Friday, December 16, 2005

ENV: Not-Really-a-Cat-Friday

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Pere David's Deer is an animal i see on occasion in Kerr County, though it's rarity leads it to be confined generally to pastures not accessible to the public. I do know one location however where they can be occasionally openly seen. Here are some pictures of a bull and, just below, some online descriptive material about the unique history of this bizarre animal. To its Chinese colloquial name i might add the "head of a horse". That, to me, is what makes it easily recognizable in the field.

Info from Ultimate Ungulate edited for readability.

The Chinese call this deer "sze pu shiang" which means something to the effect of 'none of the four'. This odd name refers to this deer's supposed ownership of the neck of a camel, the hoofs of a cow, the tail of a donkey, and the antlers of a deer, though it is not completely like any one of these animals. "Milu" is the Chinese name for the sika deer (Cervus nippon), although Milne-Edwards believed that the Pere David's deer was called it. The scientific name comes from the Greek Elaphos -- a deer; and oura -- the tail: refering to the relatively long, donkey-like tail. Pere Armand David (1826-1900) was a French Jesuit missionary and keen naturalist in China.

Native to China, these deer were easily hunted in their wild habitat of open plains and marshes. They were once thought to have become extinct over 1000 years ago, but as the last remaining captive individuals became endangered by war and starvation, a few remaining wild animals were discovered. These however diminished until the last known individual was shot in 1939 near the Yellow Sea.

However, their extinction was avoided by the Emperor of China, who had installed a large herd in his Imperial Hunting Park (Nan Hai-tsu Park) near Peking. While almost extinct in the wild, the deer thrived in the park, surrounded by a 43 mile long wall and guarded by a Tartar patrol.

The French missionary Pere Armand David had wandered around and wondered about the contents of this secretive park, as strangers were forbidden to look inside. However, on May 17, 1865, Pere David convinced the guards to allow him to look once over the wall. As luck would have it, a herd of these deer happened to walk by at that very moment - a moment which would amaze both the missionary and the scientific world.

After much effort, Pere David was able to obtain two complete skins of the new animal (which he believed to be a new species of reindeer), which he took to Europe, enabling Milne-Edwards to provide the first scientific description of Pere David's Deer. After incessant diplomatic trials, three living deer were donated to the French ambassador in Peking by the Emperor. Although these deer did not survive the strenuous trip to Europe, Milne-Edwards' report had created a desire for these deer in Europe. And, since the Emperor had given some to the French, he could hardly deny a gift to the English and Germans.

Several pairs were subsequently successfully sent to Europe, where they multiplied readily. The approximately two dozen deer in Europe, as well as the large herd remaining in China seemed to ensure the survival of the species. However, in 1895 catastrophic floods devastated China, and with the floods, an old part of the wall surrounding the park was destroyed. The animals in the park were either swept away by the floods, or if they escaped safely, were hunted and killed by the starving Chinese.

Only 20-30 deer survived in the park after the catastrophe. Yet they to were to die five years later. During the Boxer rebellion, troops occupied the Imperial Park and killed and ate every remaining deer. When the destruction of the Chinese herd became known, several European zoo directors decided to send all of their breeding Pere David's deer to the Duke of Bedford's Woburn Abbey.

A total of 18 animals reached this deer-lover's park, of which one stag and five hinds eventually bred. The population increased to around ninety animals, at which point World War I threatened the rescue attempt. The population was subsequently reduced to fifty animals due to a food shortage. However, by 1946 the population had increased to 300, after which point World War II created more food difficulties.

Since the herds were also threatened by bombing nearby, the Duke of Bedford decided to spread out the breeding population, and in 1956 four deer were sent to the Peking Zoo, despite political resistance. By 1970 over 500 animals resided at Woburn Abbey alone, with others held in breeding centres throughout the world.

Finally, in 1986 22 deer were flown from Woburn Abbey to Peking, where, after a lengthy quarantine, they were released in the area of the old Imperial Park, where they had been discovered over 130 years ago. The last step - reintroduction to the wild - has yet to be taken, although a forest preserve has been selected for this purpose not far from where the last wild animal was shot.

Pere David's deer is classified as critically endangered by the IUCN (1996).

Pere David's Deer, Elaphuras davidianus
TX: Kerr County
19 August 2003
photos by tony gallucci


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