The milu appeared in China about two to three million years ago, almost the same time as human beings. Previously extinct in the wild, the milu can be found in captivity, and some are now being released back into the wild. The milu deer, or Elaphurus davidianus, is one of a few large mammals undergoing such rehabilitation. To date, about 76 percent of milu in the world live in China.
A Long and Hard Journey Home
In 1900 when the Eight-Power Allied Forces occupied Beijing, the Nanhaizi Royal Hunting Park, which at the height of its popularity used to home a herd of about 300 milu, was looted and the last group of deer was subsequently carried off. So the milu, a species native to China, could no longer be found in its home country.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the milu’s repatriation was listed on the agenda. In the spring of 1956, two pairs of deer selected by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) were sent to Beijing Zoo. By 1973, however, only one of the four and one of their offspring, both male, had survived. At the end of that year, the ZSL sent two more pairs to Beijing Zoo. By 1979, the milu had produced seven young, including two with fetal dystocia. This indicated that the zoo was only suitable for exhibition of the animals and not breeding, and that the attempt to revive the species via zoos had failed.
Woburn Abbey Manor in North London, which has the world’s largest population of milu, sent a herd of 22 to Beijing on August 24, 1985. Apart from two that were sent to Shanghai Zoo, the remaining 20 started their new life at Nanhaizi Milu Park, restored at the site of the looted royal garden, in Yinghai Town in Daxing District of Beijing. After a century of roaming overseas, the milu finally returned home. “There are two events of special significance in the diplomatic history of the UK and China,” former British Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher told Hu Yaobang in London, then general secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, “one is the handover of Hong Kong, and the other the milu returning to China.” While at the celebration in Beijing, Robin Russell, Marquess of Tavistock and owner of Woburn Abbey, said, “For my family and I it is indeed a cheerful thing to cooperate with the Chinese government and let the milu return home.”
On August 14, 1986, another herd of 39 milu came from London to Dafeng in Jiangsu Province. In the original habitat of the animal, a national nature reserve was set up. Now there are 2,027 deer living there, among which 215 are wild. The conservation area succeeded in rebuilding the population in their original habitat, setting an example for preserving wild animals and their environment. It also represents three “largests” of milu in the world – the largest milu nature reserve, the largest population of milu, and the largest milu gene bank.