China Focus: Saving Guoguo the deserted milu deer amid floods



When he was only five days old, Guoguo was found deserted on the rear surface of an embankment.

"He was lying in the grass when patrollers found him, and he was quite fragile," said Li Zheng, head of the East Dongting Lake Milu Conservation Association. "We did not know if he could make it."

Guoguo is a milu deer cub found deserted by his mother on an embankment of the Dongting Lake, China's second-largest freshwater lake, in central China's Hunan Province, on July 5 when continuous downpours pushed up water levels as China entered the rainy season.

"The mother probably gave birth to him on the embankment, but was scared away by the rising floods and people patrolling the embankment," said Li, 47.

Milu, also known as Pere David's deer, are endemic to China where it bears the nickname "sibuxiang," or "like none of the four," for its unique features -- a horse's face, a donkey's tail, cow-like hooves and a stag's antlers.

The wetland deer species has been placed under A-level state protection after overhunting and habitat loss led to its near extinction in the early 20th century.


After sending the baby deer to a local milu deer rescue center, Li Zheng uploaded the photos of the fawn on his social media, through which one of his friends in the United States saw the pictures and contacted him.

"She wanted to help raise the deer until it fully recovers," Li said. "So she kept sending milk powder to us and asked us to update pictures and videos of the deer."

Since the child of Li's friend is named Guoguo, or "little fruity" in English, they decided to name the deer Guoguo as well.

The road to recovery was not easy for Guoguo.

"When we discovered him in the grass, he only weighed about 5 kg, which is quite a low for a milu deer," he said.

When Guoguo arrived at the rescue station, he was so thirsty that he consumed a lot of water and milk.

"Since he was really weak, we decided to inject glucose into him and let him rest," Li said. "We also concluded that he was about five days old."

After about a month of recovery, Guoguo has grown to more than 20 kg, and is "getting increasingly stronger each day."

"We have volunteers that take turns to feed him," Li said.

Guoguo eats eight times a day, and for each meal, he consumes three bottles of milk, with each bottle containing about 280 ml of milk. He could finish a bottle of milk within 10 seconds, Li said.

"He needs to eat every three hours, and if he doesn't get enough food in time, he cries," Li said.

For the first few days, Guoguo developed diarrhea and he began to walk with a limp.

Li told his friend about the situation.

"She cried, and asked us to help Guoguo with all of our efforts," Li said.

"We realized that Guoguo could not digest all the milk he consumed, so we fed him yeast pills," Li said. "We also asked experts to massage him, and the diarrhea soon disappeared."

Li said at the beginning they purposely laid a smooth, hard slab in Guoguo's shed so that he could walk on smooth, clean ground. But because his footpads were so delicate, he soon hurt himself and started to limp.

"We removed the slab immediately, and he recovered in a few days," Li said.

Guoguo will spend a year at the rescue station to fully recover and learn to adapt to the wild.

"We will release him into the wild next year," Li said.


Photo taken on Aug. 7, 2020 shows milu, also known as Pere David's deer, at a rescue center in Yueyang, central China's Hunan Province. (Xinhua/Chen Sihan)

Li Zheng and his peers have been protecting the milu deer groups around the Dongting Lake for many years.

"I started out in 2015, and established the East Dongting Lake Milu Conservation Association a year later," Li said.

Li grew up in the city of Yueyang near the Dongting Lake and has always heard stories about milu deer since he was a child.

"Everybody here knows the milu deer as a sacred animal, but I did not really get to know them well until a few years ago," he said.

In 2016, a huge flood lashed the Dongting Lake, and many milu deer were hurt. Li and his volunteer friends rescued many of them from the flood and released them into the wild after they recovered.

"After we released them, they would come back to visit," he said.

The number of wild milu deer has been rising around East Dongting Lake, from 65 in 2012, to 146 in 2017, though the increasing rate is lower than those in captivity, according to official figures.

The milu deer around East Dongting Lake usually give birth from early March to late May, and the water level in the Dongting Lake usually rises in May. As their habitats are swallowed by floodwater, the milu deer groups have to search for new habitats. Though milu deer can swim, some fawns are too small or too weak and often drown during the migration period.

Li Zheng's friend Song Yucheng has been rescuing the milu deer at the rescue center.

"We currently have 14 milu deer that we rescued at the station," said Song, 39.

Song said that a variety of factors in the vicinity often harm the milu deer.

"Sometimes they are scared by people, so they run and hurt themselves during the process," Song said. "Sometimes their antlers are entangled by electric wires or garbage."

The fawns are orphaned by their mothers for different reasons, Song added.

"Not long ago we found a strong, male milu deer, whose antlers were entangled by wires," Song recalled. "He was very strong and his antlers were huge."

Because of the deer's physique, Song and other volunteers could not get close to the deer. So they asked some professionals to use a tranquilizer gun to calm him down, untied him from the wires and left. The deer left the scene after waking up.

Over the years, Song has saved many milu deer.

"The first one was called Diandian, or "little spot," because when we rescued her in 2012, she had many spots on her body," Song said. "She was abandoned by her mother, and we took her over."

They also saved a male deer in 2016 and called him Benben, or "running bull," because they wanted the deer to grow healthily.

"He later became king of a deer group," Song said.

Song and Li often patrol the area to make sure that the deer are in good condition.

"Sometimes we walk more than 20 km a day, and my legs don't feel like my own at the end of the day," he said.

To help protect the milu deer, volunteers like Song and Li are promoting protection knowledge among the public, enhancing patrol in the area and trying their best to save as many as possible.

"The milu deer are sacred animals, and it is our responsibility to protect them," he said.

Breeder Li Weidong feeds a milu, also known as Pere David's deer, at a rescue center in Yueyang, central China's Hunan Province, Aug. 7, 2020. (Xinhua/Chen Sihan)