 10 top weekend destinations to visit this summer in Beijing. Milu still makes the news!