Moon Festival

One of my most favourite festivals in China is the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is the second most important Chinese celebration of the year after the Lunar New Year (Spring Festival celebrating the Chinese New Year). It is also called Moon Festival or the Harvest Festival and falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is at its apogee and at its brightest symbolizing ‘completeness’.

Many legends are associated with this festival and the one I prefer refers to Hou Yi, God of the Sun, who was only allowed to visit his beloved wife, Lady Chang Er, on the moon, once a year. Legend says that the moon shines brightest on that day because of their love.

The Chinese word for round has a similar pronunciation to the words reunion and perfect. This festival is a day for family reunions and the traditional gifts are ‘moon cakes’, round baked cakes in the shape of the moon. The traditional filling used to be a simple egg yolk – symbolizing the moon, surrounded by white lotus paste or red bean paste, and sometimes with assorted nuts and dried fruits.

In Chinese culture, Moon Cakes symbolize a host of good things:

  • The circle (shape of the Moon Cake) is a symbol of harmony.
  • The round shape stands for family unity and symbolizes the cycle of life, connecting the past, present, and future
  • It also symbolizes long life and good health

In the 14th Century, messages were contained inside Moon Cakes for secret communication promoting a rebellion against the ruling Yuan Dynasty, which had been founded by Kublai Khan. It was eventually replaced with the Ming Dynasty and the story says that Moon Cakes were credited with the victory.

In the 1990s, I used to drive to the Tan Zhe Si Temple, outside of Beijing, to view the Moon on this spectacular evening. One time, a friend of mine from Hong Kong flew specially to Beijing on the occasion. She had heard so much from me about spending the night watching the Moon at the temple that she could not resist and eventually made the trip. The night was truly spectacular and especially when the Moon appeared between two ancient and majestic pine trees. Enjoying Moon Cakes and a bottle of wine, we surely saw Lady Chang Er on the Moon as the ancient pines were slowly moving in the gentle breeze and singing their special tune.

Nowadays, the sky is literally the limit with regards to Moon Cake fillings. People can enjoy, in addition to traditional savoury moon cakes, many sweet options such as chocolate moon cakes and ice cream moon cakes.

Traditional Beijing moon cakes

Traditional Beijing moon cakes

Also, Beijing has its own types of Moon Cakes made without egg yolk, smaller and less opulent than traditional ones. They are called Zi Lai Hong and Zi Lai Bai. The former is darker and has the distinctive taste of sesame oil and sweet osmanthus paste. The latter is filled with walnut, raisin and dry osmanthus.



Milu – Making the news since 1982

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.

1A.EN animals in China China Daily May 22, 2013

Endangered species in China

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.

1-1.Beijing Daily announcing the signing of the signing of the preliminary agreement for the reintroduction of Milu Feb. 28, 1985

Beijing Daily article about the signing of the preliminary agreement and the eminent return of the Milu to China – February 28, 1985

1-2.People's Daily announcing the opening of Milu Park for the Milu returning to China Aug. 22, 1985

People’s Daily announcing the opening of Milu Park for the Milu returning to China Aug. 22, 1985

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”.

2.National Geographic cover - October 1982

Cover of National Geographic Magazine, October 1982 issue

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.

3.Marquess of Tavistock Statue

Inauguration of the statue of Robin, 14th Duke of Bedford, at Nan Haizi in 2005 in the presence of Henrietta, Dowager Duchess of Bedford, Andrew, 15th Duke of Bedford, Lord and Lady Robin Russell, and Lord and Lady James Russell

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.

4-1.China Daily front page article announcing the arrival of Milu to Beijing Aug. 26, 1985

China Daily front page article announcing the arrival of Milu to Beijing Aug. 26, 1985

4-2.SCMP announcing the arrival of the first herd of Milu in Beijing Aug. 26, 1985

South China Morning Post announcing the arrival of the first herd of Milu in Beijing Aug. 26, 1985.

4-3.China Environmental Newspaper announcing the arrival of Milu in Beijing Aug. 27, 1985

China Environmental Newspaper announcing the arrival of Milu in Beijing Aug. 27, 1985

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.

5.Nigel Sitwell's 1986 article published in %22Intrepid%22 magazine 2

Nigel Sitwell’s 1986 article published in “Intrepid” magazine”

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.

6-1.Birth of new fawns  China Daily Apr. 25, 1987

Birth of new fawns  China Daily Apr. 25, 1987

6-2.Official announcement by Xinhua News Agency for the birth of Milu fawns Apr. 24, 1987

Official announcement by Xinhua News Agency for the birth of Milu fawns Apr. 24, 1987

6-3.New Fawns at NHZ      BJ Youth Apr. 24, 1987

New Fawns at Nanhaizi, Beijing Youth Apr. 24, 1987

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.(//

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!

Nostalgia 2 – Donation to “Dear Milu” August – December 1985

In my previous posts, I mentioned that the reintroduction of the Milu generated a lot of enthusiasm and stimulated much needed interest in the topic of wildlife conservation in general among Chinese people.

Among the most touching happenings were the many children’s letters we started receiving at Nan Haizi following the arrival of the first herd (even before they were released from their compulsory quarantine). Children had heard the news on TV or from their parents or teachers and they started sending letters addressed to “Dear Milu”. Many also included their photos.

In her letter dated September 10, 1985, 6-year old Zhang Xiao Hong said that before the Milu returned back home she would have wished she had wings to fly to visit them in England. She shared her thoughts about the deer being so happy to return home after an absence of nearly one hundred years and was asking “Dear Milu” whether they knew why she was writing them this letter: “because today is Teacher Day, and I want to become a biology teacher when I grow up. I will tell my students to love all natural resources in China. Dear Milu, you don’t know but last year, because the bamboo failed to blossom, poor Panda did not have enough food. I felt so sad. But we will not let you leave China again. September 26 is my birthday and I am sending you 2 RMB. I hope the auntie who looks after you can get you some snacks that you like. I am going to visit you one day very soon“.

Another letter came from little Gao Hai Sha, who also said that she loved nature and mentioned that she had never seen a Milu. She was asking if “Dear Milu” looked like the Mei Hua Lu (Sika deer) and wished them a happy stay at the Milu Park.

After the release had taken place, we received many more letters asking the deer to be careful. Lv Bing, calling herself “Milu’s little sister” wrote on October 4: “Now the weather is getting colder, please be careful, don’t get cold. I started collecting pocket money when I was four years old. Now I have RMB 2.6 that I am sending you together with this letter. I hope uncles and aunties who work at the Milu Park will be able to buy you some toys and snacks. Later when I have more money, I will send it to you again.”

1985 Letter Lv Bing

Lv Bing’s letter dated Oct 4th 1985

Nowadays, these amounts may look minuscule (In Beijing, a one-way underground ticket costs 2 RMB) but at that time the selling price of a nice ice cream bar was 5 cents. Therefore the sum of 2 RMB was the equivalent to 40 ice creams. Quite a feast for children!

I do not know what became of these little girls and the many other children who wrote to “Dear Milu” over the years, whether they indeed became biology teachers or eventually worked in connection with nature and animal conservation and protection. But I must say that, each time, it was very heart warming for all of us working on the reintroduction when we received their lovely letters.


Nostalgia November-December 1985

During the stay of the Marquess of Tavistock in Beijing for the release of the Milu at Nan Haizi, several events took place in accordance with Chinese protocol.

The Chinese government hosted an official banquet at the Great Hall of the People the day after he arrived. The host was Vice Premier Li Peng and the Chinese guest list included the Mayor of Beijing (who has the rank of Minister), several ministers and vice ministers as well as other high-ranking officials and experts involved in the reintroduction. Normally, the number of guests is equal (from the host and the guest of honour) and there were approximately 70 people in attendance.

Following the tradition in China, the head table was reserved for VIPs and was larger than the other tables. In this particular case, the circular table (which had a superb floral centrepiece) held 18 guests. I have no recollection of the menu but I remember that there were many toasts in anticipation of the upcoming release of the Milu and that the mood was very joyful.

1-11.10.85 Draft Chinese guest listHandwritten Chinese guest list

2. Marquess of Tavistock welcomed by Li Peng at the Great Hall of the PeopleVice Premier Li Peng welcoming the Marquess of Tavistock 

1.China Environmental News front page article about the meeting between Vice Premier Li Pang and the Marquess of Tavistock Nov. 16, 1985

China Environmental News front page article about the meeting between Vice Premier Li Pang and the Marquess of Tavistock Nov 16, 1985

The following day, the Milu were released at Nan Haizi marking the completion of the reintroduction of the species to China (Please refer to my previous post – Milu reintroduction 3).

Afterwards, a tree planting ceremony was performed by key VIPs including the Marquess of Tavistock, Beijing Vice Mayor Zhang Jian Min and officials from the National Environmental Protection Agency. This ritual was dedicated to the long-term success of the reintroduction and also part of the rehabilitation of the landscape of the Milu Reserve. It was also a way to highlight the importance of what trees would bring to the Reserve throughout their lifetime providing shelter for birds and small animals and participating in the overall Milu Park ecosystem.

3. Planting of trees to celebrate the release of the MiluTree planting ceremony 

Before returning to the UK, the Marquess of Tavistock was ‘expected’ to host a return banquet. He selected the Great Hall of the People as it was the most prestigious venue. In addition to thanking his Chinese hosts for their hospitality and for making the reintroduction a reality, it was THE opportunity for him to thank all the people who made the reintroduction a success story. In total, about 60 guests attended the event.

Among them, I remember with great fondness several great supporters of the project who have now passed away including:

– General Lu Zhen Cao

He made a name for himself during the war against the Japanese army from 1937 to 1945 and became the first Chinese Minister of Railways of the PRC. He helped found and chair the China Milu Foundation in 1985 to support the return of the Milu to China.

He was quite an impressive man, bold, with a fierce look. Once, I said jokingly to Professor Wang Zongyi that, if I did not know him and met him in a dark alley at night, I would be scared and would run away. Eventually, my comments reached him and he laughed. The following time we met, he teased me with a big smile on his face saying that he was so surprised to hear I would run away from him and that, should it ever happen, he would catch me!

I remember the last time I met him, 12 years after the reintroduction. I invited him together with people from Nan Hai Zi who were involved with the initial reintroduction project. He was over 90 at that time but still had a good appetite and he was in high spirits the entire evening. He met Dominic on this occasion and was teasing us about our business partnership hoping that it would not create similar havoc as the ransacking of the old Summer Palace in 1860 by Anglo-French forces (a small explanation: for him, I came from the UK to handle the project and Dominic, being a French national, we were a new Anglo-French force).

At the time of his death in 2009, he was 106 years of age and the last survivor of the original generals of the People’s Liberation Army. It was a great loss for everyone who had the privilege to work with him on this project.

4. Lord Tavistock and General LuExchange of gifts between the Marquess of Tavistock and former Ministry of Railways, General Lu Zhen Cao during the dinner he hosted at the Great Hall of the People]

 – Cui Yue Li

He served as the Beijing Municipal Health Sports Minister and Vice Mayor of Beijing before being appointed to the position of China Health Minister in 1982. I first met him in 1983 at Woburn Abbey and through him I got the letters of invitation that allowed me to come to China in 1984 at the invitation of the Ministry of Health and another one from the Ministry of Forestry. He also organized my research trip to Shanghai in 1984 and was one of the key members of the Milu Foundation.

I remember that on the day I came to China, he organized a welcome banquet to celebrate my arrival and made me promise that I would NEVER ride a bike as it was too dangerous. He was very serious about it and I promised. I believe that in his mind it applied to China as a whole but my promise only concerned Beijing where I have kept my word to this day. However, as some of you who have read other posts on this blog know, I used to ride a bike in Shanghai (see “my first trip to Pudong”) but I never told him.

6. 10.18.83 Letter from China EmbassyLetter from Chinese Embassy

– Bao Er Han, former Vice Chairman of the CPPCC National Committee

He supported the re-introduction from the initial stage and brought invaluable political guanxi to push it over governmental hurdles on many occasions.

Over the years I had the opportunity to meet him and his lovely wife and daughter several times at their home. We spoke Russian together and quite often we talked about Xinjiang (where he came from) and the many places I was dreaming to visit one day.

– Qian Chang Zhao

An Oxford Graduate who had served as secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1928 to 1929, and senior Vice-Minister of Education from 1930 to 32, he was appointed Vice Chairman of the CPPCC National Committee from 1980 to 1988. He strongly supported the reintroduction and later the translocation of Milu during his tenure as CPPCC Vice Chairman.

In addition to the Milu, we had another strong bond: Oxford. He always wore his college tie during official events and we often talked about the Cherwell, the beautiful Bodleian library and the lifelong camaraderie shared by all students.

5. Lord Tavistock and Mr. QianThe Marquess of Tavistock and Mr. Qian during pre-dinner drinks at the Great Hall of the People

Another person instrumental in the successful reintroduction of the Milu (and the work done since then) who also attended this dinner is Professor Wang Sung from the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I had never contacted him prior to coming to China but I knew that he was representing China at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and I thought that he would be a great asset for the reintroduction project.

Our first contact, a few days after I arrived in Beijing, was very good and he showed great interest in the Milu reintroduction. Over the following months and years, Professor Wang Sung kindly introduced me to many people in various fields and positions who were able to assist us in various ways with the reintroduction.

Over the years, Professor Wang and I became good friends. He invited me to his home where I met his brilliant daughter who eventually went to study in the USA, his son and his wife, who was a fantastic cook. I still remember some of the dishes she used to make such as succulent marrow pancakes. She is a very lovely person, very generous, and as hospitable as her husband. Each time we met it was an absolute feast.

To this day, I still contact and meet Professor Wang at regular intervals to get advice on various issues relating to the Milu and other conservation topics in China and abroad. He was involved with the successful translocation of Milu to Shishou in the 1990s and with the recent master plan (2012-2026) that was compiled by a team of experts to make the Hubei Shishou Milu National Nature Reserve a center of excellence for conservation. Well into his 70s, he is still very active and continues travelling all over China to provide sound advice and support to many environmental and conservation projects.

The people invited by the Marquess of Tavistock on this particular day and many others made the re-introduction of Milu possible despite the fact that, unlike the Panda project, which benefitted from international funding through WWF and overseas conservation organizations, the Milu reintroduction had very limited funding. At that time, China was slowly recovering from the Cultural Revolution that had ended in 1976. Its financial standing was not what it has become 30 years later. The Bedford Family provided critical financial support to cover the cost of transportation of the first herd of Milu from Woburn to Beijing and the staff to ensure that the quarantine would be handled without difficulties.

7. List of deer originally placed in quarantine in WoburnOriginal list of deer placed in quarantine at Woburn Abbey 

Although we worked on a shoestring budget (so to speak), we achieved great success. In December 1985, China Daily reported the two most important achievements of the year. The first was the Sino-British Joint Declaration (for the return of Hong Kong sovereignty to China) that entered into force with the exchange of instruments of ratification on 27 May 1985 and was registered by the People’s Republic of China and United Kingdom governments at the United Nations. And the second was the Milu re-introduction. That was indeed a major accolade.

Milu reintroduction – Continued 4 August – October 1985

The story of the Milu continues from Part 3 (please click here to read):

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.

1. Beijing Museum of Natural HistoryBeijing Museum of Natural History

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).

2. Maria Boyd and Professor Wang ZongyiMaria Boyd and Prof. Wang Zong Yi

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.

3. 08.24,1985 Arrival of Milu at Beijing airportMilu arrival at Beijing airport 

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.

4. Milu Quarantine quarterMilu quarantine quarters at Nan Haizi 

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.

5. 11.11.1985 Release of Milu at Nan HaiziFinally released! 

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.



The Milu: Part 3 – The Reintroduction To China December 1984 – July 1985

The story of The Milu continues from Part 2 (please click here to read).

On December 10th, 1984, I was asked by professor Wang Zongyi to accompany a small group of scientists to the Great Hall of the People to meet Vice Premier Li Peng who was overlooking the reintroduction project for the Central Government. It was my first visit to the Great Hall of the People that had been built 25 years earlier to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of “new” China in 1959. I was very excited (I was incidentally the only foreigner in attendance) as we had been waiting for several months and were expecting to get final approval from the re-introduction during this official meeting.

Cover page of Zhongguo Huanjing Bao dated December 11, 1984 covering the meeting held the day before at the Great Hall of the People.

Cover page of Zhongguo Huanjing Bao dated December 11, 1984 covering the meeting held the day before at the Great Hall of the People.

Our small party was quickly whisked to a traditional VIP room with a U-shape set up of large armchairs. These rooms were (and are still) used for formal meetings between two delegations. The heads of both delegations sit next to each other and their respective delegations are seated according to their ranking, facing each other. The meeting was very brief and confirmed that part of the land where the Imperial Hunting Park in Nan Haizi used to be located (which had become part of the Red Star Sino-North Korea Friendship Peoples’ Commune after 1949) was going to be allocated to the re-introduction project. The approval of the Central Government was the last hurdle to pass in order for the project to materialize.

Soon after, farm workers started working on the demolition of a pig farm and a couple of tree nurseries. Simultaneously, grass was planted, nine fresh water wells were dug and a small lake cleaned up. The exact boundary of the new Milu Park was also finalized and a 2.5-meter high wall had to be built.

Nan Haizi Milu Park location.

Nan Haizi Milu Park location.

Confirmed boundary of the Milu Park at Nan Haizi.

Confirmed boundary of the Milu Park at Nan Haizi.

One day, I was very surprised to ‘discover’ around 400 People’s Liberation Army soldiers starting the construction of the wall! It took them 100 days to finish the 2.2-mile long wall. The scene was finally set for the homecoming of the Milu. In the meantime, following the green light given by Vice Premier Li Peng, Lord Tavistock directed the head deer keeper at the Woburn Deer Park to catch about 40 Milu to place them in quarantine. They would be the first batch of animals to return to China in late August 1985.

Construction of the wall at Nai HaiziConstruction of the wall at Nanhaizi Milu Park

A draft agreement specifying the terms of partnership between the Marquess of Tavistock and the Milu Reintroduction Group of the People’s Republic of China was established and signed on February 27th, 1985 leading the way for the final arrangements to take place. On the Chinese side, several agencies at State and Beijing Municipal levels were involved in the reintroduction including the National Environmental Protection Agency, the Chinese Society of Environmental Science, the Beijing Municipal Science and Technology Commission, the Chinese Society of Zoology, and the Beijing Museum of Natural History.

It would take four more months to have the final agreement finalized. It was signed on July 17th, 1985 both in the UK and in China simultaneously.

Lord Tavistock and the Chinese Ambassador to the UK signing the Reintroduction Agreement on July 17th, 1985 at the China Embassy in London.

Lord Tavistock and the Chinese Ambassador to the UK signing the Reintroduction Agreement on July 17th, 1985 at the China Embassy in London.

Cover of the original signed agreement between “The Milu Reintroduction Group of the People’s Republic of China” and the “Marquess of Tavistock”.

Cover of the original signed agreement between “The Milu Reintroduction Group of the People’s Republic of China” and the “Marquess of Tavistock”.

The pledge to return the Milu to China made by Lord Tavistock when he was 13 years old had become a reality!




The Milu: Part 2 – Summer 1984

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).

Pere Armand David

Pere Armand David

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, 11th Duke of Bedford

Herbrand, 11th Duke of Bedford

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.

Milu at Woburn Abbey

Milu at Woburn Abbey

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.

Marquess of Tavistock, later the 14th Duke of Bedford.

Marquess of Tavistock, later the 14th Duke of Bedford.

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.

Me, with the Milu sign given during the signing ceremony of letter of intent,

Me, with the Milu sign given during the signing ceremony of letter of intent.



Beijing 1984 – Pakistani Curry, Chocolate Almond Ice Cream & The I. M. Pei Hotel

When I returned to Beijing after three months of research work in Shanghai and Jiangsu province, I decided it was time to become part of the capital’s foreign community just as I did in Shanghai. I must admit that I missed the convivial Friday evening Planter’s Punch and the Old Jazz Band at the Peace Hotel.

There were no more than a few hundred or so of us long-term Beijing residents excluding diplomats, students and the few foreign correspondents assigned to “new” China.

I got into the swing of things in Beijing through meeting people from the British Chamber of Commerce. They invited me to join them at the British Embassy for a drink at the Bell, a pub that was (and still is) on the actual grounds of the embassy.

It was on a Friday evening and, afterwards, they took me to the Xin Qiao Hotel where, to my surprise, Pakistani curry was being served in a function room. How on earth was this possible? My new friends from the British Chamber of Commerce explained that, on that particular day, the Pakistani Airlines crew was in town.

They regularly brought spices and other ingredients for the hotel chefs to prepare succulent curry. The icing on the cake was chocolate almond ice cream that they also brought almost every week. At that time, the only ice cream available in Beijing was vanilla while curry was not on any restaurant menu so it was an amazing treat.

This is how Xin Qiao became a rallying point for many expats in the mid-1980s. I used to go there at least twice a month and always enjoyed the company and the culinary treats.

At the Minzu Hotel along Chang An Avenue (close to the Forbidden City), the Western restaurant used to offer borsch, chicken Kiev and other Russian specialties. It was rather expensive but quite authentic so I only went there on special occasions, as my research grant did not cover wining and dining in western restaurants.

We also used to meet from time to time on Sunday evenings at a small Chinese restaurant located in Ritan Park for a plate or two of local jiaozi, the traditional north-China dumplings. This was a very inexpensive but nevertheless delicious meal. Nowadays, this particular restaurant has long gone but the park has several well-known eateries including Xi He Ya Ju, serving tasty Sichuan food, Xiao Wang Fu serving Peking Duck, as well as a couple of tea houses and even a Russian restaurant, Moscow.


Steamed and fried jiaozi

By Houhai Lake, on the north side of Behai Park, was another Chinese restaurant that I enjoyed very much and which is still in operation. Called Kaorouji, it used to have one small room just off the main dining room that had a large round barbecue in the centre. Going there in wintertime was absolutely delightful for the heat generated by the open barbecue kept everyone warm. My favourite was a succulent lamb dish spiced up with ziran (cumin). It tasted so delicious that it was impossible to stop eating. Sadly, it has been totally renovated and lost all authenticity and appeal for me.


Kaurouji at Houhai Lake

From Spring to Autumn, expats would often meet on Sunday for “R&R” (Rest & Recreation) and lunch at the Fragrant Hills, west of Beijing. A very nice hotel hidden in the hills had been designed by renowned architect I. M. Pei (The I.M. Pei who had already designed the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and would later create the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong amongst many others). Opened a couple of years earlier (1982), it had a distinctive and elegant feel with a four-storey central atrium covered by glass panels, a couple of restaurants, a large swimming pool and a beautiful garden. It was the perfect spot to unwind regardless of the weather and we used to stay until late.

FH Hotel

 I.M.Pei’s Fragrant Hills Hotel

Our lives in 1984 were very much Yin and Yang. On the one hand we faced many obstacles at a time when telex was only becoming the means of communication with the outside world (no fax yet) and international calls had to be booked at least one day in advance, when access to medical care was “limited” and various supplies were only available from Hong Kong. But, we also had the immense privilege of being trail-blazers as we discovered a fascinating new world going through amazing changes.

Within two decades, it became an economic giant and, thinking about it 30 years later and comparing our lives then and now, I sometimes have the feeling that I am actually living on another planet!

The man with the key is not here – May 1984

James Moriarty’s quote “In a world full of locked rooms, the man with the key is king” in the latest Sherlock Holmes TV series, rings a very strong bell with me and, I am pretty sure, with fellow expats who used to live in China in the early 80’s. Indeed, we all had the opportunity to experience its real meaning 30 years ago when China was truly a land full of locked rooms (so to speak).

During my stay at the Shanghai Museum of Natural History, Dr. Cao Keqing, Peach Blossom (my trusted translator who had the complexion of a fresh Peach) and I decided to go and visit a small museum in nearby Jiangsu province with the intention to study Milu fossils and sub-fossils. It was located in (at that time) a beautiful little town called Yangzhou at the junction of the Yangtze River, the Grand Canal and the Huaihe River. Marco Polo is said to have served as a Government Official in the city in the late 13th century before returning to Venice. In its heyday, the city was one of the most prosperous cities in China due to its flourishing trade in salt, silk and grain.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

To get there from Shanghai, the trip took us over 16 hours. First, we took a boat, appropriately named ‘East is Red’, to go upstream on the Yangtze River. I was very excited, as I had wanted to travel on the Yangtze since coming to Shanghai and be able to learn more about people’s lives along one of the key waterways in China, which had long been the backbone of China’s inland water transportation system.

Boat on the Yangtze River

Boat on the Yangtze River

Initially we were given a large room with six or eight beds where a family with a small child had already settled in. After the little boy nearly urinated on my camera bag (imagine the look on my face and the tantrum I created!), we decided that it would be better to get a smaller room on our own and luckily we managed to do so. We had dinner in the room and enjoyed delicious eggs, hard-boiled in tea leaves and cold vegetables that Dr. Cao’s wife had prepared and given to her husband for the trip.

MB Yangze River 1984

Maria Boyd on the East is Red ship

We reached Zhenjiang City on the south shore of the Yangtze and disembarked at 6 am the following morning. We waited for the pontoon boat to take us across where we were met by a friend of Dr. Cao who drove us to Yangzhou, a 20-mn drive. We stayed in a former government state guesthouse and I was told that Peach Blossom and I would be staying in the very same room where the much loved late Premier Zhou En Lai had stayed years before. Whether this was true or not, I did not know, but I felt very special to be in this particular room, set in a small villa in the middle of a beautiful garden in the middle of ‘nowhere’ (once again, a term applicable at the point in time).

Yangzhou GGH

Gardens of the former guesthouse in Yangzhou

We had breakfast and then, fully rejuvenated, we walked to the museum famous for its fossil collection and particularly one well preserved Milu sub-fossil antlers in its entirety. It only took us about 10 minutes but unfortunately, upon arrival, we were simply and plainly told that ‘the man with the key is out of town’ and that, as a consequence, we could not see the Milu antlers!!!

Sub-fossil Milu Antlers

Sub-fossil Milu Antlers

I must explain that in the 1980’s and 90’s, different people were in charge of different exhibits or particular sections of any museum and that the same principle applied China-wide, from a small museum in Jiangsu province to the Palace Museum in Beijing. All exhibit rooms were pad-locked at the end of the day in addition to any standard fixed locks eventually used and the keys preciously kept at all times by the various people in charge. In their absence (for whatever reasons), access was therefore impossible making them the true masters of their respective kingdoms.

It was very much a “fait accompli” but I decided to try to beat them at their own game. I told them that I would simply not leave until ‘the man with the key’ would return and that they should not worry, as I would be just fine. I immediately sat on the steps leading to this particular exhibit room and started to ask various questions about where did the man go to, how long it would take him to come back, etc.

A foreign visitor refusing to leave was un-heard of and the staff felt rather uncomfortable and worried. What to do with me at the end of the day? They could not remove me from the premises by force and calling the local authorities was not an option but leaving me behind even less. There was no way, after nearly one full day of travel, that I would just leave without seeing this full set of antlers and Peach Blossom dutifully passed the message to the Head of the museum.

We therefore settled in an uneasy stalemate and the wait started. Eventually, just before lunch the ‘man with the key’ appeared out of nowhere. He was not apologetic, did not say a word, and simply opened the pad lock allowing us to enter the room to view and study the antlers that were in a special glass case. When we left, an hour or so later, he immediately locked the room again and disappeared. I can guess that not too many visitors ever saw these particular antlers.

Several weeks later, I mentioned upon returning to Beijing this particular episode to several friends. They found it quite hilarious and teased me about my short temper and the fact that I basically put the museum staff in a difficult position …. Little did they (and I for this matter) realise that similar encounters would happen again and again during the following 30 years…. but this is another story.

It eventually led Karin Malmstrom to use my “Yangzhou experience” as the title for a humoristic small 50-page book she wrote in 1990 showcasing etiquette issues and how to interpret and understand the real meaning of common phrases used in China. With a similar format as Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Little red book”, it pokes fun at the hurdles foreigners used to deal with in the Middle Kingdom at that time and is called “The man with the key is not here”. In the acknowledgements, she referred to me as “Ms. Milu” and I still have a broad smile when I remember this episode and the shockwave I created in this little museum 30 years ago.

The book.....

The book…..

PS: the book is now out of print and has become a collector’s edition. Should you have a copy, keep it preciously!

Shanghai Museum of Natural History – March-April 1984

diplodocusMamenchisaurus (a long-necked dinosaur from the late Jurassic Period)

As soon as I arrived from Beijing, and while still staying at the Park Hotel, I went to the Shanghai Museum of Natural History, a stone’s throw away from the Bund, to meet the Director and to bring my books and documents to my new ‘office’.

Located on the top floor of the museum, very close to the library, it was ideal as I had to use the library extensively. Indeed, as part of the preliminary work leading to the actual re-introduction of the Milu Deer to the former Imperial Hunting Park in Beijing (planned to take place in 1985), I had to do extensive research on the Milu based on fossils and sub-fossils finds to better understand its original habitat and other key factors.

The Director, Madam Zong Yu, was very kind. She took me around and officially introduced me to the staff, to whom she told to help me with anything I may need for my research study. I was assigned a translator that I called Peach Blossom (she had the skin of a ripe fresh peach) who proved instrumental in the success of my visit. Not only did she taught me the local way of life and habits of Chinese people (like the traditional one-hour afternoon nap after lunch where staff would either rest in their office or on straw mats in corridors) but she also proved to be an excellent translator. It was not an easy task as, when dealing with officials, translators used to ‘adjust’ the translation to soften eventual harsh points so that they, the messengers, would not be shot (so to speak). I just told her once that I wanted her to translate exactly what I was saying even if it was very direct and just make sure that she would mention “Maria said that” so she would not get in trouble. It worked very well.

The museum was established in 1956 in the former Shanghai Cotton Exchange Building, a classical British building built in 1923, just behind the Bund. It is located at 260 East Yanan Lu and, in 1994, the Shanghai Municipal Government designated this building a “Heritage Building” to ensure its conservation. However, and very unfortunately, the Yan’an Elevated Road has since been constructed within meters of the front of the building making it impossible nowadays to enjoy the architecture of this beautiful building.

The Museum incorporated various collections of previous museums including the Musée Heude, the first museum of natural history in China set up in 1868 by a Jesuit Missionary called Pierre-Marie Heude. The exhibitions consisted almost entirely of rows and rows of wood and glass cases filled with stuffed animals, fossils and other valuable artifacts.

Visitors entering the magnificent entrance hall, were welcomed by a 22-metre long 140 million years old skeleton of a giant Mamenchisaurus (a long-necked dinosaur from the late Jurassic Period) that had been discovered in Sichuan Province. The rest of the first floor was dedicated to explaining the evolutionary processes that led to Homo Sapiens. On the second and third levels, the animal kingdom was represented with preserved specimens ranging from butterflies to giant turtles.

exhibitExhibition Hall

At that time, the museum had a collection of 240,000 specimens, including over 62,000 pieces of animal specimens, 135,000 plant specimens, 700 specimens of the Stone Age, and 1,700 specimens of minerals. There were also rare species, which cannot be found elsewhere outside China, such as the Yellow River Mammoth, Giant Panda, Yangtze Alligator and Milu.

In 1985, I donated to the museum some penguins from the Mc Murdo Sound in the Antarctic where my late husband, Johnny, has done research on temperature regulation in Emperor penguins’ feet and flippers. They were added to the museum collections.

Penguins exhibit

Penguin exhibit (and that is me, looking on….)

It was thrilling for me to find journals and writings from the old Heude Museum where the well-known naturalist and explorer Arthur de Carle Sowerby, author of a “guide to the Shanghai Museum” in 1936, conducted research work. Staying in Shanghai also allowed me to do research on Milu fossils and sub-fossils in nearby Jiangsu Province, a very interesting trip but this is another story (please click here to see the post on this trip).

Exactly 30 years after my first visit, the museum was closed earlier this year and will soon be relocated to a stunning new 40,000 square-meter building. Located in the Jing’an Sculpture Park, its shape is inspired by a nautilus shell and a tribute to 50,000,000 years of evolution (the drawing shown below is from the leading global architecture and design firm Perkins + Will in charge of this project) . I look forward to discovering this new and extended museum with great anticipation later this year. Talk about a walk down memory lane!

Perkins-Will design for SHNatHistory museum“New” Shanghai Museum of Natural History