Water deer have become a leg- end unto themselves in their 36,000 years of habitation in China. These agile creatures, no bigger than a large dog, are un- doubtedly among the most interesting fauna in the woods of Shanghai.
These deer, sometimes called “vampire deer,” are quite slim, with a graceful neck, long legs and big ears. They grow two sharp tusks at adult- hood. The tusks point down like canine teeth.
Water deer once resided in large numbers in the Liaodong Peninsula, the North China Plain and the banks of the Yangtze River. Teeth of the deer were found in 66 percent of the 133 tombs uncovered at the site of Dawen- kou Culture. Scholars believe the teeth were related to ritual ceremonies of the Neolithic communities and that the ani- mals were worshiped for their ability to run exceptionally fast. Water deer typically live in tall grass- lands and mudflats with nearby water sources. The animals use the grass as feed and to hide from predators, largely big canines.
The breeding season is between May and July, and the newborn can be independent just two months after birth. The life expectancy of water deer is around nine years.
The disappearance of water deer
Water deer are creatures of freedom not commonly seen in zoos because they can be quite rebellious when caged and approached by people.
There’s a tale related to water deer in Jiangsu Province. It’s said that a poacher on a motorcycle was once chased a water deer, and the deer keep running and running until it fell to its death from exhaustion.
“The temperament of the water deer is the reason why I came to like them,” wrote Chen Min, associate professor at East China Normal University who’s been studying the species since 1999. “They have the spirit of giving up everything for freedom.”
She said the native species has been living in Shanghai since the Neolithic Age. “The deer in China are all of the same species,” Chen told Shanghai Daily. “We tested their DNA before reintroducing the species to Shanghai and found they didn’t divide.”
Although there is no exact timeframe for when the population of water deer started declining significantly, Chen said water deer were still found in Shanghai in the late 20th century. Then they simply disappeared.
According to a 1999 survey of wild mammals in China, only 10,000 of the deer were left before their disappearance. There are multiple reasons given for their demise. For one, the deer lost their native habitats as rural areas were bulldozed over to make way for factories and housing. Then, too, hunters reduced their numbers.
Water deer are solitary and territorial. They are sensitive to their surround- ings and can be alerted by any sudden movement around them. But they are not aggressive and don’t confront people. “It’s a relatively easy species for poachers to hunt,” Chen said. “They are not all that intelligent, and the habit they have of staring you in the eyes for a minute or two when approached by a person gives hunters the opportunity to kill them.”
In the past, the leg of a water deer leg could fetch up to 40 yuan (US$6.3) in a restaurant. Though the deer was protected after the species was re- introduced to the wild, some illegal poaching still persists.
“The illegal hunting is on a small scale,” Chen said. “Shanghai has strict wildlife management laws now, and we don’t find the deer meat in the market. But we have found evidence of identifi- cation collars being cut off and electric wires set up in the woods to trip the deer.”
Bringing back the water deer
The work of reintroducing water deer to the Shanghai ecological sys- tem started in 1999 with research into favorable habitats and species relationships. A plan was developed to repopulate those habitats with the deer over a long period.
Scientists brought some water deer to Shanghai from the Zhoushan Islands, and the population expanded after years of breeding. The deer were closely monitored to ensure that they could survive on their own in the wild. “Our research showed that Zhoushan had the largest number of water deer, and it’s harder to catch the deer in the wild in other places,” said Chen. There were two targets for reintro- duction: the controlled environment of parks and public forestlands in the suburbs of Shanghai, and purely wild environments such as Nanhui Dongtan, according to Chen. “The program really kicked off when a pilot project was launched in Huaxia Park in 2006 to see if the water deer re- leased there could adapt to the climate and other conditions,” Chen said. The team monitored food resources to see what plants the water deer ate. The result showed that the animals were quite adaptable to new environ- ments and expanded their foraging to include more species of grasses. Infrared cameras set up in Nanhui Dongtan recorded the wild water deer last year and even caught the birth of a fawn on film. “But from our observations and survey work, there are still poaching incidents, so the focus of our follow-up efforts now is to expand the popula- tions in controlled environments,” Chen said.
Between October and December in 2014, about 45 water deer were released in controlled environments in Xinbang in the Songjiang District and in the Mingzhu Lake Park on Chongming Island.The water deer can now be seen in several locations in Shanghai, including Mingzhu Lake Park, the southern forest of Pudong and in Binjiang Park. “I saw some water deer when I visited the forestry station in Pudong a while ago,” Chen said. “Spotting water deer in the wild requires some luck. The longer you persist, the greater your chances are.” The Shanghai public, it seems, is well aware how essential native fauna is for a city’s ecological balance. “In a survey we conducted of Shanghai residents, over 90 percent supported the reintroduction of water deer to the local environment,” Chen said. “Some people even volunteered to donate money to the program.” Shanghai has launched a number of wetland restoration projects in recent years. They have been effective in try- ing to encourage native flora and fauna that were once considered endangered by economic development. “A good test to see if ecological recov- ery is in place is to bring back the old species,” Chen said. “If they can survive, it means an eco- logical system is sound. It’s not enough to have only plants. We also need ter- restrial animals and birds. The water deer is a bellwether of the recovery of Shanghai’s natural environment.”