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Père David's deer

Père David's deer
Literal meaningElk-deer

Père David's deer (Elaphurus davidianus), also known as the milu (Chinese: 鹿; pinyin: mílù) or elaphure, is a species of deer that is currently extinct in the wild—all known specimens are found only in captivity. This semiaquatic animal prefers marshland, and is native to the subtropics of China. It grazes mainly on grass and aquatic plants. It is the only extant member of the genus Elaphurus. Based on genetic comparisons, Père David's deer is closely related to the deer of the genus Cervus, leading many experts to suggest merging Elaphurus into Cervus,[2] or demoting Elaphurus to a subgenus of Cervus.[3]

Naming and etymology[edit]

Père David's deer (female).

This species of deer was first made known to Western science in 1866 by Armand David (Père David), a French missionary working in China. He obtained the carcasses of an adult male, an adult female and a young male, and sent them to Paris, where the species was named Père David's Deer by Alphonse Milne-Edwards, a French biologist.[1]

The species is sometimes known by its informal name sibuxiang (Chinese: 四不像; pinyin: sì bú xiàng; Japanese: shifuzō), literally meaning "four not alike", which could mean "the four unlikes" or "like none of the four"; it is variously said that the four are cow, deer, donkey, horse (or) camel, and that the expression means in detail:

  • "the hooves of a cow but not a cow, the neck of a camel but not a camel, antlers of a deer but not a deer, the tail of a donkey but not a donkey."
  • "the nose of a cow but not a cow, the antlers of a deer but not a deer, the body of a donkey but not a donkey, tail of a horse but not a horse"
  • "the tail of a donkey, the head of a horse, the hoofs of a cow, the antlers of a deer"
  • "the neck of a camel, the hoofs of a cow, the tail of a donkey, the antlers of a deer"
  • "the antlers of a deer, the head of a horse and the body of a cow"[4]

By this name, this undomesticated animal entered Chinese mythology as the mount of Jiang Ziya in Fengshen Bang (translated as Investiture of the Gods), a Chinese classical work of fiction written during the Ming Dynasty.


Père David's deer (male) at Sharkarosa Ranch, 2014.

The adult Père David's deer reaches a head-and-body length of up to 1.9–2.2 meters (6.2–7.2 ft) and stands about 1.2 meters (3.9 ft) tall at the shoulder.[5] The tail is relatively long for a deer, measuring 50–66 centimeters (20–26 in) when straightened. Weight is between 135 and 200 kilograms (298 and 441 lb). The head is long and slender with large eyes, very large preorbital glands, a naked nose pad and small, pointed ears.[6]

The branched antlers are unique in that the long tines point backward, while the main beam extends almost directly upward. There may be two pairs per year. The summer antlers are the larger set, and are dropped in November, after the summer rut. The second set—if they appear—are fully grown by January, and fall off a few weeks later.[6]

The coat is reddish tan in the summer, changing to a dull gray in the winter. Long wavy guard hairs are present on the outer coat throughout the year, with the coat becoming woolier in winter. There is a mane on the neck and throat and a black dorsal stripe running along the cervicothoracic spine. The tail is about 50 centimeters (20 in) in length, with a dark tuft at the end. The hooves are large and spreading, and make clicking sounds (as in the reindeer) when the animal is moving.[6]

The gestation period is about nine months, after which a single offspring is usually born; twins are born in rare cases. The juveniles (referred to as either fawns or calves) have a spotted coat, as is commonly seen in most species of deer. They reach sexual maturity at about 14 months.[6] Historically, their main predators are believed to have been tigers and leopards. Despite no longer encountering ancestral predators, when experimentally exposed to images and stimuli relating to these big cats, the deer seemed to instinctively react with a cautious predator response typical of wild deer.[7]

A semiaquatic animal, Père David's deer swims well, spending long periods standing in water up to its shoulders. Although predominantly a grazer, the deer supplements its grass diet with aquatic plants in the summer.


Père David's deer (male), with characteristic large preorbital glands, black dorsal stripe and large, spreading hooves.

In neolithic times, the milu's range extended across much of China Proper. Archaeologists have found milu antlers at settlements from the Liao River in the north to Jiangsu and Zhejiang Province and across the Yellow and Yangtze River Basins in Shaanxi and Hunan Province.[8]

Extinction in China[edit]

In the late 19th century, the world's only herd belonged to Tongzhi, the Emperor of China. The herd was maintained in the Nanyuang Royal Hunting Garden in Nan Haizi, near Peking.[9] In 1895, one of the walls of the hunting garden was destroyed by a heavy flood of the Yongding River, and most of the animals escaped and were killed and eaten by starving peasants. Fewer than thirty Père David's Deer remained in the garden. Then in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the garden was occupied by troops and the remaining deer were shot and eaten, leaving the animal extinct in its native China.[1]

A few of the deer had previously been illegally transported to Europe for exhibition and breeding. After the extirpation of the Chinese population in 1900, Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford, was instrumental in saving the species. He acquired the few remaining animals from European zoos and nurtured a herd at Woburn Abbey. Threatened again by both World Wars, the species survived largely due to the efforts of Bedford and his son Hastings, later 12th Duke of Bedford. The current world population, now found in zoos around the world, stems from the Woburn Abbey herd.[10]


Reintroduction of Père David's deer to China began in 1985, with a herd of 20 deer (5 males and 15 females). This was followed in 1987 by a second herd, consisting of 18 deer (all females). Both herds had been drawn from the Woburn Abbey herd and were donated by the 12th Duke's grandson and successor, John. The transportation was sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. The relic site of the Nanyuang Royal Hunting Garden in the southern suburbs of Beijing was chosen as the site of re-introduction, creating the Beijing Milu Park.[1] The population in China expanded to around 2,000 in 2005.[11]

A second re-introduction into China was conducted in 1986 where 36 Père David’s deer were chosen from five UK zoological gardens with the bulk of the deer coming from Whipsnade Wild Animal Park. These deer were introduced into Dafeng Milu Nature Reserve, near the Yellow Sea coast in eastern China. In 2006 the population at this Nature Reserve had reached around 950 with an average annual population increase of 17%.[1]

In 1993, 30 deer taken from the herd at Beijing Milu Park were released into the Tianezhou Milu National Nature Reserve. These were followed by another 34 deer taken from Beijing Milu Park and released into the Tianezhou Reserve. The average annual population growth rate for Père David’s deer in Tianezhou Nature Reserve was 22.2%.[1]

In 2002, 30 deer taken from the herd at Beijing Milu Park and 20 from Dafeng Nature Reserve were released into the Yuanyang Yellow River Nature Reserve.[1]

When the species was assessed for the IUCN Red List (1996), it was classified as "critically endangered" in the wild, under criterion "D": "[wild] population estimated to number less than 50 mature individuals".[12] Since October 2008, they have been listed as extinct in the wild, as all populations are under captive management. In spite of the small population size, the animals do not appear to suffer genetic problems from the genetic bottleneck. The captive population in China has increased in recent years, and the possibility remains that free-ranging populations can be reintroduced in the near future.[1]

Legend and cultural significance[edit]

Illustration of Père David's deer from Nouvelles Archives du Muséum d'histoire Naturelle, 1866

According to Chinese legend, when the tyrant King Zhou of Shang ruled the land more than 4,000 years ago, a horse, a donkey, an ox and a deer went into a cave deep in the forest to meditate and on the day the King executed his virtuous minister Bigan, the animals awoke from their meditation and turned into humans.[13] They entered society, learned of the King's heinous acts and wanted to take recourse against the King, who was powerful.[13] So they transformed themselves into one creature that combined the speed of the horse, the strength of the ox, the donkey's keen sense of direction and the nimble agility of the deer.[13] This new animal then galloped to the Kunlun Mountains to seek the advice of the Primeval Lord of Heaven. The Lord was astonished at the sight of a creature that had antlers of a deer, hooves of an ox, face of deer and tail of a donkey. "It's unlike any of four creatures!" he exclaimed. Upon learning of the animal's quest, Lord gave his blessing and dispatched the creature to his disciple the sage Jiang Ziya, who was battling the King.[13] Jiang Ziya rode the creature to victory over the King and helped found the Zhou Dynasty. After fulfilling its vow, the milu settled in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.[13] The animal became a symbol of good fortune and was sought by later emperors who believed eating the meat of the milu would lead to everlasting life.[13] By the Han Dynasty, about 2,000 years ago, the milu was already extinct in the wild, but kept in imperial hunting grounds.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Zhigang, J; Harris, RB (2008). Elaphurus davidianus. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 2012-05-20.
  2. ^ Pitra, C.; Fickel, J.; Meijaard, E.; Groves, C. (1 December 2004). "Evolution and phylogeny of old world deer". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 33 (3): 880–895. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2004.07.013. PMID 15522810. Retrieved 18 April 2013. 
  3. ^ Geist, V. (1998). Deer of the World: their Evolution, Behaviour and Ecology (1st ed.). Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. p. 81. ISBN 0811704963. 
  4. ^ "China To Return More David's Deer To the Wild". People's Daily Online. January 13, 2000. Retrieved 2012-05-21. 
  5. ^ Burnie, D. and Wilson, DE (Eds.), Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. DK Adult (2005), ISBN 0789477645
  6. ^ a b c d "Père David's Deer (Elaphurus davidianus)". Deer. Gland, Switzerland: World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-20. 
  7. ^ Li, Chunwang; Yang, Xiaobo; Ding, Yuhua; Zhang, Linyuan; Fang, Hongxia; Tang, Songhua; Jiang, Zhigang; Hayward, Matt (August 24, 2011). "Do Père David's Deer Lose Memories of Their Ancestral Predators?". PLoS ONE 6 (8): e23623. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023623. 
  8. ^ (Chinese) 王蕾, 麋鹿与狩猎 2007-12-17
  9. ^ Twigger, R (2003). "Milu". The Extinction Club. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. pp. 56–61. ISBN 0060535962. 
  10. ^ Goodall, J; Maynard, T; Hudson, G (2009). "Milu or Père David's Deer, China". Hope for Animals and their World: How Endangered Species are being Rescued from the Brink. New York: Grand Central Publishing. pp. 39–46. ISBN 978-0446581776. 
  11. ^ "Père David’s deer". britannica. 2012. Retrieved 2012-11-20. 
  12. ^ The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
  13. ^ a b c d e f (Chinese)麋鹿文化--麋鹿的传说 2012-04-11

Further reading[edit]


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