Head to Yancheng for endangered deer and cranes

WILDLIFE lovers are in for a treat at fauna-rich marshlands of Yancheng. Situated on the central coast of Jiangsu Province, Yancheng (literally “salt city”) is characterized by its tidal landscape that makes it a perfect habitat for many endangered species, including the Père David’s deer, or Milu, and rare birds like the red-crowned crane.

At the Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve, herds of Milu, a species that is native to the subtropics of China and nearly went extinct, roam freely on the marshes.

With branched antlers, wide hooves, a long tail and reddish summer coats, this species of deer is the only one in its genus. Every year in late May, visitors at the reserve can watch a spectacle when a fierce competition breaks out among adult deer ahead of the mating season from June to August for the “Deer King” title.

In the late 19th century, the only known Milu population in the world was at the Nanyuan Royal Hunting Garden near Beijing. The garden belonged to Emperor Tongzhi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). 

From 1869 to 1890, the deer was shipped, albeit illegally, to European zoos, where it went by the name Père David’s deer, named after Armand David, the French missionary who introduced it to West.

Most of the deer in the garden died in the floods of 1895. Those that survived were lost during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The species nearly went extinct in China, and was only found in captivity in Europe.

It was not until 1985 that the deer was reintroduced to its natural habitat. In 1986, Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve was founded to conserve and naturalize the 39 Milu it received from the zoos in England. 

Over the decades that followed, the number of deer in Dafeng rose to 3,223, a tenth of which have been fully released into the wild. Today the reserve accounts for 45 percent of the world’s entire Milu population.

Also on the coastal wetlands of Yancheng is the National Nature Reserve for Rare Birds, a biosphere reserve listed as part of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program.

The reserve, which covers a coastal beach area of 280,000 hectares, extending over 582 kilometers, is a must-see site for bird enthusiasts. Over 400 species can be found here, including the red-crowned crane, the hooded crane, the Oriental stork, the reed parrotbill, the relict gull, the Saunders’s gull — the list goes on. 

These rare birds are endangered mostly due to loss of pristine wetland habitats to the increasing demand for land for food production and economic development. The reserve aims to protect them from any further encroachment by humans.

Although the wetlands in the reserve are full of charm and life in summertime, the best time to visit is between November and March, when massive flocks of migrant birds congregate in the reserve. 

In fact, around half of the world’s remaining 2,000 red-crowned cranes winter in this area, hence its reputation as the “paradise of red-crowned cranes in China.” 

Also known as Japanese or Manchurian crane, the species is of large build and among the rarest cranes in the world. In Chinese culture, the bird is often featured in myths and legends, symbolizing longevity, immortality and nobility. 

In addition to the Milu and the red-crowned crane, visitors might also stumble upon some other pleasant surprises.

Look for badgers, otters, leopard cats and water deer (informally known as vampire deer) that inhabit in this wonderful part of the Yellow Sea coast, a mere four-hour drive from Shanghai.

• Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve

Opening hour: 8am-6pm

Admission: 55 yuan

Best season to visit: May-October

How to get there: Buses depart every day from Shanghai’s major long-distance bus stations to Dafeng. The trip takes about three and a half hours. From Dafeng station, there are regular buses to the nature reserve.


• National Nature Reserve for Rare Birds

Opening hour: 8:30am-5pm

Admission: 40 yuan

Best season to visit: November-March

How to get there: There are many buses every day from Shanghai’s major long-distance bus stations to Yancheng. The trip takes about four and a half hours. The nature reserve is another 40 kilometers from downtown Yancheng.