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UPDATED: 11:25, July 13, 2004
China's elk population rises to 706
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China has the world's largest population of elks, as its total number of the large, gregarious deer with curved antlers has risen to 706 from the 39 reported in 1986, according to sources attending an international symposium on the protection of global peatland resources.

Of all the 706 elks, about 30 percent of the world's total, 41 are living in the wild, according to Ding Yuhua, a researcher with the national nature reserve for elks in Dafeng county, eastern Jiangsu Province.

"They're all doing very well and very healthy -- sturdier than their peers bred in captivity at the reserve," Ding told the symposium, which was held in Lanzhou, capital of the northwestern Gansu province, last week. "They enter estrus regularly and have given live births."

In 1998 and 2001, the reserve released eight and six elks respectively to marshy areas. In 1999, a cub was born in the wild and gave birth to another cub in March 2003.

Last October, the reserve released another 18 elks -- includingsix males and 12 females -- to the wild. One of the females gave birth to a he-elk in March and at least four more baby elks are expected within this year.

Experts at the reserve have been tracing these elks in the wildwith the help of a radio emitter tied to the neck of one male. Since they are social animals and travel in packs, experts say that by tracing one elk, they can trace the whole community.

Elks were indigenous to China but became extinct toward the endof the 19th century. World scientists believe that to restore the species in its ancestral home is crucial to its preservation across the globe.

To rescue this species, the World Wildlife Fund and China's Ministry of Forestry helped introduce 39 elks from Britain in 1986,which were kept at Dafeng Nature Reserve.

By 1988, the elks had given 19 live births and the population expanded at an annual 19.6 percent to 350 in 1998.

Today, after nearly 18 years of construction, the reserve has become the largest elk raising center with the world's first elk gene database, Ding acknowledged. "Elks are seen everywhere in thereserve."

But Ding said the expansion of the elk population -- particularly those bred in captivity -- also brought new problems,including higher pressure on their own habitat, and caused the wetland to shrink and degenerate.

On the other hand, elks are seen at times feasting on the crops of farmland close to the reserve, to the local peasants' regret.

The symposium, which ended on Saturday, drew more than 100 officials and wetland scientists from nine countries -- including China, Russia, Britain and the Netherlands.

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