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Catholic-Animals
THE ARK

A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals

 

Selections From The Ark Number 207 - Autumn/Winter 2007

 

JUST WHO IS THIS FATHER DAVID?

A frequent contributor to The Ark, the Revd David Sox has been researching the life and achievements of a remarkable French priest, the naturalist, Father Armand David (pronounced: Daveed).

BY DAVID SOX

ENTER KEW GARDENS BY THE LION GATE and turn right. You are at plot 485. Facing you is a sturdy tree, identified as Father David’s maple: Acer davidii. Go over to the Princess of Wales conservatory and you will see Davidia involucrata, known popularly as the Handkerchief or Dove tree with its ethereal white bracts that look like flowers.

In Woburn Abbey’s park you can see Father David’s deer, Elaphurus davidianus, an odd creature called ‘sibuxiang’: the four unlikes. That was because it seems to have the tail of a donkey, antlers of a deer, neck of a camel and hooves of an ox.

But it is with the giant panda that Father David will forever be linked in the public’s mind. He was the first Westerner to observe the creature. Père Armand David (1826-1900) was a French Basque by birth and a Lazarist missionary priest by vocation. He was born at Espelette near Bayonne in the Pyrenees. While other boys played games, Armand chased butterflies and collected flowers.

From his father, a doctor of medicine, he inherited a love of nature as well as the habit of trekking through the mountains for hours at a time. That would be very important later in his life.

Armand said that he ‘passionately loved the beauties of nature’ but was also drawn to the Congregation of the Missions founded in 1625 by St Vincent de Paul. When he was ordained in 1862 it was obvious that he had an extraordinary ability in botany and zoology. Unlike others, Armand saw no difficulties between natural history and religion. In fact, when Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared in 1859, Père David said that he had often thought about such matters: ‘Is it not reasonable to believe that the principal types of animals and plants … underwent slow modification and were gradually divided into races, species and varieties which continue to propagate and increase’…

For long Armand was fascinated about China and it was no secret that was where he hoped to go in his ministry. His superiors knew of this but they asked him first to teach science at their college in Italy. The boys loved him and a number of them followed him into scientific studies.

Ten years later, when he was 35, Armand was sent to the missions in China. However, it was apparent that Armand would be far more effective as a scientist that as a missionary. In 1868 the French government requested his superiors that the priest be allowed to dedicate himself full-time to exploratory scientific work funded by the State.

During his three trips in imperial China (1866-1874) Père David discovered 200 species of animals, 63 of which were hitherto unknown to zoologists. He also found more than 1570 plants which included 250 new species.

Apart from the Handkerchief tree and maple named in his honour, there are the butterfly bush, buddleia davidii; a clematis, clematis hereacleifolia var. davidiana; a lily, lilium davidii; a peach, prunus davidiana; a photinia, photonia davidiana and many more.

In the animal world Father David encountered golden monkeys, serow, 58 species of birds, about 100 insect species, many snails and fish and the Chinese giant salamander. Added to all of this, his attitude towards the environment was uniquely advanced. Regarding China’s deforestation he wrote in 1875:

‘From one year’s end to another one hears the hatchet and the axe cutting the most beautiful trees. The destruction of these primitive forests, of which there are only fragments in all of China, progresses with unfortunate speed. They will never be replaced. With the great trees will disappear a multitude of shrubs which cannot survive except in their shade; also all the animals small and large, which need the forest in order to live and perpetuate their species … it is unbelievable that the Creator could have placed so many diverse organisms on the earth, each one so admirable in its sphere, so perfect in its role only to permit man, his masterpiece, to destroy them forever.’

Deforestation continues at an alarming rate in China, as do its carbon emissions. The deer named for Père David were hunted to extinction in the wild but the priest’s interest led to an eventual captive breeding in England. Other creatures have also benefited from the example of the Lazarist, including the one which has come to be the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund (see opposite page 16).

After a number of near-fatal illnesses, Père David returned to France in 1874. He spent his remaining days at the mother-house of his order in Paris. He died peacefully on 10 November 1900 at the age of 74. As with all members of his order, the grave is marked with a simple cross. At Père David’s, an admirer recently placed a toy panda.

Postscript:

In a letter to The Independent newspaper, 4th May 2007, David Sox writes from the Natural History Museum, London:

Sir, Regarding your timely article on China’s growth and its environmental effects (25 April), we have been there before. The remarkable French missionary-naturalist Père Armand David (who saved from extinction the deer now named for him and was the first Westerner to observe the panda) wrote in 1875:

From one year’s end to another one hears the hatchet and the axe cutting the most beautiful trees.

The destruction of these primitive forests, of which there are only fragments in all of China, progresses with unfortunate speed. They will never be replaced. With the great trees will disappear a multitude of shrubs which cannot survive except in their shade; also all the animals small and large, which need the forest in order to live and perpetuate their species.

It is unbelievable that the Creator could have placed so many diverse organisms on the earth, each one so admirable in its sphere, so perfect in its role, only to permit man, his masterpiece, to destroy them for ever.

Yours faithfully,
David Sox

Return to: Number 207 - Autumn/Winter 2007

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