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Bactrian deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus) still exist in Afghanistan

Authors:
  • Wildlife Conservation Society Afghanistan
  • Wildlife Conservation Society, Afghanistan

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The Darqad District in Takhar Province, which forms the biggest floodplain on the Panj River in northern Afghanistan, was known to have a Bactrian deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus) population, and was proposed as a protected area in the 1970s. However, due to four decades of political unrest, very little is now known about the area and its wildlife. We conducted a field survey of Darqad in November and December 2013 and confirmed the presence of Bactrian deer more than 40 years after the last documented record of the species in the area. From direct observation of a single live animal, indirect field evidence and community reports, we found that Bactrian deer are resident in the north and occasionally visit the west, southwest, and southern parts of Darqad. The estimated global population of Bactrian deer increased from 350 – 400 in the 1960s to ca. 1,900 free-ranging animals in 2011 thanks to conservation efforts in the former Soviet Union territory in Central Asia. In Afghanistan Bactrian deer have been declining due to habitat loss, hunting, pet trade, and other anthropogenic activities and are currently in urgent need of conservation.
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DSG Newsletter Nº28
ISSN 2312-4644
May, 2016
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Bactrian deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus) still exist in Afghanistan
Zalmai Moheb1,2, Nasratullah Jahed1, Hafizullah Noori1,3
1. Wildlife Conservation Society-Afghanistan Program, Kabul Afghanistan
2. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Massachusetts, USA zmoheb@umass.edu,
mohebzalmai@yahoo.com
3. Massey University, Palmerston North 4474, New Zealand
Abstract
The Darqad District in Takhar Province, which forms the biggest floodplain on the Panj River in northern
Afghanistan, was known to have a Bactrian deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus) population, and was
proposed as a protected area in the 1970s. However, due to four decades of political unrest, very little is
now known about the area and its wildlife. We conducted a field survey of Darqad in November and
December 2013 and confirmed the presence of Bactrian deer more than 40 years after the last
documented record of the species in the area. From direct observation of a single live animal, indirect
field evidence and community reports, we found that Bactrian deer are resident in the north and
occasionally visit the west, southwest, and southern parts of Darqad. The estimated global population of
Bactrian deer increased from 350 400 in the 1960s to ca. 1,900 free-ranging animals in 2011 thanks to
conservation efforts in the former Soviet Union territory in Central Asia. In Afghanistan Bactrian deer
have been declining due to habitat loss, hunting, pet trade, and other anthropogenic activities and are
currently in urgent need of conservation.
Keywords: Darqad District, Cervus elaphus bactrianus, Bactrian deer, re-discovery, threats
Introduction
The Bactrian deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus) is a subspecies of red deer (Cervus elaphus) that only
occurs naturally along the Amu Darya River, Syr Darya River and their tributaries in Afghanistan,
Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (Nowak 1999). It inhabits predominantly the
Tugai forest, which is a riparian forest composed of woody and shrub thickets dominated by poplar
(Populus spp.), oleaster (Elaeagnus spp.), tamarix (Tamarix spp.) and reeds (Phragmites spp.), along the
riverbanks and floodplains of semi-arid and desert areas (Bannikov 1978, Thevs 2005).
The global population of Bactrian deer experienced serious fluctuations during the second half of the 20th
century. In the 1950s it disappeared from the Syr-Darya basin (Bannikov 1978). By the 1960s, the
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number of Bactrian deer had dropped to 350-400 individuals, due to numerous anthropogenic threats, and
was limited to wildlife sanctuaries. However, with the establishment of special reserves and introduction
of the animal to several other suitable areas within the former Soviet Union, the number of Bactrian deer
increased to ca. 900 animals in the 1980s (Bannikov 1978, Pereladova 2013), followed by a drop to ca.
350 individuals after the breakup of the Soviet Union (Pereladova 2013). Thanks to successful
conservation actions in most of its range, the population of Bactrian deer rebounded to an estimated ca.
1,900 free-ranging animals in 2011 (Pereladova 2013). The Bactrian deer has not been evaluated,
however, red deer as a whole is currently listed as Least Concerned on the IUCN Red List (Lovari et al.
2008).
Figure 1: Map of the surveyed site showing the areas with confirmed presence of Bactrian deer (Cervus
elaphus bactrianus), November-December 2013.
The oldest scientific records of Bactrian deer from Afghanistan date back to the 19th century. Scully
(1887; cited by Hassinger 1973) reported an antler of Cervus cashmirianus (=C. elaphus) from the banks
of the Amu Darya River near the city of Balkh. Flerov (1952) mentioned that the deer was found along
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the Kukche River in its confluence with the Amu Darya; along the Kunduz River valley from Khanabad
to Amu Darya; and along the Balkh River. One individual kept captive at Kabul University in 1973 was
allegedly captured in northern Afghanistan (Hassinger 1973). Neumann & Nogge (1973; cited by Shank
et al. 1977) estimated that the Afghan population was reduced to ca. 120 individuals by the early 1970‟s,
surviving in the riparian forests of Takhar and Kunduz provinces. Habibi (2003) includes the northern
parts of Kunduz and Takhar provinces in the historical range for the species (Fig. 1). A recent wildlife
survey carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society in December 2007 in the riparian forests of the
Panj River in its historical range in Kunduz and Takhar provinces failed to find any indication that the
species was present and reported that none of the 26 local persons interviewed had seen a live specimen
of Bactrian deer in Afghanistan in recent years (Ostrowski et al. 2008).
Here we report the results of a survey aimed at evaluating the contemporary presence of Bactrian deer and
the main threats affecting the species in the district of Darqad, Takhar Province, Afghanistan.
Study Area
Darqad is the northernmost district of Takhar Province in northern Afghanistan. It shares an international
border with Tajikistan to the north and west, and borders the Afghan districts of Dasht-e-Qala, Khwaja
Bahawuddin and Yangi Qala to the south and east, respectively (Fig. 1). Darqad District borders the
major habitat of Bactrian deer in Tajikistan Tigrovaja Balka Nature Reserve - where, the Bactrian deer
population was estimated at 150 in 2011 (Pereladova, 2013). The Panj River isolates ca. 70% of Darqad
District from the mainland and gives it a unique island/floodplain shape with sparse wetland and riparian
habitat types; the remaining portion is connected to the adjacent districts. The island of Darqad is
approximately 456 km2 (AGCHO 2012) of flat floodplain area at 400-500 masl. Records for annual
precipitation in the area are lacking but the average rainfall in Yangi Qala, the adjacent district to the
southeast of Darqad, has been estimated at ca. 380 millimeters annually (climate-data.org, accessed on
March 7, 2016).
Since Darqad District is situated in the floodplain of the Panj River, it turns into a seasonal wetland
during the spring and summer months. The level of water depends on the condition of the Panj River,
which fluctuates every year. Darqad is partly covered by a Tugai forest, which consists mainly of
Tamarix spp., willows (Salix spp.) and reeds (Phragmites australis). A strip of Elaegnus spp. forest exists
in the south and southwest through the western parts of the area, and it changes to mixed forest and
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eventually riparian habitats with tall reeds and grasslands to the north and northeast. The Afghan Central
Statistics Organization (2003) estimated a population of 25,771 people for Darqad District. Southern and
central areas of Darqad are densely populated with intense agriculture, whereas the north, northeast, and
western parts have relatively low human population. These areas still contain forests, riparian habitats,
bushland, reeds, and rangelands.
Methods
To evaluate the presence and current status of Bactrian deer we conducted a community survey based on
questionnaires as well as field visits throughout Darqad District from 20 November to 12 December 2013.
During the questionnaire survey we targeted individuals likely to have the most knowledge about wildlife
(e.g., community elders and hunters) and asked them what they knew about local wildlife. Because of
time constraints we could interview only two persons per village in Darqad. We inquired about the
present status and threats to large mammals including Bactrian deer. In addition, we asked about the
presence of Bactrian deer body parts (e.g., skins and antlers) in the area. We presented a photo gallery of
large mammals that were known or suspected to have been historically present in the study area. Photos
helped the interviewees identify species and avoid confusion during the interview. Overall we
interviewed 77 male respondents in the 38 villages of Darqad.
Besides the community survey, we visited the forest areas, rangelands, and riversides that were likely to
have deer based on indications gathered from the local community and on our knowledge of red deer
habitat. We recorded direct sighting of Bactrian deer, as well as faeces, and footprints, which are quite
distinct from those of the wild boar (Sus scrofa), the only other ungulate species reported in the surveyed
area.
Results
Local communities recognized the Hazrat-e Bostan forest area to be permanently occupied by Bactrian
deer, whereas other areas were allegedly visited only occasionally by vagrant animals from Tajikistan.
Among the interviewees 33% (n = 25) reported the presence of resident Bactrian deer in the north and
northeast areas of Darqad. One of the respondents stated that he had observed a herd of seven deer in
Band-e Ghazi Abad area, west of Darqad in 2012, whereas 14% (n = 11) of the respondents reported that
they have not seen the deer in the west, south, and southwest of Darqad for the last 20 years. In the
morning (ca. 10:00 am) of December 3rd 2013, we saw one Bactrian deer from a distance of ca. 30 meters
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in a dense plume-grass thicket (Fig. 2A) within the Panj River bank on the border area with Tajikistan, in
Hazrat-e Bostan forests in the northeast of the Darqad floodplain (Fig. 1). The deer looked like a young
female (ca. 2 years old). Although the international border in the area varies with the changing
meandering course of the Panj River, the area was located in Afghanistan. We also recorded over 80
faecal pellet groups and numerous fresh tracks (Fig. 2B) of Bactrian deer in a strip of 10-12 km in the
northeast of Darqad floodplain, in open grasslands, mixed shrubs and bushes, and dense tall reeds. Fecal
pellets were mostly recorded near the sea-buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) shrubs, the shoots of which
are, according to local inhabitants the only source of fresh food for Bactrian deer in winter. Almost all
forest areas have been overused and degraded in the western and southwestern areas where we could not
find any clear evidence to confirm the presence of deer. Local communities, however, stated that vagrant
animals sometimes cross the border from Tajikistan and visit the west and southwestern parts of Darqad.
Figure 2A: Plume-grass thickets where Bactrian deer were found in the north part of Darqad District,
Takhar Province, Afghanistan, December 3, 2013.
Figure 2B: Bactrian deer footprints and fecal pellets in the north part of Darqad District, Takhar
Province, Afghanistan, December 4, 2013.
During our survey we also found one pair of antlers in a village called “Lala Maidan” in northern Darqad.
The owner claimed that his father had been the Royal Families‟ hunter in the 1970s and he had kept the
antlers from that period.
B
A
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Discussion
Our survey confirmed the presence of Bactrian deer in Darqad District in northern Afghanistan for the
first time since the 1970s (Petocz 1973, cited by Shank et al. 1977). Despite four decades of unrest and
consequent instability in the area, marked by high levels of hunting and deforestation, Bactrian deer still
persist in the area. However according to local communities, wildlife in general and in particular Bactrian
deer, are decreasing (this survey; Ostrowski et al. 2008). We confirmed the presence of the Bactrian deer
only in Hazrat-e Bostan forest and it is in urgent need of conservation to prevent its extinction from the
area.
Some of the forested areas, mostly in the Panj River bank in the northern Darqad, are considered as
„shared forests‟ between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and have therefore remained in good enough
condition to retain populations of large terrestrial herbivores. In contrast in the central, north, west, south,
and southwestern areas, the forest and shrubland areas have been largely converted to agriculture, the few
grasslands are heavily grazed by livestock and are no longer suitable for deer.
The keystone habitat type in Darqad where Bactrian deer were found is called Tugai forest, a rare and
typical riverside ecosystem that was once widespread in the floodplains and valleys of the arid regions of
Central Asia (Ostrowski et al. 2008). This habitat type consists mainly of willows, bushes, grasses, and
tall reeds. Some Tugai habitat thickets in good condition still exist in the northern Darqad areas and if
protected would most likely have a positive impact on the population of Bactrian deer in the area.
However, the Tugai forest has been highly degraded and over used in the south, west, and southwestern
parts of Darqad and is unlikely to be able to support wild ungulate species such as the Bactrian deer,
unless restored.
During the survey respondents reported a series of threats to Bactrian deer in Darqad. The majority (75%,
n=58) reported that Bactrian deer had suffered a serious decline in the last decades due to habitat loss,
hunting, and capture for the pet trade. The main factors behind habitat loss are deforestation, overgrazing,
land conversion to agriculture, as well as, more specific to Darqad, gold washing activities along the
riversides.
Bactrian deer live in border areas between Afghanistan and Tajikistan; therefore cooperation between
these two neighboring countries is crucial to conserve this rare species at the landscape scale.
International borders are often rendered inaccessible due to police restrictions; however, only a
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transboundary conservation approach with Tajikistan will secure a long-term restoration of Bactrian deer
in the region.
Acknowledgments
This study was made possible with the financial support of the United States Agency for International
Development (USAID), though the opinions, findings, and conclusions stated within this article are those
of the authors and do not reflect those of USAID. The authors gratefully thank R. Paley, and S.
Ostrowski from the Wildlife Conservation Society, and S. DeStefano and N. Rail from the University of
Massachusetts for their review and edits of this document. The authors also thank H. Jalal and Z.
Mirzaada from the Afghanistan‟s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and livestock, and G. G. Temouri
and I. Rahimi from the Afghanistan‟s National Environmental Protection Agency who helped with the
survey in the field. This survey would have not been possible without the active support of the territorial
administration of the Darqad District, the National, and Local Police forces present in the area.
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Article
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Tugay vegetation is the dominant vegetation distributed along rivers in Central Asia. It is composed from forests, i.e. Tugay forests, dominated by Populus euphratica and P. pruinosa, Tamarix bush communities and reeds. Large areas of Tugay vegetation and especially Tugay forests, have been destroyed and the largest still intact site of Tugay vegetation remains at the middle reaches of the Tarim River in Xinjiang, Northwest China. In order to understand and contribute to the conservation of Tugay vegetation from the Institute of Botany and Landscape Ecology of Greifswald University a research project was stated. Research objectives are: Define types of vegetation, research the ecological demands of the vegetation types, research on the changes of the vegetation types through utilisation by men, reproduction of the key-species P. euphratica. This article introduces the state of knowledge on ecology and reproduction of P. euphratica, ecological amplitudes of the main plant species regarding water and salt as the main factors and vegetation types of the Tugay Vegetation. P. euphratica reproduces through seeds and root suckers. Generative reproduction depends on barren river banks. Once established, P. euphratica can tap the groundwater down to 13 m and Tamarix ramossissima down to 30 m. Plant communities establish themselves mostly close to the river or lakes. The river dynamics are the driving forces for succession of vegetation types. The succession starts from young forests, bush-communities or reeds on sites close to surface waters. Then follow forests and bush communities with good water supply from the groundwater (accompanying species: Glycyrrhiza inflata, Halimodendron halodendron. With increasing salt contents in the groundwater Halophyte (e.g. Halostachys caspica vegetation develops. With decreasing groundwater pure stands from P. euphratica and Tamarix ramossissima remain.
2012. Thematic map layer. http://agcho.gov.af/en BANNIKOV, A. 1978. The Present Status of Bactrian Deer (Cervus elaphusbactrianus) in the USSR
  • Afghanistan Geodesy
  • Cartography
  • Office
AFGHANISTAN GEODESY AND CARTOGRAPHY HEAD OFFICE (AGCHO). 2012. Thematic map layer. http://agcho.gov.af/en BANNIKOV, A. 1978. The Present Status of Bactrian Deer (Cervus elaphusbactrianus) in the USSR. In:
Restoration of Bukhara deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus Lydd
  • O Pereladova
PERELADOVA, O. 2013. Restoration of Bukhara deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus Lydd.) in Central Asia in 2000-2011. Deer Specialist Group News 25:19-30.
On the mammals and birds collected by Captain C. E. Yate, C.S.I. of the Afghan Boundary Commission
  • J Sculley
SCULLEY, J. 1887. On the mammals and birds collected by Captain C. E. Yate, C.S.I. of the Afghan Boundary Commission. Jour. Asiat. Soc. Bengal, 56, no. 1, pp. 68-89
Musk Deer and Deer of the Fauna of the USSR. Academy of Sciences of the USSR
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FLEROV, K. K. 1952. Musk Deer and Deer of the Fauna of the USSR. Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Inst. Zool., vol. 1, no. 2, 247 pp.+Bibliography and Index. Moscow, Leningrad. (Trasl. from Russian in 1960 by the Israel Program for Scientific Trans. Jerusalem, IPST Cat. No. 123.)
Die GroßsäugerAfghanistans
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NAUMANN, C. & G. NOGGE, 1973. Die GroßsäugerAfghanistans. Zeitschrift des Kölner Zoo, 16(3): 79-93.
AmbiWeb GmbH / OpenStreetMap contributors. http://en.climatedata .org/region
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