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Project to Save Rare Deer Wins China Conservation Award

More than a century ago, as many animal species were hunted to extinction at the imperial hunting ground near Beijing, the rare Pere David's deer were saved because the Chinese royal court sent a few to Europe.

Today, the large, ruddy-colored deer, with antlers that look as though they have been placed on backward, are thriving in special reserves in central and northern China, thanks to a local conservation group that reintroduced the rare animal from a British sanctuary.

The Beijing and Shishou David's Deer Reintroduction Project is one of five groups slated to be feted today at the first China Wildlife Conservation Awards, a milestone in improving relations between environmentalists and Chinese authorities, according to Steve Trent, president of San Francisco- based WildAid.

"My feeling is the Chinese government is very interested in this issue now," said Trent, whose nonprofit organization is dedicated to ending the illegal wildlife trade and protecting wilderness. "Wherever I go, I find a very open, forthright attitude."

WildAid and the China Environmental Protection Foundation are honoring the deer project today in Beijing for its efforts to protect and restore an endangered species in China. The winners will receive $4,200 each. They were chosen from among 37 nominees by a group of government and international nongovernmental organizations.

The other winners include:

  • The Urumqi Customs office in northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region, for clamping down on the illicit trade in endangered animal parts. -- Farmer Zhang Chuanshan for his efforts to protect a variety of yew tree famous for its cancer-fighting properties. 
  • The Hainan Datian Nature Preserve for rescuing the Eld's deer, a small Asian deer near extinction.
  • Yang Xin, an environmental activist, for fighting to protect the Yangtze River and Tibetan antelope. 

But the effort to save Pere David's deer -- a rare success story of species reintroduction in China -- is perhaps the most lauded project. The initial three dozen deer introduced in 1985 have now multiplied more than 1, 000 Pere David's deer -- named after the Jesuit missionary who spotted them during his travels across China in 1865. They are known locally as milu.

The project required "significant work" and immense dedication and time from Chinese and British conservation workers, said Cai Xueqing of the David's Deer Reintroduction Project in Beijing.

Because rapid economic development has caused severe environmental problems, China is one of the world's most challenging areas for conservation management, Trent said. The fight to protect wildlife, he added, is complicated by the increasing demand for traditional medicines and food made from endangered species, especially because many Chinese are becoming wealthier. This voracious market is even drawing imports of protected animal parts from other nations to satisfy China's growing demands.

But Trent and other environmentalists say today's awards and other actions by the central government have given them hope that change is on the way.

Last year, China's State Forestry Association finally released an inventory of the nation's endangered fauna and flora that need to be protected -- 150 of 640 animal and plant species included in the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. "There's a growing awareness among Chinese people themselves ...," Trent said.

"There's an understanding that time is running out in certain areas."