U.S. zoologist returns deer after 85-year absence


September 29, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

NANHAIZI, China -- Maria Maarova Boyd has become the spiritual heiress to Pere Armand David.

In the process, she has helped China achieve one of its few successes in wildlife conservation: A rare species of deer that appears as though it might be a cross between a reindeer and a donkey has been returned to its homeland after a hiatus of 85 years.

Pere David, a French Jesuit priest better known for his interest in wildlife than for saving souls, traipsed around China more than 100 years ago. He is best known for being the first foreigner to come across a giant panda.

In 1865, he also was the first outsider to discover another animal unique to China, the Milu deer, in an imperial hunting park near this village about 15 miles south of Beijing.

Chinese say these unusual deer are characterized by "si bu xiang," or "four not alikes." They have the horns of a deer, the neck hairs of a camel, the hooves of a cow and the tail of a donkey.

By the time Pere David ran into the Milu, they are believed to have been extinct in the wild for at least 1,500 years and only survived in Qing dynasty hunting grounds. The last of the species in China were slaughtered here by foreign troops during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

But Pere David had shipped some Milu to Europe. When the species was extinguished in China, 18 of the deer remained at England's Woburn Abbey Park, the vast estate of the 11th Duke of Bedford.

Mrs. Boyd, 48, is an American zoologist born in Czechoslovakia and trained at England's Oxford University. She first saw what she calls "my deer" in 1978 at Woburn Abbey, now owned by the duke's grandson, the Marquis of Tavistock. The marquis was a friend of her late husband, John Boyd, a former Johns Hopkins University pathobiologist.

It was love at first sight. The Milu "are so ugly looking that I have to love them," Mrs. Boyd says. "Their faces are so strange. They always look like they've just been crying."

Inspired by reading Pere David's diary, Mrs. Boyd became determined to study the Milu and to bring them back to China. She first came here in early 1984, armed with a romantic ambition to follow in the Jesuit priest's footsteps and a considerable instinct for the political skills that it takes to engage the Chinese bureaucracy.

Within months, she had lined up the support of an impressive cast of Chinese officials, including Premier Li Peng, then a vice premier in charge of environment. Thirteen Chinese government agencies agreed to give her project a commune's 140-acre tree nursery that had been part of the imperial park where the last Milu had lived in China.

Less than a year later in 1985, the new Milu Ecological Research Center received its first deer from the Marquis of Tavistock's park, 22 Milu from his herd that now numbers more than 600 animals.

Mrs. Boyd fretted that the Milu, long acclimated to England, would not survive their first harsh north China winter. But none of the deer perished in their first two years at Nanhaizi.

"They really took to this place," Mrs. Boyd says. "It's as though they felt they were finally back home again."

The research center's high brick walls now enclose 170 Milu -- about 50 of them born this year alone. But Mrs. Boyd is not resting on her laurels.

She and Chinese zoologists have founded China's first conservation education center, a big step for a nation with a tremendously large and valuable pool of bio-diversity under siege from rapid development and the low priority that environmental concerns have been given here.

Next month they plan to reintroduce to China from foreign zoos the first of 30 Przewalski horses, a small Mongolian horse that died out here by the 1940s.

Next year, they hope to bring back rare Saiga antelopes that still live in the former Soviet Union but disappeared from China's deserts in the 1950s.

Like the Milu, Mrs. Boyd has thrived in China. She keeps postponing her return to Oxford to complete her unfinished doctoral thesis on the deer.

"Once you really start doing something in a country like China, you don't want to return to sitting behind a desk," she says. "It just changes you so completely."

One thing hasn't changed for her, though: She still reads over and over the diary of Pere Armand David.

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