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Pere David’s Deer

Order: Artiodactyla - Even Toed Ungulates
Family: Cervidae - All Deer

Scientific Name: Elaphurus davidianus


Pere David's deerDescription: Long legs.  Male is 4 ft. tall.  Female is smaller.  Male weighs up to 540 lbs., female weighs up to 300 lbs. Coat is brownish red in summer and grayish tan in winter. Long head.  Large eyes.  Pointed ears. Large, broad rump like a mule.  Long, blacked-tipped tail, bushy on the end.  Upper canines are present.  Have facial glands  (pre-orbital gland) just beneath the eye that contain a very strong smelling secretion used to scent mark.  Males are occasionally known to grow two sets of antlers in a year, a large set in summer, and a smaller set in the winter.  Antlers may reach 2½ ft. long.  Tines of antlers point backwards, which is the opposite of other deer.


RangeHome Range:  Formerly in the swampy plains of northeast China. Today, in reserves and zoos across the world. 


Habitat Type: Prefer swampy marshlands.


Reproductive Habits:  Mating season, or rut, runs from June to August.  Mature females gather in a group called a harem, which is dominated by a mature male, or stag.  Ownership of a harem is often disputed among several stags and is settled by contests both mock and real.  When fighting, adult males use their antlers and teeth as weapons, and may stand on their hind legs to box with their hooves.  Possession of the harem may change several times during the mating season.  The call of the stag consists of two or three guttural braying roars.  The challenge, often made on the run, takes the form of a series of grunts.  The males avoid the females for two months before and after they rut.

Gestation is 9 ½ to 10 months.  May give birth to one or two fawns, which are able to stand and walk almost immediately from birth.  They are nursed by their mother for 6-7 weeks and remain with her for one to two years.  Fawns are born a beige or yellowish brown with lighter spots. 


Diet in Wild:  Prefer lush grassland and young, tender shoots and leaves, depending on the plants available.  In the summer they will eat green water plants.


Diet in Zoo:   Alfalfa or grass hay, 12% protein pellets


General Info:  This unique breed of deer are named after a French missionary and naturalist, Pere Armand David.  In 1865, he discovered the only surviving herd in the walled, Imperial Hunting Park just outside of Beijing.  This deer had been extinct in the wild for several thousand years, and survived only in the private parks of Chinese emperors.  With the help of foreign diplomats, Pere David arranged for several to be sent to European zoos before he left China in 1874. He shipped several from China to Europe in the late nineteenth century, and is credited for saving the species from extinction.  In 1895, many of the remaining Pere David’s deer in the Nan Hai-tsu game park drowned in a flood, which killed most of the game animals in the park.  Those that escaped from the park during the flood were eaten by the starving Chinese, during a period of political unrest.  After the catastrophe, only about 20-30 deer remained alive in Nan Hai-tsu.  They survived only five more years.  When the news of the disaster reached Europe, directors of several zoos decided to give all of their specimens as breeding stock to one of the most famous animal breeders of his time, the Duke of Bedford.  He collected the 18 survivors together in one herd at Woburn Abbey wildlife park in England.  By 1939, the herd had grown to 250.  Present population is over 1000 worldwide.

Unlike many other species of deer, Pere David’s deer like water.  It is believed that they originally lived in the swamplands of eastern China, where they became accustomed to watery conditions.  In the summer, they may spend long periods standing in shoulder deep water during warm weather.  The male deer like to wallow in wet mud at the edges of lakes and ponds, using their hooves to flick mud and grass onto their back.

They are one of the largest deer in the world, and somewhat unusual.  The Chinese called Pere David’s deer ssu-pu-hsiang, which means “the four unlikes," because they thought it had a stag’s antlers, a camel’s neck, a cow’s hooves, and a donkey’s tail. The male’s antlers shed twice a year, and the points sweep backward, which is opposite of other deer.  The males grow large summer antlers which are shed in November.  These may be replaced by a smaller pair shed in late January.  They can be heard up to 100 yards away when they walk, because of cracking toes in their feet.

Once found primarily in the swamp plains of eastern China, they nearly became extinct when their natural swampy habitat became a rice-growing area and later, due to the flood which killed many of the remaining deer.  Today, they can be found at zoos and reserves around the world.  They roam on reserves as though they are still in the wild.  A semi-wild group is being established in China.  Because of a great effort over many years to save them, they are no longer in danger of extinction.



Wildlife Fact File. Group 1: Mammals. Card # 103. 1991.


Collins Guide to Rare Mammals of the World.  1987.  J. Burton and B. Pearson. Stephen Greene Press,  Lexington Mass. pp. 178.


Deer of the World.  1972. G. Kenneth Whitehead.  Constable and Company Press. London. pp. 100-101.


Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia.  Vol. 13.  1975.  Dr. H. C. Bernhard Grzimek.  Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, N. Y.  pp. 193-194.


Natural History of Living Mammals.  1986.  William Voelker.  Plexus Publishing, Medford NJ. pp. 276-278.