Père David's Deer: The Sacred Deer of the Forbidden City

Milu, or Père David's deer, is a beautiful deer with an interesting past. The story of Milu deer illustrates how animal protection programs and the efforts of animal activists can achieve tangible results. Père David's deer was saved from extinction at the last minute, and today thousands of deer are living around the world. 

Secrets of the Imperial Stags: Père David's Deer and the Forbidden City
Pere David's deer, also known as Milu, is native to China. It was once found across the country's marshes  
Image Credit: 白色瑰宝, Image sourced under Creative Commons license from 白色瑰宝)

The Unique but Unknown: Père David's deer

Pere David deer have a peculiar appearance, with features reminiscent of various animals, including a camel's neck, a stocky body like a horse, and a donkey's tail. Furthermore, their thick, two-layered coat enables them to endure the cold temperatures of northern China. 

Père David's herds are led by a dominant male and are most active at dawn and dusk, which helps them avoid predators and grazing without disturbance.

Rare Deer of the World: Père David's Deer
By the late 19th century, Pere David's deer had disappeared from the wild entirely

What sets Père David's deer apart is an unique mating ritual, in which males lock their antlers as if performing a ceremonial dance. Unlike other deers, Père David's Deer prefers water and frequently wades or swims in lakes and rivers. This activity is especially noticeable during the mating season when males perform elaborate displays in the water to attract the attention of the doe. They feed on grass or aquatic plants in wetlands and occasionally travel to the sea to consume seaweed.

The tale of near extinction and saving at the last moment

Milu deer were almost wiped out during the late Yuan Dynasty. The emperor ordered soldiers to capture and transport the remaining elks to the royal hunting grounds. Already extinct in nature, by the 19th century, only one group remained in the Nanhaizi Royal Hunting Garden in Beijing. During the tumult of the Boxer Rebellion at the start of the 20th century, when the park was destroyed and many deer died, they went extinct in the wild.

The continued survival of these deers is credited to Father Armand David, who was a French missionary. While visiting China, Father David saw Milu deers and sent some of them to Europe, where they were housed in parks and zoos. As they went extinct in China at the beginning of the 20th century, their population thrived in Europe. In honor of his efforts, the Milu deer was named after him.

Père David's Deer in the Forbidden City and Chinese Emperors
It has a large, stocky body with a long neck and legs, resembling a cross between a deer and a horse

In a remarkable twist of fate, the Pere David deer returned to its native land in the 1980s. A breeding program to return the deer to its natural habitat was formed via collaborative efforts by China and international conservation organizations. Today, the Milu can once again be seen roaming freely in the wetlands and marshes of China's Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve.

Milu Deers and Chinese Emperors

Milu deer were initially only meant for the amusement of Chinese rulers. Throughout history, they were kept in royal gardens and were viewed as a symbol of good luck and fortune. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, who reigned from 1368 to 1644, established the Imperial Hunting Park in Beijing, where the Pierre David deer could roam free. Their presence and the presence of other rare animals symbolized the emperor's authority over the natural world.

The Milu deers enjoyed special protection and patronage from the imperial court. It is said that the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799) was particularly fond of the deer and ordered the construction of elaborate gardens and enclosures within the Forbidden City to house them. These gardens, known as the "Milu Yuan" or "Deer Park," became their sanctuary in the following centuries.

Deer in Chinese History: Père David's Deer
Known as "sibuxiang" or "four unlikes" in Chinese, Pere David's deer was considered one of the four "gentlemen" of the animal kingdom, alongside the dragon, phoenix, and tortoise

In the classic novel "Dream of the Red Chamber" (红楼梦), written during the Qing Dynasty, the Milu is similarly mentioned as one of the exotic animals kept in the imperial gardens.

However, historical records also indicate that the Pierre David deer was the primary target during royal hunting expeditions in ancient China. Emperors and nobles would organize elaborate hunts, where they would pursue this and other deers on horseback. This practice probably contributed to Milu's near extinction at the end of the Yuan dynasty.

Pere David Deer in Chinese folklore  

According to old tradition, the Milu deer came into existence in ancient times when a horse, a donkey, an ox, and a deer went into a cave in the forest to meditate and, when they awoke from their meditation they transformed themselves into one creature that combined the speed of the horse, the strength of the ox, the donkey's keen sense of direction and the nimble agility of the deer

In ancient Chinese mythology, the Milu was often associated with immortality. Moreover, The Pierre David deer was believed to be under the divine protection of the goddess Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. 

As the legend goes, the Milu, born from the union of four noble animals, embodied the virtues of strength, wisdom, and agility. Due legendary origin connected with this deer, Chinese Emperors sought its presence in their courts, believing that its presence would bring blessings to their reigns.


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