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The cries of Hainan Eld's deer
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-06-03 08:35

After a journey to two nature reserves on Hainan Island in 1983, environmentalists Tang Xiyang and his late wife Marcia Marks wrote "The Cries of Hainan Eld's Deer."

A Hainan Eld's deer wanders around the Datian Nature Reserve in Hainan Province. [China Daily]
From their respective pleas, we learned that only a few dozen of the indigenous deer (Cervus eldi hainanus) were struggling for survival at the Datian Nature Reserve on the island in South China at that time.

The native Eld's deer are distinctive, with two lines of white dots running parallel to a dark brown strip on its back. The stags are known for their unusual bow- or lyre-shaped antlers which sweep back in a single curve.

They used to roam the island in numbers but as a result of continuous poaching and killings, only 26 were sighted in 1976, a year after two nature reserves had been established to help breed and nurture the existing endangered deer.

In 1983, when Tang and Marks arrived on the island, they were startled to find that one reserve had simply failed in its duties. The few Hainan Eld's deer under its keep had almost all died during illegal poaching activities, they recalled.

Only the Datian Nature Reserve still kept between 70 to 80 of the native Eld's deer, but it also faced the danger of being overrun by the encroaching pastures and farms.

What has happened to those deer since then?

When we arrived last Thursday at the Datian Nature Reserve, about 230 kilometres to the southwest of Haikou, the provincial capital, we were told that the reserve now breeds some 300 domesticated Eld's deer and 700 others who enjoy partial free-ranging lives.

The reserve is already too small to sustain so many Eld's deer.

Since last year, an additional 13,300 hectares of enclosed woods and forests adjacent to the Datian Nature Reserve have been designated by the provincial forestry administration as new habitats for endangered wildlife.

Meanwhile the Mihou (Rhesus Macaque) Mountain, located some 30 kilometres away from the Datian Reserve on the upper reaches of a reservoir, became the deer's new home.

The mountain covers some 30,000 hectares. Although the peak soars to 1,654 metres above the sea level, the gentle pastures spreading over 333 hectares are less than 200 metres above sea level. There, the Eld's deer could easily feed on some 200 species of the plants - their beloved foods.

Between last July and December, 65 Eld's deer, in three batches, had already emigrated to their new home on Mihou Mountain. These deer now lead a free life in the wild.

Only 12 reserve staff now work at the Mihou Mountain station and they have enlisted assistance from the local Miao people, who live in the only village on the reserve.

Over 10 months, the 65 Eld's deer have made good lives in their new home. Reserve staff have spotted eight new fawns.

Careful preparation

Last Thursday afternoon, the reserve staff went through the routine of preparing to release another batch of 35 Eld's deer, between ages 2 and 3, into the new but more natural and wild habitat.

They first collected blood samples from each for DNA analysis. Lin Xianmei, the reserve's office director, explained that they have kept a close watch over the possible genetic changes among the Eld's deer.

"A species that lives in one place for many years may experience sudden genetic shifts," she said.

Then, gently and carefully, Li Shanyuan, the reserve's chief administrator, punched tiny holes through the Eld's deer's ears. The tiny holes in different parts of the ears denote numbers that only the reserve staff can figure out, with odd numbers for the males and even numbers for females.

In this way, the reserve staff hopes to keep track of their deer who will be surviving on their own.

The next morning, riding in two trucks, the 35 arrived at their new home.

Some of the Eld's deer were simply oblivious to the gorgeously dressed local young women of the Miao ethnic group, reserve staff and other visitors. Once they were off the truck, they galloped away, sprinting over a trench several metres wide and disappearing into the distance.

Others, who were unwilling to get off the truck because of the commotion, quickly became accustomed to the noise. Instead of jogging along on the mountain, they trotted along the gentle slope by the reservoir bank.

Difficult work

It is obvious that the outcry to help the Eld's deer, from Tang, Marks and many other concerned people, was heard.

Li told us that Professor Yuan Xicai from the South China Research Institute for Endangered Animals arrived at the Datian Nature Reserve in 1984, and started research on the lives and habitats of the deer.

Under Yuan's direction, the staff buttressed its tall fences surrounding the reserve and were able to round up and keep 86 Eld's deer out of harm's way.

Starting in 1990, Hainan adopted more conservation measures and established seven other reserves for breeding Eld's deer.

But the Datian Nature Reserve remains the leader. At the reserve, the deer's population has grown by 10 to 15 per cent a year.

When the Mihou Mountain conservation station started its work, the staff opened workshops for the local villagers, especially the village chiefs, to share with them the ideas of nature conservation, wildlife protection and working against illegal poaching.

The Eld's deer, after all, are listed among the Class I wildlife species under State protection regulations in China.

Worldwide, the Eld's deer is also listed as a highly endangered species. Among each of the arguable subspecies of the Eld's deer, in India, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, the number has remained very small, from a dozen to a few hundred.

Having lived with the Eld's deer for so many years, Li and other staff members have learned more about the precious deer. They usually live in small groups of between three and five, even though stags with long antlers often roam about alone.

The Eld's deer also have very sensitive sight and hearing as they have encountered so many enemies, especially poachers, over the years. They are also extremely fast runners.

Unlike other species of deer who usually mate between autumn and winter and give birth to young fawns in spring or early summer, Hainan Eld's deer mate in late spring and early summer and breed fawns in late autumn and early winter.

As the rain season starts in April and May, new leaves and new grass grow fast to offer plenty of food for the deer. During the rut season, the groups get larger, the largest with as many as 12 deer.

Other studies

In one of their studies conducted with researchers from the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Li and others have discovered that stags roar to attract the attention of their potential does. They identified a No 1 stag who roared 22 times and who was able to mate with does 17 times.

Li said he and his colleagues cannot rest on their laurels over the success they've achieved so far.

For the Hainan Eld's deer to survive this century, the staff must work to ensure that its population grows to be around 2,500. Meanwhile, the staff must deal with problems such as food shortages and illegal poaching and hunting, as the number increases and vigilance may become lax.

The sad days when there were only a few dozen of the precious deer species left are still fresh in the memories of many local people.

Researchers from the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Evolution at the Kunming Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have also discovered traces of "bottlenecks" among the surviving Hainan Eld's deer.

The term "bottleneck" refers to a situation where a population undergoes a sudden decline in size, and those remaining constitute the total reduced genepool.

They have found that, as a result of bottleneck effects, the genepool from the 55 Hainan Eld's deer they'd selected "as randomly and extensively as possible" at the Datian Nature Reserve lacked variation.

In their study, the researchers proposed extending the available habitat for the deer in their natural distribution region.

Releasing 100 of the Hainan Eld's deer into a bigger natural habitat is only the first step.

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