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. They entered society, learned of the King’s heinous acts and wanted to take recourse against the King, who was powerful. 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. 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. 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. 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. By the Han Dynasty, about 2,000 years ago, the milu was already extinct in the wild, but kept in imperial hunting grounds.
Père David’s deer, also known as the Milu, is a semi-aquatic species of deer that is native to China. It is extinct in the wild, and can only be found in captivity.
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. 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.
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.
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”. 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.