Back from the brink

2017-07-07 02:10:59 | From:

Yang Guomei's photographs of milu. Photo: Yang Guomei

If there is anyone who is an authority on Père David's deer, known in Chinese as milu, it has to be Yang Guomei.

As the former county head of Dafeng, East China's Jiangsu Province, he participated in the reintroduction to China of the near-extinct Père David's deer from Britain in the 1980s and the establishment of the Dafeng Milu Nature Reserve, home to the biggest milu population in China.

His passion for the animal didn't stop there. Often seen with his cameras slung over his shoulder, the 72-year-old county head-turned photographer has been taking pictures of milu deers in Dafeng for over 30 years. Through his lens, he has recorded the growth of China's milu deer population from 39 to over 3,200. His artful photographs of milu have also earned him China's top photography award and dozens of international awards.

Yang Guomei. Photo: Courtesy of Yang Guomei

Storied history

The milu is an animal native to China's central and lower Yangtze River basin. Through Chinese historical records, it can be traced to the 11th century BC during the Shang Dynasty (C.1600-1046BC), when legendary Chinese noble Jiang Ziya rode the creature to victory after overthrowing the tyrannical king of Shang and helped establish the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256BC). Milu then became symbols of good fortune and spiritual superiority.

For thousands of years, the creature was unknown to the Western world, until the late 19th Century when French missionary Armand David, also known as Père David, obtained the carcasses of several milu deer when he was in China. He sent them to Paris, where biologists named the deer after him. It was also at this time that a number of milu deer were illegally sent to Europe for exhibitions and breeding.

Meanwhile, milu gradually became extinct in their native country. By the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the only milu herd in China lived in the Nanyuan Royal Hunting Garden in southern Beijing. During the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900, these last deer were captured and illegally sent to Europe, leading to the species' extinction in China.

For Yang, the extinction was a humiliating chapter in China's history. "It was a tragedy not just for the deer, but for our nation as well," Yang said.

Yang Guomei's photographs of milu. Photos: Courtesy of Yang Guomei


Milu were absent from China until the 1980s, when the Chinese government and the World Wildlife Fund decided to reintroduce them to their native soil.

In 1986, 36 Père David's deer were chosen from five UK zoos and introduced to the Dafeng Milu Nature Reserve. Yang, the vice county head of Dafeng county, was in charge of the construction of the nature reserve. He introduced drinking water into the reserve, and built a complex of exhibition halls, pagodas and towers, transforming it from a wasteland into a natural park. By 1998, the milu population in the nature reserve had grown by an average of 23 percent each year to 354.

While his initial care for milu deer came mainly from his sense of responsibility as a county head, that soon turned into a tie with the animal that became much more personal. "I just can't get rid of the image of milu in my mind, and during weekends, I often go to the nature reserve to photograph them," he said.

From another perspective, he believed that capturing pictures of milu would boost people's understanding of the animal. "Chinese people weren't familiar with milu deer at that time, so I thought it was necessary to re-introduce milu to the Chinese through pictures," Yang said.

Yang was by no means a veteran photographer. He bought his first camera - a compact one - when he was 38 years old, and started shooting milu deer when he was 41. But years of practice and, more importantly, time spent with milu deer, turned him into a master in photographing these creatures.

Yang Guomei's photographs of milu. Photos: Courtesy of Yang Guomei

Getting the shot

It's not easy to get up close to these usually timid animals, and taking their pictures requires a great deal of patience and sometimes good luck. "Sometimes you can walk dozens of kilometers in the nature reserve without seeing a single milu," Yang said.

"And they're so timid that they will run away as soon as they spot a human being nearby, making all your waiting in vain," he said.

The variety of bugs, insects and sometimes snakes which are common at the nature reserve also pose a challenge to the photographer. "Even if it's over 35 degrees, I have to wrap myself up right up to the neck in order to prevent getting bug bites, which can be dangerous," he said.

However, knowledge of the deer's habits and personalities gives him an understanding of how important it is to seize his opportunities whenever he can. Once, he was walking in the nature reserve with several photographers when he suddenly spotted two deer across the river fighting each other with their antlers. It was the rut season, when bucks would fight each other to win dominance over the doe.

Yang quickly jumped into the river and began wading across the neck-high water to capture the moment, despite the other photographer's warning of danger.

That photograph depicting the deer fight eventually earned him dozens of national and international awards.

Over the years, Yang's photography style also shifted from documentary to artistic, using backlight, shadow and color to reflect his own feelings and understanding of the animal.

One of his more famous works is a photo of the back of a buck and a doe, heads tilted to the center as if they are looking affectionately at each other. Yang titled the photo "Love."

"That photograph marked a change in my photographing career - I started to incorporate more emotion in my photographs," he said.

At 72 years old, Yang shows no sign of stopping, insisting he will continue photographing milu, "and add more artistic and cultural flavor to my work."

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