Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nanhaizi Milu Park

For twenty-odd years, I have followed the amazing story of sibuxiang, or Pere David's deer, but never saw one in person until my visit to the Nanhaizi Milu Park south of Beijing--in its natural surroundings.

This animal, (latin: Elaphurus davidianus) is known by various names: officially, the Chinese call it Milu, it was historically referred to as sibuxiang, literally none of the four or something similar, and is commonly known in the West as Pere David's deer, for the French missionary and naturalist who discovered it.
Farther Armand David in sculpture parkRobin Russell, Duke of Bedford

By the end of the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the last century, there were only 18 of the animals in existence,and they were all at a single private reserve in England. Through the efforts of a Czechoslovak naturalist named Maya Boyd, whose husband was a friend of the then-current Duke of the English estate, the deer were returned to China beginning in 1985.

King Wen the Cultured
Today, the park functions as a research and breeding facility, as well as an environmental education park and wildlife refuge. It stands on the original grounds of the Hunting Park of King Wen the Cultured, founder of the Zhou dynasty, who first ordered preservation of the animals.

The park is mainly a wetlands area, for the milu are a rare deer that love water, their tall, broad hooves and backward-sweeping antlers being evolutionary adaptations to this environment, a fact not lost of Father David when he first viewed them on this site in 1865, just as Darwin's theory was sweeping through the scientific world. In addition to the large wilderness reserve, the park has several features including a children's playground, bird-watching pavilion, and an interpretive hall that is rather disappointingly dilapidated.

Milu Park wetlands, partly frozen overMilu Park wetlands, bird sanctuary
Play area at Milu ParkPlay area at Milu Park
display in interpretive centerMilu Park, bird-watching pavilion- there is another one on opposite side

The photo below from the exhibition hall shows the story of how Father David discovered the deer, 1) watching them in the Emperor's Nanhaizi Hunting Park, 2) bribing guards to send him remains over the high wall for scientific classification--he also introduced the world to the Giant Panda two years later, 3) shipping live animals back to France.

One of the most striking features of the park is the Worldwide Extinction Cemetery, populated with tombstones of earth's creatures that human action has eradicated.

Worldwide Extinction CemeteryWorldwide Extinction Cemetery
Worldwide Extinction CemeteryWorldwide Extinction Cemetery

The fact that King Wen decreed their protection about three thousand years ago probably makes the milu the first example of endangered species legislation. All the remaining deer were at Nanhaizi when the River Ho flooded in about 1894 and looters probably picked them off--well, all the deer in China, since fortunately Father David and others had sent numerous pairs to Europe. The 10th Earl of Bedford, Herbrand Russell, quickly gathered 18 surviving deer to his estate and bred them successfully. His great grand-nephew is memorialized at the park for playing a key role in the animal's reintroduction to China in 1985. One of the most famous names in England, the Russell family has a long history of political, scientific and philosophical leadership.

It is both chastening and heartening to realize that the two thousand milu in China, and about that many more in reserves and zoos throughout the world, are all descendants of a handful of animals nurtured by a handful of humans who gave a damn about something beyond themselves with no thought of personal advantage.

Yearlings at rest, note the different or changing coatsPere David's with winter antlers in velvet(?)
antler velvet (?), note swept-back positioningMilu, note hooves and thick, long tail

In the photos above, you can see the features that led to the name sibuxiang--four unlikeness: it is said to have the head of a horse, the neck of a camel, the tail of a donkey and the hooves of a cow. Note the weird texture of the antlers in my photo--it is February, and some milu grow winter horns (either that, or he may be sick). You can also see the characteristic dark line down the spine, the long, un-deerlike tail, and the coat colors which vary by season. Since it contained the essence of four creatures all in one, Confucian tradition gave it four-fold power. Which explains why its hunting and consumption was limited to the royal family.

I have to admit this will be an amazing highlight of my Beijing trip. That said, the Milu Park had still more to offer: I give you the many benches scattered through the park, each carved with an inspirational or thought-provoking environmentalist saying--there was even a Mark Twain quote, "Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to."

Milu Park park bench with sloganMilu Park park bench with slogan
Milu Park park bench with slogan

Finally, have you ever wondered where Olympic mascots go when they have outlived their usefulness and are put out to pasture? The answer appears to be Nanhaizi Milu Park:

Where retired Olympic mascots go
How to get there: Take the 729 bus from near Qianmen (a subway stop and a "gate" just south of Chairman Mao's mausoleum, use Exit C), down the west side past about two hutong. The ride lasts about an hour and is a chance to see Beijing at see level. Get off at Jiu Gong and find a pedicab driver or taxi to take you the rest of the way. It cost me 10 yuan.
How to get back: My return trip was fortuitous in that a cab was delivering people to the park just as I was leaving--otherwise, my plan was going to involve asking the souvenir shop guy to call me cab. Get back to a bus stop for 729 headed north and you're solid.

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