Rare elks roam expanded habitats as biodiversity improves

CHANGSHA (XINHUA) – Elks, one of the largest members of the deer family, are usually gregarious and inherently vigilant to their surroundings, but not this one. Eight-year-old female elk Diandian (a popular pet name for ‘little’ in Chinese) has an intimate friendship with people.

“Most elks break into a gallop once someone approaches while Diandian is deliberate and unhurried,” said Li Zheng, a volunteer elk keeper who has taken care of the adventurous deer for years.

Li is also the President of an elk conservation association in Yueyang City, central China’s Hunan Province, and head of a local elk and bird rescue centre, where 11 elks, including Diandian, set up their families.

Eight years ago, one-week-old Diandian was left behind by her herd and when people found her in the reed, she looked too bony and emaciated to survive.

She is now a proud mother of three elk cubs thanks to the enduring love and care from staff at the local nature reserve. Growing up with her keepers, Diandian gradually started treating people as her friends.

March, when the breeding season starts, is the busiest time for Li and his colleagues as they need to work extra hours to take care of the animals until mid-May.

“At 7.58am on March 18 this year, I fed Diandian some fresh asparagus shoots and leaves as breakfast as usual, and moments later when I returned, an elk cub was teetering right beside her,” said Li who clearly remembers the birth of the deer’s third off-spring.

“Since it is her third cub and born in the third month of the year, we named it ‘Sansan’ (meaning the third in Chinese),” he said.

Initially just curious about the mysterious species, Li has developed a deep affection for elks and is determined to protect them with his whole heart and soul. From 2016 until now, he has been at the very frontline of elk rescue and protection in Yueyang.

“Now as our country is laying more emphasis on ecology and wildlife protection, people are increasingly aware that elks are state-protected animals,” Li said, adding that “fishing gear that used to threaten the survival of elks are hardly seen now in nature reserves”.

On May 27, a team of experts went on the second patrol this year to investigate the population of elks in the east Dongting Lake.

“It takes time and luck to spot one and figure out the total number, especially when they live in the thick reeds that are four to five metres tall,” said the team leader Song Yucheng, also deputy chief engineer of the nature reserve of the lake and member of the elk association.

Early in 2009, Song saw an elk for the first time when he was studying for his doctorate degree on zoology. Since then, he has made up his mind to help protect and expand the habitats of the species in Dongting.

There are often loud cheers from the research team whenever they spot elks during the patrol, using telescopes. Each of them is responsible for a part of the research with some flying drones, some counting the number and some estimating the age of the male elks based on the shape and size of their antlers.

As the major flood season approaches, Song and his colleagues are gearing up for their busiest time of the year. They will patrol the lake area day and night to search for stranded, injured elks, monitor the flood intensity and supply food to those in need.

The past several years have witnessed the gradual recovery and increase of the elk population. Elks, once an endangered species, have now been listed as “rare” animals thanks to the efforts of experts like Li and Song.

As the ecological environment improves in the Dongting Lake, China’s second-largest freshwater lake, amid a countrywide green push, the wetlands have become a paradise regained for numerous wildlife species, including migratory birds and the endemic Yangtze finless porpoise.

“We will continue to protect these precious animals and their living environment,” Song said.