Even to a devoted historian, Herbrand Russell – the 11th Duke of Bedford – would hardly count among the more remarkable figures of the 20th century. But if you care about deer conservation, and especially species native to China, his story is one not to be missed.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Duke introduced a number of species of deer into the family estate at Woburn Abbey, two of which were Chinese water deer and Pere David’s deer. The latter was named after the French priest Amand David, who had introduced the species to the West.
In China, where Pere David’s deer were wiped out by famine and flood, the breed was known as milu or ‘sibuxiang’ (the four unlikes). That was down to the animal’s unique appearance – a horse’s face, a donkey’s tail, cow-like hooves and stag’s antlers. The species was saved from extinction by the Duke, who gathered 18 milus from zoos in Europe and bred them.
In 1985, the 14th Duke of Bedford gave 22 Pere David’s deer back to China for reintroduction in Beijing. There are now around 2,000 milus in zoos around the world, and in nature reserves in Beijing, Hubei, Henan and Jiangsu provinces.
Chinese water deer, on the other hand, are somewhat more fortunate (and rather better looking). Called zhang in Chinese, they have a teddy-bear appearance, with large rounded ears and three shiny black buttons of eyes and nose. They are also the only deer species with tusks.
The UK now accounts for an estimated 10% of the world’s water deer population. Nevertheless, the species is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is protected from hunting in China too.
Water deer (stuck with the name because they can swim) are indigenous to the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, coastal Jiangsu province and the Zhoushan Islands. They have been increasingly threatened by loss of habitat and poaching (semi-digested milk found in fawns is used in traditional medicine as a cure for indigestion.)
Making a return after almost a century, a dozen water deer were last month reintroduced into Shanghai’s Pudong Binjiang Forest Park as part of a conservation project led by a life sciences professor at East China Normal University.
Professor Zhang Endi first contemplated the project 17 years ago. Zhang, who is also a deputy governor of the Pudong New Area, says: “My dream is to be able to catch even just a glimpse of these water deer in the urban area of Shanghai.
“It would be an unprecedented success if we can see wild animals co-exist in a mega-city as a result of reintroduction efforts.”
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