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Pythons swallow deer population

CHINESE conservationists say the rapid breeding of protected pythons in a nature reserve in south China's Hainan Province has endangered a rare deer species there.

Both conservationists and researchers aren't sure how to protect the rare deer species, Eld's deer, from the rapidly expanding python population in the Datian Nature Reserve.

Pythons and Eld's deer are both listed for top state protection in China, according to Xu Shiying, chief of the reserve's administration.

The Datian Nature Reserve was established in 1976 to protect Eld's deer, which was on the verge of extinction.

The number of the rare deer in the reserve had increased to more than 1,600 thanks to conservation efforts in the past three decades. Datian is now home to 690 deer after conservation workers have moved some of the deer to other nature reserves on the island province, according to Xu.

The normal propagation rate of the deer is 15 percent annually. There should be 100 fawns born each year, Xu said. "We have been patrolling the nature reserve and found that the actual number of fawns is far below 100," Xu said.

The exact number of pythons in the nature reserve, however, is not known. Zhang Liling, head of the Hainan Python Institute, said female pythons produce 20 to 50 eggs each year, of which 70 to 80 percent could hatch successfully.

Conservation workers have spotted deer remains in the pythons' manure. One python was found dead in April 2008 after its belly was burst open by an antlered buck it had swallowed. Another python was also found in early May to have swallowed a muntjac, a small deer species, according to Xu.

"We can't kill pythons for the sake of protecting Eld's deer, so the only thing we can do is to move pythons elsewhere as long as we find them at Datian," said Xu.

Conservation workers have found and moved 28 pythons from the reserve to the Hainan Python Institute since 2007.

Zhang said pythons were necessary to keep the ecological balance in the Datian Nature Reserve.

"Pythons don't have a natural enemy around Datian, but without their presence, rabbits, wild boars and rodents will breed at an even more alarming speed and will eat away limited food sources that Eld's deer depend on."


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