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Holding on to Deer Life
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Ding Yuhua vividly remembers the day when his old lost friends came back from the dead. It was a sweltering summer day in 1986 and the young student heard the cries of his mentor Ma Jianzhang, an established expert on wildlife protection: "The milu deer have come back!"

The 32-year-old was studying in the Northeast Forestry University in Harbin of Heilongjiang Province and the milu's return marked the beginning of his memorable career.

The rare animal, also known as Pere David's deer, was first recorded in China more than 2,000 years ago and the wetland species was known for its unique appearance. It had a camel's neck, a donkey's tail, cow-like hooves and stag antlers. Chinese often called this strange creature Sibuxiang - Four Unlikes.

The deer became extinct in China at the turn of the 20th century and it wasn't until 1985 that 22 of them returned from Britain, where they had been kept at Woburn Abbey by the dukes of Bedford. More followed. In 1986, 39 milu at Dafeng Nature Reserve, east China's Jiangsu Province.

Ding is a native of Dafeng and the veterinarian has devoted his life work to the animals and has become China's "father of milu".

When the deer came back from England, Ding was assigned to the milu project and he had to ride his bicycle for more than two hours across wild terrain to the reserve - a large area of wetlands.

The reserve had nine staff, including Ding, the only technician. His dormitory was a 15-square-meter thatched cottage, which he shared with two colleagues. The roof was so low that they had to bow when entering. The desk was made up of a broken wooden case. The air was thick with mosquitoes and a random swat in the air could kill dozens of them, some as big as flies.

"Life was not easy, but as a young man who had just started his new career, I was overwhelmed by the arrival of milu," Ding said.

Joy soon turned to anxiety. The team knew little about the species and the first problem to solve was what to feed it. What does a 3-million-year-old camel/donkey/cow/deer eat?

They invited a British expert to help, but he would take one month to arrive. There was no international calls, no Internet, not even a telephone. So Ding experimented. He offered the deer various kinds of grass and observed which type they preferred. He found 198 kinds of grass for milu, many of which were never recorded before.

Like anyone involved in protecting endangered wildlife, Ding was eager to see more deer born and grown in the reserve. To his joy, 26 female deer were soon pregnant. However dystocia, a problem affecting the birth of this species, caused the death of the first six fawns. Ding rested only two or three hours a day, keeping a telescope on his neck and writing everything in his notebook to observe the pregnant deer.

About 5 pm on April 3, 1987, a pregnant milu left the herd. Ding could tell she was going to deliver, so he followed the deer, who stopped beside a ditch. To get a better view, he climbed a 3-meter-high bamboo fence about 50 meters away, as milu is a shy animal that fears humans. About one hour later, the fawn was born.

Ding said the mother licked her baby all over and after 20 minutes, with wobbly legs, the newborn struggled to stand, and began to search for his mother's nipple, but suddenly fell into the nearby ditch.

Ding jumped over the fence and rushed to the fallen fawn. He dried the baby deer with his own coat, then quickly placed it beside its mother and ran back to the fence to continue observation. He feared if he had stayed longer with the baby, the mother would abandon it if she smells the scent of human beings.

It was a cold early spring evening, but Ding recalled feeling nothing but warmth all over. "I was overjoyed," he said. "The reserve finally had a live milu baby!" His colleagues brought him wine. They had a joyful night. Though not much of a wine drinker, Ding recalled with a smile, that he became a big drinker that night.

In the same year, another 12 deer were born and six survived. Ding continued his observation every day, most of the time wearing an army-style overcoat whether it was a warm June day or cold December night. The green coat made him a familiar existence to the vigilant deer.

His unremitting effort is now recorded in his 500,000-word observation diary, a book on milu studies and 42 essays published both at home and abroad. Now there are 1,007 milu in the reserve, accounting for about one-third of the endangered deer's world population and half of the Chinese population.

To return milu back to nature, however, is always the ultimate goal of the reserve. What made Ding determined to stop the captivity was a "rub" between him and one of his beloved "children".

In 1998, Ding and his colleagues were talking with journalists, when a young male milu jumped out of the fence and rushed toward the crowd. Ding dashed toward it and grasped its antlers. But Ding was not a match for the deer weighing about 250 kilograms.

The deer threw his "father" off balance. Out of inertia, the deer jumped over Ding and fell on the ground. When it stood up and headed towards Ding, some colleagues scared it away with a loud shout.

Ding realized that the captive breeding method was no longer suitable for these wild creatures.

Later that year he selected eight deer and began another major campaign - to return milu to the nature. The deer were fitted with wireless receivers and released into the wetlands. Five years later, the first baby milu was born in the wild since the species disappeared in China a century ago. This fawn's birth finally removed milu from the red list of endangered animals published by the World Conservation Union.

Now there are 83 wild milu living in the reserve's nearby area. Ding is hopeful that the wild milu's population could surpass 100 this year.

His colleagues and other people often call Ding "father of milu", but the old vet's pet phrase has been "Milu shaped me."

"I used to be an ordinary vet in the countryside. Now I am the visiting professor of Zhejiang University thanks to milu," he said slowly in strong accent. As he talks, he spends most of the time fiddling with something near his hands. The 53-year-old expert who has helped save an once endangered species is still shy. Only when speaking of his beloved milu, would he speed up his speech and sparkles would appear in his eyes.

As the reserve's vice director, Ding has to handle many tasks, such as building a restaurant in the reserve to host the increasing number of visitors and applying to government departments for salary increases for his employees.

His hair is turning grey, his complexion is a mix of dark and red due to too much suntan. Yet his eyes remind people of those of the deer - mild, moist and loving.

"I often ask myself: Why I am here? Who does not like an easy life with high income? But I am a person who never stops in the half way. Since I have started, I would not give up before I see milu thrive here."

(China Daily May 23, 2007)

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