Rare Deer Makes a Comeback in China

Pere David's Deer i i

hide captionA captive male Pere David's deer (Elaphurus davidianus), in an undated photo.

Clive Druett/Papilio/Corbis
Pere David's Deer

A captive male Pere David's deer (Elaphurus davidianus), in an undated photo.

Clive Druett/Papilio/Corbis

Pere David's Deer was near extinction before a French missionary helped rescue it at the turn of the 19th century. The animal's story may reflect new environmental awareness in China, despite social and economic pressures still threatening the country's wildlife.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Now a story about another quadruped. Back in the 19th century, several animal species in China were faced with extinction due to hunting. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Beijing that one animal that had vanished from its native habitat is making a comeback.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

In May 1865, a French missionary named Father Armand David was in Beijing. A keen naturalist, he would gain renown four years later as the first white man to lay eyes on a panda. In 1865, though, David was intrigued by the high walls of the strictly guarded imperial hunting park on the outskirts of the capital. One day he persuaded a guard to allow him to look once over the wall. By chance, the story goes, a herd of deer happened to walk by inside at that very moment. Father David, or Pere David, as he's known in French, became the first Westerner to lay eyes on the animal that would come to bear his name: Pere David's Deer.

But the 19th century was not kind to the animals. Steve Trent heads WildAid, an organization that is seeking to wipe out the illegal trade in wildlife.

Mr. STEVE TRENT (WildAid): Pere David's Deer was hunted out in China and made extinct by the end of the 19th century, effectively. But luckily, Pere David, the man who found it and after whom it was named, had the foresight to get some of these animals shipped out of China and to Europe and ultimately to the United Kingdom to Wolburn Abbey, where their ancestors survive today.

GIFFORD: The owner of Wolburn Abbey was the marquess of Tavistock. He rescued 18 of the deer in the early part of the 20th century and bred them for decades in rural England. When China emerged from its Maoist cocoon in the 1980s, the marquess's grandson, the duke of Bedford, approached the Chinese government about reintroducing Pere David's Deer to China.

Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)

GIFFORD: A group of visitors is guided around the small exhibit at the park where the deer was reintroduced in 1985. It's on the exact same site as the original imperial hunting ground. The Visitors Center houses pictures of Father David and the marquess of Tavistock, as well as exhibits for children about why we mustn't allow species to become extinct. Outside, park official Ti Chia Quen(ph) points to a pond where a herd of 30 or so Pere David's Deer are drinking.

Ms. TI CHIA QUEN: (Chinese spoken)

GIFFORD: The deer are large; though they scatter as humans approach, the fully grown deer appear to be about three-quarters the size of a small horse. The animal has a nickname in China. It's called (Chinese spoken), which means `unlike any of the four.' It has a head like a horse, a tail like a donkey, hooves like an ox and antlers like a deer, but it's not completely like any of them. Ti Chia Quen says in the notoriously difficult business of reintroducing animal species, Pere David's Deer has been a rare success story.

Ms. TI: (Chinese spoken)

GIFFORD: `We have 120 deer here and another 600 in Jubei province in central China,' she says, `and they're all doing really well.' Steve Trent of WildAid says there is a new environmental consciousness stirring in China, but he says there are two problems that have not changed much in the last hundred years.

Mr. TRENT: The one is the obvious competition for land. There are many people here and despite being a vast country, still we have food, feed, clothe, educate, look after people and develop. The other problem is wildlife as it's eaten--luxury foods and products--it's still happening here in China and it needs to stop because it's not just affecting wildlife here in China, it's also affecting the wildlife that is brought in from countless other countries across the world.

GIFFORD: The Chinese taste for rare game on the dinner table and in traditional medicine threatens many species. Trent says Pere David's Deer was fortunate that an idiosyncratic English aristocrat managed to save it when it disappeared in its own homeland. Other animals, he says, in China and elsewhere might not be so lucky.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Beijing.

LUDDEN: You can see a picture of Pere David's Deer at our Web site, npr.org. And tune in tomorrow to hear about the discovery of a new species in Tanzania.

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