Saga of the deer that almost weren't

After 2,000 years in captivity, the way may now be opening for an ancient species of deer to be reintroduced into the wilds of its native China. This latest chapter in the worldwide odyssey of the Pere David's deer is another installment in an extraordinary tale of how an animal that has been extinct in the wild for several thousand years has been preserved by man. In some ways, it is a zoological side effect of the reopening of trade with China, a story of aristocratic hobbies and the survival of a species.

If the camel with its odd humps, as has been alleged, is an animal formed by a committee, Pere David's deer must be a compromise struck by a committee in total disagreement.

It has the antlers of a deer, the hoofs of a cow, the neck of a camel, and the tail of a horse. That explains its Chinese name: Ssu-Pu-Hsiang -- "Four Unlikes."

So it is not too surprising that it lacks the majesty and grace of other species of deer.

"It's not a very pretty-looking animal at all," explains Maria Maarova Boyd, who is rapidly becoming a world expert on this species. She hopes her current in-depth research on this rare variety in England and the US will earn her an advanced degree in zoology from Oxford University.

"Usually you associate deer with something nice and cuddly that children like to look at and would like to pet," she adds. "This animal is not like that. Still, it is not fierce. Some zoos claim they have seen some vicious fights. But I have not seen any fighting at all."

For such a mild-mannered, normally gentle beast, Ssu-Pu-Hsiang has led quite an adventurous life, teetering at one time on the very brink of extinction. But , as Mrs. Boyd underlines, "this deer's relationship with man is different from that of many other wild animals, in that the Pere David's deer was preserved rather than destroyed by man."

The notion of returning it to wilderness life is still in the idea stage. Whether it will happen depends largely on whether funds can be found to assemble a herd from zoos around the world and return these long-absent strangers to the freedom of Chinese soil -- or preferably, peat bogs, since it prefers a watery habitat.

Once widely distributed throughout the marshes of the Shandong Peninsula in northeastern China, it has not been seen in the wild for several thousand years. Up to the end of the 19th century it had lived a sheltered life for 2,000 years in the walled-in Imperial Hunting Park south of Peking.

It was here in 1868 that a French Lazarist missionary to China called Pere (Father) Armond David first spied this unusual species while peering over the wall of the hunting park one day. The species was unknown to the West at the time.

Mrs. Boyd describes Pere David as "a great ornithologist and naturalist," who was the first Westerner to discover such Asian treasures as the giant panda and the Chinese pheasant.

Pere David was intrigued, because the animals he spotted in the park looked like deer but were different. He talked park guards into selling him a deerskin , which he shipped off to the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

When the head of the museum saw the deer hide, he immediately inquired if Pere David could deliver some live specimens from China to European zoos.

Long negotiations through the French and British high commissions in China followed. Eventually, though no one now knows how such grass-munching quadrupeds managed to survive the ocean journey, a small number of them arrived in Paris and from there were dispersed to zoos across Europe.

On this perilous voyage hinged the survival of the species. For when the Boxer Rebellion in China broke out in 1900, and simultaneously great floods occurred, the walls of the Imperial Hunting Park were broken down. Hungry peasants poured through the breaches and killed all the Pere David's deer for venison dinners.

Meanwhile, in England, Herbrand, the 11th Duke of Bedford and a noted zoologist, had begun collecting wild animals from many parts of the world. These he kept on the grounds of his ancestral country seat, Woburn Abbey, one of England's stately homes. Its 3,000 acres are about 45 miles north of London off the main highway linking London and Edinburgh.

Herbrand, for many years president of England's Royal Zoological Society, had heard about the rare Chinese deer, which by then bore the name of Pere David. He also heard that zoos in Europe were having problems keeping them. So he bought all of them -- 16 that had made it from China, plus two calves. They began arriving at Woburn Abbey in 1894. The last ones reached England in 1901, the year after their less-fortunate fellows had been wiped out in China.

At Woburn Abbey, this initial group of 18 pilgrim Pere David's deer found an ideal home of grasslands, clumps of ancient oaks and shrubs, and eight man-made lakes. Under the watchful eye and careful tending of the Russell family, the herd flourished in its new pastoral setting. Today it is the largest concentration of Pere David's deer in the world.

As of last year the total world population of Ssu-Pu-Hsiang reached 980, with Woburn Abbey boasting about 400. The rest, all promulgated from this herd, are scattered in zoos in the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, Korea, and, yes, in China, too.

In the mid-1950s, Ian, 13th Duke of Bedford, sent a couple of pairs to the Peking Zoo. Mrs. Boyd reports that at last count, in 1979, there were 10 Pere David's deer in Chinese zoos, including those in Peking.

Mrs. Boyd became interested in Ssu-Pu-Hsing during her many visits to Woburn Abbey with her late husband. He was a childhood friend of the current occupant of Woburn Abbey, the Marquess of Tavistock, son of the 13th Duke of Bedford. During one of their visits to the marquess and his family, she was considering graduate work in zoology, and was trying to decide on a specialty.

"One day we were in the upstairs sitting room of Woburn Abbey. The marquess said, 'Why are you worried about what you are going to do? You have always been interested in large mammals.' He looked out the window at the Pere David's herd. 'My deer are your deer. Work on them!'"

Mrs. Boyd, who studied for her undergraduate degree in zoology at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., as well as in her native Czechoslovakia, found that very little research had ever been done on this species. The Russell family threw open the archives at Woburn Abbey to her and she began studying the deer in 1977. Last year she entered Oxford University to carry out a program leading to a doctoral degree in this subject, combining field work at Woburn Abbey with a year in the US, turning up every piece of information she can find on Ssu-Pu-Hsiang at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, at the university's Yen Ching Library, and at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

Lady Tavistock, a fancier and breeder of horses, gave Mrs. Boyd the use of her horse trailer to use as a sort of duck blind. Mrs. Boyd has literally lived in it night and day for several weeks at a time, recording the characteristics of these Chinese imports and their rigid annual calendar of events.

"There's nothing graceful about them," Mrs. Boyd says. While other members of the deer family mainly walk or run, Pere David's deer trot a lot. And as they do so their cloven hoofs make a clicking sound. Their antlers, having a much wider span than those of other deer, are farther apart, and instead of pointing backward, point forward.

The fact that they stand out in the middle of the main pond at Woburn for hours and hours just cooling themselves off and looking around leads Mrs. Boyd to conclude that may have originated in some very high altitude where there was snow. They also like to swim.

In summer their coat is a rusty red, punctuated by a black stripe along the backbone. In September and October they shed their warm-weather garb for a grayish coat that is much thicker.

Their height is about the same as the common red deer, but they are a little bit heavier. Their long-haired tail, like that of a horse, is about a foot and a half long, and the deer use it to flick off flies just as horses do.

The mating season extends from the end of June until about the first week of August. During that period the herd splits into three distinct groups, each group clustering close together under exactly the same tree as it did the previous year. With them are their year-old fawns, as well as "bambies" born beside the lakes in April and May.

Like any wild deer, the Pere David's deer graze on grass. But at Woburn Abbey they are pampered. Their diet is enriched by hay, minerals, vitamins, mangolds (which are fresh beets,), and salt licks, all provided for them by the Russell family.

The life span of the Pere David's deer has never been measured. Mrs. Boyd intends to begin tagging them when she returns to the abbey for a short visit in May. This will enable her to follow a set of animals and develop their life history.

A couple of years ago, a UN fact-finding mission to China raised the question of reintroducing the Pere David's deer to the wilds of China. The Chinese now appear interested in this proposal, which has been discussed with the World Wildlife Fund.

Instead of drawing all the animals from one inbred herd, such as at Woburn Abbey, Mrs. Boyd says it would be preferable to select animals from different places in order to increase the prospects of good and healthy offspring.

"You cannot just release a group of animals in the wild and then forget about them and hope they will multiply," she says. "The whole program would have to be very carefully planned. A feasibility study would have to be done. You would have to find an area that is good. And you would have to fence it off to begin with."

It is encouraging to note that other species have successfully made the transition from zoos to the wild. The Arabian oryx had been in the San Diego zoo for a very long time before its successful reintroduction to its native Oman in the last couple of years. And there have been successful reintroductions of other species of deer in the Soviet Union.

At Woburn Abbey Park, Ssu-Pu-Hsing is only one of nine species of deer. These, plus the lions and tigers, elephants, monkeys, bears, giraffes, and such in the part of the park called "the animal kingdom," make Woburn Abbey one of the most popular wild-animal parks in England.

Even though the public can easily view the Pere David's deer from the main public road which runs right through the idyllic setting of Woburn Park, so little information is available that few people realize what they are looking at. Mrs. Boyd's extensive research may change all that, adding a great deal to the world's knowledge about this rare animal.

"I just hope," she says, "that if nothing else, I will be able to give this whole nicely arranged collection of information about the Pere David's deer to Lord and Lady Tavistock, because Woburn Abbey is where the herd has been preserved. They should have it because they are interested in it."

One of her most treasured finds, Mrs. Boyd feels, is a statement by Pere David himself, penned in his diary on March 13, 1866:

"Man is king of nature, but he has not the unpleasant right to be the butcher except when it is indispensable. The saintly St. Francis of Assisi loved animals tenderly and protected them whenever the occasion presented itself.

"Progress in civilization should lead us toward greater respect for the works of creation."

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