The Pere David’s deer—a species indigenous to China and named for a French missionary—has been reintroduced to its natural environment after being functionally extinct in the wild for at least 1,000 years.

In 2016, the State Forestry Administration of the People’s Republic of China released 16 Pere David’s deer into Junshan Park, an islet just south of the Yangtze River, in southern China's Hunan province.

It was the first release of the deer into a unfenced natural environment, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“This Junshan pilot has been selected by the State Forestry Administration as China’s first wild release of Père David’s deer,” says Wang Qian, acting director of WWF China’s Yangtze program.

From left: Greg Koch, Coca-Cola’s global water stewardship director; Judith Hochhauser Schneider, deputy director of private sector engagement for WWF U.S.; Wang Qian, acting director of Yangtze program for WWF China; Maria Amalia Porta, senior field program officer for the Mesoamerican Reef, WWF Central America.

Before their release last March, the species had been bred exclusively in captivity. After decades of steadily bringing China’s population of Père David’s deer back to vibrancy among a few scattered reserves, The SFA and WWF—a longtime Coca-Cola partner—sought to reintegrate the species into an area more similar to those its ancestors roamed.

Coca-Cola also helped fund the rejuvenation of the park that now houses the small population of deer. The project, which WWF calls “Species 100,” aims to improve the natural habitat through wetland restoration and stricter fishing practices, and by tracking the deer to better understand their behavior and how they react to changes in the environment.  

Junshan Park, which lies just south of the Yangtze River, is part of the East Dongting Nature Reserve. But it doesn’t have fences, making it an ideal spot to test how animals will behave in the wild.

“The wetlands hold a great abundance of biodiversity and serve as a critical habitat,” says Greg Koch, Coca-Cola’s senior director of global water stewardship. “WWF and Coca-Cola worked with the government in the park to prevent unsustainable use of the area by helping the local community switch from the traditional, unsustainable fishing activities to land‐based activities, and to maintain a reasonably high water level during the dry season.”

Dongting Lake, at the edge of Junshan Park

Liu Song, a senior officer at WWF China, says the release of the Pere David’s deer, which has existed almost exclusively in captivity for possibly a millennium, will allow the species to become more resilient.

“Thirty years of WWF conservation efforts in China lead us to understand that a holistic approach is the right way to address cumulative effects of the threats in Yangtze River,” Song says. “Dealing with the threats individually and separately couldn't overcome the crisis.”

At the time of the release, the Père David’s deer had reached a total population of a few thousand across four different nature reserves in China after being reintroduced to the country in 1956, when two pairs were sent to Beijing from the Zoological Society of London.

Ideally, Species 100 will lead to better conservation efforts in the future, not only for the deer but for the region’s entire ecosystem.

Dodging Extinction

Before the milestone event, the Père David’s deer had been bred exclusively in captivity in China for the last few decades, ever since the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) sent two pairs of young deer to Beijing in 1956.

That’s a bit odd when you consider the Père David Deer’s heritage: it’s a species indigenous to the subtropics of China, where it is referred to as “si bu xiang” or “four not alike,” due to its horse-like head, cow-like hooves, donkey-like tail, and deer antlers. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the deer was on the verge of becoming history.

Due to its gradual movement toward extinction leading up to that time, the only place Père David’s deer could be found in all of China was the Nanyuan Royal Hunting Garden near Peking. The last known herd in China belonged to the emperor.

The deer’s rarity became an attractive characteristic for people around the world—particularly for a French missionary named Armand David, or Père (Father) David. After visiting the hunting grounds 1864 and seeing what had become an iconic animal in China, he managed to obtain enough deer to start a population of Père David’s deer back in Europe.

Questionable legality aside, it turned out to a pretty beneficial development for the Père David’s deer. Between a devastating flood and the Boxer Rebellion in China at the end of the 19th Century, the last of the species in the country was wiped out. Ironically, all that remained were the deer in captivity in England. Half a century later, the two pairs at the ZSL were sent to China. From 1985-1987, 79 Père David’s deer from five zoos in London were sent back to their native land.

The deer is still considered an endangered species, but Wang says there are now more than 5,000 in the world, and their population is growing fairly quickly.

“Conditions are good,” Wang says. “We told (the SFA) to see this project site, to see the restoration we have achieved…It’s a time the Père David’s deer is trying to find some wild places.”