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The Most Unusual Deer

Pére David’s deer, also called milu, survived a close call with extinction

Translated from Mandarin, the word “milu” means “four not alike.” It’s a very good name for the Asian ungulate milu, also called Pére David’s deer. The large, imposing deer is unlike any other antlered animal. The “four” are the tail of a donkey, the head of a horse, the hooves of a cow and the antlers of a stag. The scraggly tail is perhaps 20 inches long. The head is large and long. The deer has an affinity for marshy ground — it’s almost semi-aquatic. The hooves are huge for the body size, and it leaves tracks similar to a moose but rounded.

In 1865, French missionary Father Armand David — Pére David — first described Elaphurus davidianus to Western science.

At first glance, the antlers seem to have no rhyme or reason. Most milu have a major backward-pointing tine often with additional points. A heavy main beam rises nearly vertical from the pedicle. Tines and branches point rearward.

They are native to northeastern China and, in the wild, would have squared off against tigers. Yet with no forward-pointing tines, its disorganized but ornate antlers seem to be of limited use for defense and mating battles.

It’s likely been a long time since one of these deer have faced a tiger. Pére David’s deer have been extinct in the wild for possibly 2,000 years. Thankfully, the species survived due to accidents of history, and today are thriving in their native China because of modern conservation practices.

For hundreds of years, the last herd of milu roamed the walled compound of the emperor’s hunting garden near modern-day Beijing. In the later 1800s, a few specimens were spirited out of China to zoos in France and Germany.

In 1894, a flood breached the emperor’s garden walls. Most of the deer escaped and were quickly poached. It’s said that only 30 survived by 1895.

Things got worse for the deer when the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against foreigners in China, began in 1900. Following the murder of a German minister in the streets of then-Peking, foreigners and Chinese Christians in the city retreated to the Legation Quarter beneath the Tartar Wall. In total, 409 soldiers, sailors, and Marines of eight nations, including the United States, fought the attackers. During the 55-day siege the defenders suffered 40% casualties. Many of the 50 U.S. Marines received a Medal of Honor.      

The last remaining Pére David’s deer in China were also casualties. Marines being Marines, I have long imagined it was they who happily dined on the emperor’s deer. Being a Marine myself, I know they would have if they could have. Historical accuracy gives the dubious honor to German Imperial troops, who occupied the garden during the siege.

By the time an international relief force came to the rescue, there were no Pére David’s deer in China. The entire world population was in European zoos.

This is where the good part of the story begins.

Brad Jannenga, the author’s son-in-law, took this excellent Pére David’s deer at Record Buck Ranch in the Texas Hill Country. Relatively few Pére David’s deer are hunted, but the worldwide population exceeds 5,000.

Herbrand Russell, Duke of Bedford and president of the Royal Zoological Society, had (and his family still has) a large deer park at Woburn Abbey, northwest of London. The duke had gathered a tiny nucleus herd on the property in the beginning of the 20th century. Those are the ancestors of all Pére David’s deer in the world today. That small herd has grown to 5,000 worldwide. There are now hunting opportunities in Texas, England and Argentina.

To my thinking, the crowning achievement occurred when milu were reintroduced to China. In 1985, Herbrand’s great-grandson, Robin Russell, donated five male and 15 female milu to China. A second herd of 18 females was added two years later. The first release was done near Beijing at Nanyuan, the site of the old hunting garden, now Milu National Nature Reserve. In 2005, marking the 20th anniversary of the milu’s return to China, a statue of Herbrand Russell was unveiled at the Reserve. 

Today there are more than 50 separate herds in China, with a population above 2,000.

I’ve photographed Pére David’s deer at Woburn Abbey. The 3,000-acre park is gorgeous. In that setting, you can see large herds of Pére David’s deer! Compared to the nine other species of deer at the Abbey, the milu are odd-looking but tall, stately and magnificent. In such settings, and absent predation for thousands of years, they don’t appear especially wary.

The SCI Record Book, which is always a great reference, states that milu stand 4 feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 440 pounds. Although I considered it several times, I never took one. I had not been close to one, so I’ve always been sketchy on their details, such as How big they are and what their coats were like. Good Lord, I’ve been a Master Measurer since such existed, but I’ve never put a tape on a Pére David’s rack!

Earlier this year, I was helping out my daughter, Brittany, at her She Hunts Skills Camps at Record Buck Ranch in Texas. My son-in-law Brad Jannenga decided he wanted to hunt a Pére David’s deer there. Cool! I’d long ago decided I didn’t have to have one, but I looked forward to finally seeing one up close.

Just the planning gave me a detail I didn’t have: Like most Asian deer, Pére David’s are in hard antler during our spring. The month of May proved to be an ideal month to hunt one. I also learned that when they are hunted in thick brush in hard antler, they aren’t quite as trusting as they appear when lounging around a pond growing antlers!

A month earlier, when the milu were still in heavy velvet, Brad and guide Houston Erskine and Brad had scouted the Record Buck Ranch. They picked out a nice stag with an unusually long back point and a lot of extra points. When we came back to the Texas outfitter in May, the antlers would be all rubbed and polished. However, we couldn’t find him. When we finally did, we couldn’t get a shot!

Four times — two evenings and two mornings — he and two buddies gave us the slip. They never exactly spooked but just walked away and melted into the brush. We finally caught them during a warm midday in a little patch of oaks near a dam. They were probably contemplating a swim. Brad stalked them alone and made a fine shot with a Krieghoff side-by-side in .30-06.

I would finally get a close look! Without question, the antlers were impressive. They were also unique compared to most other deer: They had little hook-like points off the main tines. What struck me most, however, was the size. This deer was big in all directions: Tall, broad and heavy. It was taller and heavier than a red deer. It was not as big as a mature elk but similar to a five-point bull, except thicker through the body. According to Ted Nugent, the Pére David’s deer has the very best of all venison. I can’t yet confirm that, but I look forward to finding out.

This I do know: Whether up close or from afar, it’s the most unusual deer I’ve ever seen and, for sure, has the most fascinating story.–Craig Boddington


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