Saved by Chance: The Incredibly Strange Story of the Pere David’s Deer

The Pere David's deer may be the only species saved because someone broke a wildlife law. It now is a creature of British deer parks and Texas wildlife ranches, facing a secure future far from its native habitat. What lessons can we learn from this near-collision with extinction?

There are animals that have narrowly avoided extinction. And then there’s the Pere David’s deer.

For some reason, the Pere David’s deer story has not been widely told in conservation circles. This animal  once roamed marshes and plains of China, where they often wallowed in wetlands. At least that’s what biologists believe. The fact is, no one knows for sure, because there are only very scant observations of this animal in the wild.

By the 1860’s, the milu—as it is known in China—was already, to put it mildly, close to extinction.

The one seemingly viable population was in the Emperor of China’s Imperial Hunting Park, a large walled and carefully guarded preserve.

It seems an early version of the “fortress conservation” that has become the norm for many wildlife reserves and national parks around the world today. Fence the animals in and keep the people out. When animals are rare – think tigers or rhinos – it is an appealing if last-ditch option.

But there’s a big problem. A small, isolated reserve is essentially an island. And animals on islands frequently disappear—a small, isolated population is more prone to being wiped out by weather, disease, predation and dramatic change. Conservation biologists know this as island biogeography.

The isolated Pere David’s deer population was seemingly well protected by the Emperor’s finest guards. But the deer was soon to become a poster child for the harsh lessons of island biogeography. It may well have disappeared, but–as described by the Brent Huffman of Ultimate Ungulates and by Walker’s Mammals of the World — luck intervened. Its escape from oblivion seems as likely as winning the lottery without buying a ticket.

Here’s the story.  A French missionary, Pere (Father in French) Armand David had heard about this deer behind the guarded walls of the Imperial Hunting Grounds. A devoted naturalist, he had to see the deer. Just had to. If you’re reading this, I suspect you understand the urge.

One obstacle: this reserve was so carefully protected that no one was even permitted to look into it. But Father David wouldn’t give up. He asked the guards to let him take one little peek. What could that possibly hurt? They agreed, but he could only look once. One glance, and he was done.

This may be the only instance in history when breaking a wildlife law saved a species.

At the very moment Father David glanced into the reserve, a herd of deer came strolling past him. And not just any deer: this species had a long tail and weird-branching antlers unlike any other.  Father David recognized what was clearly a species new to Western science; he then devoted himself to securing specimens. He eventually did. This led to a minor craze among European countries seeking live animals for their zoos.

They got some deer after various diplomatic efforts. In the meantime, the Imperial Hunting Grounds proved to be not such a fortress of conservation after all. First a flood came through, drowning some deer and freeing others that were quickly eaten by starving peasants. Then came the Boxer Rebellion, which resulted in troops storming the reserve and eating every last deer. A few isolated individuals may have hung on outside the reserve, but it was clear the deer was finished in its native land.

But Father David’s chance encounter meant there were still deer in European zoos. Realizing these were the last of the species, they relocated the entire herd to the Duke of Bedford’s spacious deer park at Woburn Abbey in England.

This was an island, too, but the deer had plenty of room to roam and breed. Which they did. They survived World War I, though barely. When World War II brought food shortages and bombs, the Duke decided to not keep all his deer in one basket, so to speak, and sent them to zoos in other locations.

Today, the Pere David’s deer is found widely in deer parks, Texas hunting ranches and zoos. It’s even been returned to small reserves in its native China. But it doesn’t roam freely in the wild.

You might say that today’s Pere David’s deer has become something less than a Pere David’s deer. How did deer shape the land and how did the land shape the deer? That we no longer know. The deer’s complex interplay with native plants, with marshes, with predators—these are lost to time.

Today it is a carefully tended creature. It knows the grassy lawn of the British countryside. It negotiates the corn feeders of a Texas ranch. It seems to do well enough. But it is not the animal it once was.

I’d like to think that–at least once in a while–wandering a game ranch in hilly Texas, a Pere David’s deer catches the whiff of a mountain lion. And somehow, this triggers a reaction similar to when it once had to fear the tiger. If only for a second, it becomes prey again, shaped not by people but by its own wild nature.

Who knows? Maybe that ecological past has already faded. Maybe it is best suited now for the life of a semi-domestic creature. A brave, new deer for a brave, new world.

Still, when I saw them on the grounds of Woburn Abbey, the park that saved them, I marveled at their long-swaying tails and impossible antlers. I felt happy they were still sharing the planet with us, even if in a diminished state.

I know that in this era some call the Anthropocene—where humans shape everything—these stories will likely become more common. Large wildlife will persist. But will it be as full ecological players in their native habitat, or will they become shadows of their former selves? We still have time to decide.

Let’s take the Pere David’s tale as a cautionary tale. Guarded reserves are not enough. Islands of habitat are bad for large, wild beasts.

Conservationists get this. Efforts like the Sage Grouse Initiative aim to keep wide-roaming species including grouse and mule deer in intact habitat, thus avoiding “islands” created by energy development and houses and fires and weeds (read more on this great project soon on the blog). There are other examples around the world: keeping lands connected so critters have room to migrate, room to roam, room to survive.

Room so their survival doesn’t come down to chance. Room so they don’t become Pere David’s deer, secure but not home, alive but not free.

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