The reintroduction of rare and endangered species is one of the most important approaches to conservation and ecosystem restoration, but it has still proven to be an adventurous undertaking and most reintroduction programmes fail, so successful demonstrations are needed. Père David's deer (Elaphurus davidianus, Milu in Chinese) could be considered one of conservation's great success stories, as this species' path on the road to extinction has been reversed by a combination of ex-situ conservation and successful re-introduction in China. The species had been consigned to an imperial hunting ground when the last Chinese herds were exterminated during the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). Fortunately, a few of the last remaining individuals were sent to European zoos. From these animals, a herd was bred on the 14th Duke of Bedford's estate, Woburn Abbey, and between 1985 and 1987, and 38 Milu were donated back to China for re-introduction in Beijing Milu Park (BMP), the former imperial hunting ground. An additional 39 deer were released at Dafeng National Nature Reserve (DFNNR), Jiangsu Province in 1986. In both of these safe and protected locations, the Milu thrived allowing for over 700 Milu to be sent to a further 82 sites throughout the species' original Chinese range over the last 36 years. As a result, the Milu population totaled 9136 by 2021, with 2855 individuals now living back in the wild; while another 5681 individuals inhabit the DFNNR, and 186 reside in BMP. Wild Milu, however, still face significant conservation challenges. The population lacks genetic diversity, leading to severe inbreeding depression and carrying multiple risks, such as high miscarriage rates, a reduced lifespan, and susceptibility to disease. Environmental constraints such as pollution and habitat fragmentation further result in small, fragmented wild populations. Moreover, the species currently lacks a national level conservation master plan, the associated coordinated monitoring platforms, and breeding plans for China's captive populations. Finally, there is now a lack of international cooperation in the conservation of this species. We therefore call for both a national-level conservation master plan in China and international cooperation to develop a shared database and germplasm databank covering Milu across all countries with ex-situ populations, as crucial steps for securing the long-term conservation of Milu and preventing it from ever becoming “extinct in the wild” again.
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