by Xinhua writers Yuan Quan and Ni Ruijie
NANJING, Aug. 11 (Xinhua) -- When Ding Yuhua, 62, was first introduced to milu deer, the acquaintance was not a happy one.
Three decades on, he regards them as family and his work has won him nationwide acclaim and a host of accolades, including the title, "Guardian of Milu Deer".
Milu, also known as Pere David's deer, is a species endemic to China, but overhunting and loss of habitat led to its near extinction in the early 20th Century.
In 1986, the British government gifted 39 milu deer to Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve in east China's Jiangsu Province, starting the revival of the population in its homeland.
It also began Ding's 28-year career as a milu keeper. With his care, hard work and years of research, the population had grown to 3,223 this year.
Ding recalls being less than happy when he was assigned to the job three decades ago. A skilled vet, used to tending to cattle and sheep, he found the milu a very strange species.
He knew it by its informal Chinese name, "sibuxiang", which translates as "the four unlikes", referring to the animal's incongruous features: the neck of a camel, the hoofs of a cow, the tail of a donkey, and the antlers of a deer.
Milu were not acclimatized to the water and land in their ancestral home. Many suffered severe diarrhea and dyspepsia. With no references or instruction, Ding and his colleagues could only use their veterinary experience to treat them. During the first three months, he watched them around the clock, sleeping just two or three hours a day.
It was dangerous work too. He suffered snakebites, heat stroke, and was once almost killed by a frenzied milu deer.
His colleagues were scared away from the job, and some advised him to quit, but Ding refused. "I have spent so much time with the milu, I think they are part of my life."
One day, he discovered a large-antlered buck had escaped over the wire fence. Ding was very worried and began searching the vast swampland that covered more than 1,300 square kilometers.
The search lasted from summer to autumn. During the day, Ding walked for miles, crossing rivers and marshes, suffering insect bites and injuries from tree branches; at night, he climbed the trees with a flashlight, hoping to spot the shining eyes of the deer. He once woke from a nap to find himself hanging from a tree.
Finally, by following hoof prints and droppings, Ding found the runaway by a river. "I will never forget the scene," Ding recalls. "I was so relieved that all my efforts had paid off."
However, he hesitated, and then he stepped back. "Milu had been kept in captivity for centuries," he thought. "They should be free to roam."
From then on, Ding gave up fencing and began observing the milu through his binoculars. He always took a notebook and a flashlight, recording details of their feeding and other activities.
Keeping his distance resulted in a lot of discoveries, such as milu prefer to stand against the wind to keep out the cold; they can eat about 100 kinds of land and aquatic plants; short and urgent cries indicate that they are frightened....
His discoveries enabled the release of more captive-bred milu deer into the wilderness. Soon the first wild milu deer was born in the Dafeng reserve. On that day, he celebrated with a few cups of wine to welcome the "new family member".
Ding's real family often complained about his obsession. "For the past 30 years, he has spent more time there than in his home," says Cao Caiping, his wife. His biggest regret is missing his father's funeral due to his work.
In 2014, Ding retired, but he continued writing essays and books, and sharing his experience with younger generations. His daughter studied milu conservation for her doctorate.
He is deeply gratified that more people have joined him to care for the species. The team of milu keepers has grown from nine in 1986 to 80 this year, including a dozen with university degrees.
Furthermore, millions of students have learned about milu deer through their textbooks.
After the death of the buck, Ding and a colleague, wrote a poem:
"The beautiful land, your ancestors' home,
Lives do not end, left for a long time,
Fun in the wild, unforgettable days,
My dear friend, rest in peace."