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February 28, 2010

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Scientist works to rebuild city's deer population

NICKNAMED the "water deer mother," Dr Chen Min (pictured right) is a young zoologist at East China Normal University who has been researching Chinese water deer for 10 years.

Chen joined the Chinese Water Deer Reintroduction Program as a postgraduate student in 2000 and is now a core member of the team.

The program aims to reintroduce water deer - absent from Shanghai for about 100 years - into the city and help them settle in their "hometown" again.

Q: What are the natural characteristics and living habits of water deer?

A: They are good swimmers and very shy, sensitive and alert. They are easy to startle and will quickly scurry or jump to run away. But sometimes they are so nervous that they hit walls and railings and get hurt.

Water deer are not choosy about their living conditions. They like living in wetlands and as long as there is grass and water they are happy. The survival and reproductive rate of water deer are rather high compared with other rare animals such as giant pandas. The fact that such an animal is facing extinction really warned people and science of the bad environmental conditions.

Q: Nowadays, where is the highest number of water deer?

A: Water deer is the oldest variety of deer in the world and was specially found living in China. In the late 19th century, they were frequently sighted in suburban areas of Shanghai.

A British duke who visited China at that time took deer back to Britain and named them "Chinese water deer" because they liked swimming. Nowadays, most of the water deer in Britain are offspring of those original "migrants," some descendents still in Whipsnade Zoo, Belfordshire, England.

Britain, France and South Korea have lots of water deer. But in China, home of the species, the numbers are much smaller as the wetlands have sharply reduced.

I estimate that the number of wild water deer may be only around several thousands. Most of them are living in some parts of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangxi provinces.

Historically, water deer could be found in almost all the overflow areas of the Yangtze River and eastern China.

Q: What does the program do to protect water deer?

A: Water deer no longer existed in Shanghai so we hoped to restore their population here. As a result of years of research, we found the water deer living in Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province, were the same kind that had lived in Shanghai, so we decided to bring them in from there.

The first reintroduction occurred in 2007 when 21 deer were moved from Zhoushan to Huaxia Park in Pudong. Since then, more have been introduced in Huaxia Park, and also Punan Woods in Songjiang District.

Last November we moved 12 water deer that were born in Huaxia Park to Binjiang Forest Park in Pudong New Area. Now about 90 are living in these suburban parks in Shanghai.

We set them free in the parks to train them to get familiar with the climate and environment in Shanghai and gradually recover their wildness.

We also monitor their activities by radio and hire animal keepers to take care of them when they need.

The next step we are planning is to set them free in truly wild environments. I'm not sure when the program will reach this stage, but it is significant for their survival and an important addition for the ecosystem and biodiversity in Shanghai.

Q: Can we see water deer if we visit those parks?

A: Water deer are timid and tend to hide themselves in the woods. If you are lucky enough you might see some water deer. I suggest people to visit them in the summer because it's when they give birth to babies and the number of water deer might be bigger.

But please keep your distance from them. Don't chase or feed them, especially the baby water deer. If we touch them, the smell of their bodies will be changed and they might be abandoned by their mother.

Q: Are there any general suggestions about nature that you would like to share with Shanghai residents?

A: Please share your world with animals. We must give them enough space to live. Don't disturb their lives. People should be more concerned with their own activities that might trigger climate or environmental problems.

Q: Do you like animals? Do you keep pets?

A: Yes, I love animals. I have a dog now, and we have been together for nine years. I have also kept cats, squirrels, hedgehogs ? I think those who choose zoology as a profession must also have a strong passion for animals.


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