The hog deer is a stocky, medium-sized, riverine-dwelling species of cervid that formerly inhabited the Nanting River watershed of Yunnan Province, China, bordering Myanmar in the south-west. This species used to share its habitat with Asian elephants, rhinoceroses, white-handed gibbons, and Indo-Chinese tigers. But the hog deer has not been recorded in China since 1965. In 2007, a fawn initially identified as a hog deer was rescued by Reserve staff in Daxueshan Nature Reserve, but it was later confirmed to be a sambar calf. A lack of recent scientific surveys meant that people still debated whether hog deer survived in China.

The hog deer is currently only seen in zoos in China. Left: a male in Beijing Zoo. Right: female hog deer in Shanghai Zoo. Photos: Zhigang Jiang

We have been conducting fieldwork since October 2018 to help answer this question. We have visited Cangyuan, Yongde, Gengma and Zhenkang Counties across the hog deer’s historical range and interviewed 50 Indigenous people about the species. We collected information on potential hog deer presence, the social and economic status of local people, and on the Indigenous residents’ livelihoods and culture. We were warmly received and established a cooperative relationship with the communities involved. Additionally, with the help of forest rangers, we deployed 150 camera traps in Nangunhe and Daxuedshan Nature Reserves.

Top left: We interviewed indigenous people to collect available information about hog deer. Bottom left: Our survey team members conducted a transect investigation with the guidance of forest rangers in ironwood micro-reserve where was a historical habitat of hog deer. Right: Our daily life in Daxueshan Nature Reserve, Yunnan, China.

Our time in the field was a thrilling experience. Once, we were chased by elephants after stumbling into their territory in Nangunhe Nature Reserve, and had to rely on the thick forest and rugged terrain for shelter. On another occasion we were inundated with leeches whilst walking along the river. In Daxueshan Nature Reserve, we established our camp on a mountain pass at 3,000 m. When night fell, we would sit around the bonfire, sipping rice wine and listening to elders singing folk songs and telling stories about when they were young. We absorbed their cultural values and understanding of the coexistence between people and nature. We fell asleep to the barking of red muntjac and the singing of grey nightjars. Every mountain and river, every field experience is unforgettable and touching, and makes me more enthusiastic to engage in ecological protection and scientific research.

Camera trap placed along the line transects.

Over 2 years, our camera traps captured more than 7,000 photos and video clips of 29 medium and large mammals, including the Asian elephant, leopard, dhole, northern pig-tailed macaque, Phayre’s leaf monkey and sambar. Unexpectedly, we also captured images of the common water monitor and irrawaddy varanid, with the latter being the first photograph of this species in the wild in China. However, we did not record any evidence of hog deer.

Our findings appear to indicate that the hog deer has been extirpated from China as a result of habitat loss and overexploitation. The majority of floodplain grasslands along the Nanting River were lost in the mid and late 1970s with the establishment of Mengding Farm, and only small patches of reeds remain. Hog deer habitat has since been reclaimed for agriculture and human settlements.

A glance at the mammal diversity in our study area. From left to right, top to bottom: black bear, leopard, jackal, sambar, Asian elephant, Indian muntjac, northern pig-tailed macaque, Phayre’s leaf monkey langurs and stump-tailed macaque.

Our failure to relocate the hog deer in China is a wake-up call for the global conservation of the species. We recommend the establishment of a protected area in the Nanting River watershed and the reintroduction of the species there. Wetlands, especially floodplain grasslands, often receive insufficient protection, and a reintroduced hog deer population could be a flagship for reversion of some of the agricultural lands of the Nanting River watershed to floodplain grasslands. We hope the post-2020 framework from the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, will be an opportunity to reverse the trend of global biodiversity loss.

The suitable habitat of hog Deer had been replaced by farmland and plantations.

All photos: Chenchen Ding

The article Probable extirpation of hog deer from China: implications for conservation is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Chenchen Ding is a PhD student in ecology at Beijing Normal University, China. He received his Master's degree in 2019 from the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. During his postgraduate degree, he studied ungulate population status and conservation in the south-west mountains of China. His interests focus on conservation biology and global change ecology.