It had been more than 40 years since researchers last caught sight of the Bactrian deer in Afghanistan. For all they knew, the intricately-antlered ungulate had gone locally extinct. Its range had been tucked into the northeast corner of the country, an area that had since seen waves of invading forces and long periods of civil strife. The last time the animals had been surveyed, in the 1970s, researchers estimated there were only 120 or so left in the country.
Then in 2013, Zalmai Moheb and a team of conservationists went searching for the deer and other rare ungulates, following tips from local community members. After days of searching on horseback, their efforts were rewarded: In the Darqad district along the border of Tajikistan, they came across hoof prints and deer pellets. Then the team caught a fleeting glimpse of a lone young female deer—who promptly disappeared into a plume-grass thicket.
"It was a great feeling,” says Moheb, a wildlife ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and a PhD student in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s department of environmental conservation. He remembers thinking: “Wow, we're going to confirm the species here for the first time after 45 years. That will be a big thing for the wildlife in Afghanistan." Moheb wrote up his findings in a recent assessment of the Bactrian deer, which was published in the Deer Specialist Group newsletter of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The deer’s survival is particularly striking given what it has endured. The Takhar Province was on the border of the USSR during the Soviet-Afghan War, and came under the influence of Mujahedeen leaders like Ahmad Shah Masoud and future president Burhanuddin Rabbani in the 1980s. "That area was not safe," Moheb says. “The Mujahedeen was fighting the Soviet Union … Because of this instability, every household had a gun.”
Plentiful guns were bad news for the Bactrian deer. The general lawlessness meant that anyone could shoot animals for sport or subsistence, and the deer population dwindled precariously. “Since the start of the fighting with the Soviet Union until the government of Afghanistan captured the area from the Taliban it was not stable. Anyone could do anything,” Moheb says. He adds that while there wasn’t necessarily ongoing fighting, the area was rife with warlords and smugglers.
Since the 1960s, the global population has somewhat recovered from an estimated 350 to 400 individuals to around 1,900 free-ranging deer in 2011 partly due to conservation efforts, according to Moheb and his coauthors. Still, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service considers Bactrian deer endangered wherever found. Besides Afghanistan, the deer are found in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river valleys and their floodplain forests. They live in shrubs and tall reed-like vegetation, which offer protection from predators.
While the deer are somewhat protected on the Tajikistan side of the border in the Tigrovaja Balka Nature Reserve, Moheb says numbers are also declining there. In Afghanistan the deer only live in a remote 175-square mile floodplain, cut off from roads by the Amu Darya River. By the 1960s, poaching and habitat destruction in the Amu Darya river valley had already put a serious dent in the deer population, according to an article published by the IUCN's Deer Specialist Group. In 2004, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals released a draft proposal to give the deer international protection.
Recent genetic analyses conducted by Luisa Garofalo, a researcher with the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Lazio and Tuscany in Italy, further complicate the understanding of the species. Historically Bactrian deer have been classified as a subspecies of red deer; the IUCN still lists them as red deer with a "least concern" conservation status. But Garofalo's research shows that the Bactrian deer are not red deer at all, and should be considered a separate subspecies.
“Unfortunately there is very little scientific literature on these animals," she said in an email, adding that the IUCN Red List Group was currently reassessing the species and subspecies of Cervus in light of recent research. But she worries that IUCN policy of not breaking up subspecies could spell trouble for the deer's future. "The IUCN policy of the last decade, where conservation emphasis has been concentrated on species—at the expense of subspecies—is showing its myopic approach ever more," she says. "This and other genetically discrete populations of red deer require urgent protection measures."
The IUCN did not respond to a request for comment on the deer.
After some stability was restored to Afghanistan with the capture of the area by NATO forces, Moheb and others went into the area supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development to survey other horned ungulates. These included urial (endangered, swirl-horned wild sheep), Marco Polo sheep (the largest sheep on earth, and a national icon), ibex (goats with long, curling horns)—and hopefully, the Bactrian deer. “It had not been formally reported or anything,” Moheb says. “[The Bactrian deer] might have been totally extinct from the area.”
The deer still face subsistence hunting in Afghanistan, Moheb says. While it’s illegal to hunt them in the country, the law is difficult to enforce in areas where stability is still an issue. But it’s challenging to know how severe the hunting threat in Afghanistan is, since most of his knowledge comes from interviewing locals, and people tend not to speak up about poaching. Interviewees also cited habitat loss due to deforestation, overgrazing of cattle, land conversion to agriculture, and in the Darqad district, gold washing activity along the river.
Moheb's interviews also revealed another threat: the pet trade. It appears that some wealthy people in Afghanistan keep the deer as luxury caged pets, Moheb says. “They are beautiful and they have very beautiful antlers,” he says.
Tracking an elusive species is always challenging, but doing so in an ongoing conflict zone can be near-impossible. Since Moheb and his colleagues conducted their survey in 2013, recent fighting in nearby areas involving the Taliban have made the area unsafe. This helps explain why so little work has been done on Bactrian deer or other animals, like the snow leopards Moheb is studying now. “It's hard to work in the field of conservation but we are working,” Moheb says.
A 2012 study found that the Darqad area is high in terms of overall diversity, making it a good priority area for protection. In fact, a national park, or wildlife refuge, had been proposed for the area back in the 1970s—but the subsequent war with the Soviets put a pause to that.
Regardless of the political situation, Moheb says the animals need protection now. “If you wait for one thing to be over to start, at that time you may lose it,” he says.