Père David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus) is also known as elaphure or as the milu and is not present in the wild today. In the wild, it was native to the subtropics of China, where it preferred marshland habitats. It is a semiaquatic species that is the sole living member of its genus Elaphurus. This species is closely related to the genus Cervus, and some experts have suggested merging Elaphurus into it.
In 1866, Armand David (Père David) first brought this species to the attention of western science while working on a French missionary trip into China. After obtaining a male, female, and young specimen, David sent them to Paris where the French biologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards named the species after David. It is sometimes called sibuxiang, which means “four not alike”. It is thought that this could mean “like none of the four” or “the four unlikes”. These terms most likely represent the physical appearance of Père David’s deer, which include attributes of a deer, a cow, a horse, and a donkey.
Père David’s deer reaches an average height of 3.9 feet at shoulder, a body length of up to 7.2 feet, and a weight between 300 and 440 pounds. When completely straightened, the tail is unusually long for a deer species, reaching between 20 and 25 inches. The antlers of this species are unique, because the base grows straight upwards while the branches grow in a backwards angle. These horns may grow twice a year. The first set is typically large and is shed in November, while the second set grows smaller and falls off after January.
The fur of Père David’s deer is typically tannish red in the summer and grey in the winter. This deer grows a long, course overcoat year round as well as a mane. There is a distinct line of black fur running down the spine, and the tail bares a black tuft. The ears are small and the nose does not grow fur.
After a pregnancy of nearly nine months, one baby Père David’s deer is born, with twins rarely occurring. These are called either a fawn or a calf, and have spotted fur like that of most deer. Sexual maturity is reached at 14 months. When this species was wild, its most common predators were most likely leopards and tigers, and captive individuals still react in an alarmed manner when shown pictures or footage of these big cats. The diet of this species includes both land vegetation and some aquatic vegetation in the winter.
There was only one population of Père David’s deer living in the world during the 19th century, which belonged to the Emperor of China, Tongzhi. This herd was kept safe in the Nanyuang Royal Hunting Garden in Nan Haizi, until a flood destroyed a wall of the enclosure, and peasants killed most of the escaped herd for food. After this, only thirty individuals remained in the herd. These were killed and eaten by occupying soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion, causing this the deer to become extinct in its native range.
Despite this extinction in its native range, a few individuals of Père David’s deer were shipped to Europe illegally for breeding and display purposes. Herbrand Russell gathered the remaining individuals together and placed them in the Woburn Abbey, where they could be nurtured and protected. With the help of his son, Hastings Russell, this species of deer has multiplied and can now be found in zoos throughout the world.
In 1985, a herd of 20 Père David’s deer was introduced into its native range of China, consisting of 15 females and 5 males. In 1987, another 18 females bolstered this herd. These herds were both donated by John Russell, Herbrand Russell’s grandson, from the Woburn Abbey. Funded by the World Wildlife Fund, these herds were placed in the Nanyuang Royal Hunting Garden, located in the southern suburbs of Beijing. This area is now known as the Beijing Milu Park.
In the 1996 assessment of Père David’s deer, conducted by the IUCN, it was found that wild populations numbered less than fifty sexually mature individuals, granting it a “Critically Endangered” classification. However, in 2008, it was found that no wild individuals existed. Even with the small amount of viable genetics, this species is not plagued with a limited gene pool. It is thought that within a few years, there will be enough captive individuals in China to re-introduce into the wild. Père David’s deer appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Extinct in the Wild.”
Image Caption: Père David’s Deer (Elaphurus davidianus) at Sharkarosa Wildlife Ranch in Pilot Point, Texas. Credit: DiverDave/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)