Beijing's reindeer to provide more than sleigh-rides

BEIJING -- Reindeer might be associated with Yuletide sleigh pulling in some countries, but in Beijing, one company is hoping to profit from sales of reindeer products.

BEIJING -- Reindeer might be associated with Yuletide sleigh pulling in some countries, but in Beijing, one company is hoping to profit from sales of reindeer products.

Occupying nearly 20 acres of Beijing's rural outskirts, close to The Great Wall of China, “Deer World” is home to eight reindeer. The Park's owners, who imported the reindeer from China’s border with Mongolia, claim to have the biggest collection in Beijing. Deer World is still under construction, but is designed as both a petting zoo and eatery: visitors can get close to the deer in a specially designed deer sculpture park, before visiting the deer themed restaurant, where they can feast on deer ribs and platters of cold deer meat.

As more Beijingers buy cars, families are increasingly taking trips to places like Deer World on weekends. “Families from Beijing like to bring their children here on weekends,” Deer park worker Wang Qiuxia said. In its small way, the park is part of China’s expanding domestic tourism market, which grew 10 percent last year according to research company Euromonitor.

Park keeper Shang Ye, pictured with a reindeer this summer

Reindeers are a small portion of the 1,200 deer currently owned by the park, the majority of which are Spotted Deer and Red Deer. The lack of numbers keeps the reindeer off the restaurant’s menu for the time being. “We don’t have enough reindeer to start selling their products yet,” Shang Ye , Deer World’s head park keeper, said “At the moment, they’re just for visitors to look at”. Unlike Santa’s eight reindeer, those at Deer World haven’t been given cute names, Sheng said.

Sheng hopes to us artificial insemination to breed more reindeer for profit. “I hope we can sell reindeer milk in the future, and we’re investigating the possibility of selling reindeer meat,” Sheng said. Deer World is owned by the son of Chinese deer researcher Zhao Yufang, first person in China to artificially inseminate a deer, according to Deer World’s staff.

Meat consumption in China has more than doubled in the last 20 years, as rising incomes have shifted Chinese people towards a more protein-heavy diet. China’s meat market is dominated by pork and chicken, and deer meet accounts for just 1% of total sales. “Deer meat has a huge potential” Shang said. “It’s much less fattening than pork.”

Inside Deer World’s restaurant, private dining rooms are illuminated by electric chandeliers decorated with antlers, and a porcelain deer stands at the canter of each table. Customers can have an entire deer spit roasted for 6,800 RMB (about $1000 USD).

Demand for antlers is still the main motivation for breeding deer in China. Deer antlers have long been prized in Chinese medicine for their health-preserving properties, and are particularly popular with elderly people. “Selling antlers is the main part of our business,” Sheng said. The park plans to breed 5000 deer, 80 percent of which will be bred for their antlers. The antlers are cut off once a year, before they fully harden. The deer are given an anaesthetic while their antlers are cut, Sheng said.

The park's gift shop offers boxes of antler flakes and a specially brewed alcohol, flavoured with antler. The park also claims to own the world’s largest pair of deer antlers, which are kept on display in the park’s restaurant. A faded photograph above the antlers shows them undergoing inspection by former Chinese premier Zhang Zemin and then vice premier Wen Jiabao.

There’s also a healthy export market for deer antlers, with most of the world’s demand coming from South Korea, which uses antlers as part of its traditional medicine. New Zealand is currently the biggest exporter of Antlers, but China’s is not far behind with exports of 400 tons annually, according to The American University in Washington DC. “Why do you think the South Korean football team does better than China’s?” Sheng said. “It’s because they treat themselves with antlers, which are good for strength and stamina,” Shang said.

Most Chinese people don’t celebrate Christmas, so the reindeers won’t be having a particularly busy holiday season. “I'll be feeding them moss and leaves, the same as usual” Sheng said. In a nod towards the reindeer’s holiday associations, the park has built a sleigh for the reindeer to pull. “We plan to start offering sleigh rides to visitors next year,” he said.

Reindeer have always lived on sparsely populated borders, and so never really became part of Chinese Mythology. But Chinese people have regarded the spotted deer as an auspicious animal for thousands of years. For Sheng, which deer enters into myth doesn't make much of a difference. “I think its something Chinese and Western culture have in common, that deers are seen as magical animals,” Sheng said.

Photos: Author; Deer World.

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