For almost half a century, the Bukhara deer -- a species endemic to Central Asia -- had not been seen in the wild in the forests along the Syr Darya river. But the species has now returned to Kazakhstan's southern Turkestan district with the recent release of ten deer into their traditional habitat.
The animals, bred in a pen set up in 2001, were released in late May by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and local conservationists.
Olga Pereladova, the director of WWF's Central Asia Program in Moscow, explains that the last of the Bukhara deer in the Syr Darya valley were killed in 1962. “Since then, there have been no deer at all. It was not only a problem of the animals' elimination, but a problem of destruction of habitats because a lot of riparian forests were cut down," Pereladova said.
The deer will continue to be fed for several months to help them adapt to life in the wild, their new territory, and a change in diet.
Pereladova says the sanctuary offers good protection during the adaptation period. The territory forms a peninsula surrounded by the waters of the Syr Darya and is fenced off from people living on nearby farms.
During the eight years of preparation for the release, funding of up to $15,000 a year was provided mainly by WWF Netherlands. Norway's government and the Kazakh regional government have also been contributing.
The Bukhara deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus) is ash gray, with yellowish highlights and a grayish-white rump patch. The male deer have antlers. The animals’ habitat includes Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The WWF has been working since 1999 to save the species in cooperation with local communities and officials across the region. Pereladova says the population has since increased from only 350 to 1,300.
That's partly thanks to a series of successful reintroductions.
In 2007, a group of deer was released in Uzbekistan's Zarafshan Nature Reserve. The animals, raised in nearby pens, were the second group to be set free in the reserve, following a successful release in 2005.
A similar release took place in 2007 in Kazakhstan's Altyn Emel National Park, on the right bank of the Ili River. The animals came from a game reserve located on the other bank of the river.
"In Zarafshan, they're reproducing very well and the released groups are already contacting the group of deer in the Tajik part of the [river] valley,” Pereladova said. “So we hope for the sustainable establishment of the population. But new releases are planned because we again have extra animals in the pens. In Altyn Emel, newborns were seen."
Pereladova says a transfer of deer was also planned in the lower regions of the Amu Darya River in Uzbekistan.
"The Badaitugai Nature Reserve is overpopulated, [while in] downstream Amu Darya, new sites of riparian forests have developed, and [deer] can be released there,” she said. “There is now a UNDP [United Nations Development Program] project ongoing in a system of protected areas of development of the Amu Darya Delta. Together with them, we are planning these translocations."
The Bukhara deer lives in Central Asia's riparian forests, which are characterized by thickets of trees and grassy clearings interspersed with wetlands. These forests, locally known as tugai, are located on the floodplains of rivers.
Overgrazing, agriculture, and illegal logging have contributed significantly to the destruction of the tugai. The problem is particularly acute along the Amu Darya River in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Pereladova says, however, that riparian forests are recovering fast along the Syr Darya, which lies primarily in Kazakhstan.
A number of protected areas have been established to preserve tugai ecosystems across the region.
One of them is the Beshai Palangon (which means "the forest of tigers" in Tajik) Nature Reserve in southern Tajikistan, between the Vakhsh and Pyandj rivers.
The reserve's chief, Nuriddin Saifulloev, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the Bukhara deer population there has increased to 18.
"When I was appointed head of the reserve [three years ago], we brought in 14 deer,” Saifulloev said. “They were very little. Now they are living freely in the reserve. Their life is very good. Some of them gave birth to fawns, so there are baby deer now."
Late last year, 100,000 hectares were included as buffer zones around the reserve. Pereladova calls the move "very important," saying it unites a previously fragmented protected territory.
Since 2007, WWF says that thanks to funding from Norway's government, it has improved the water drainage system in the reserve and surrounding areas. Canals were cleaned to ensure water flow from rivers to the tugai lakes and allow the recovery of the lakes, forest, and populations of various species.
But Saifulloev warns that the Bukhara deer and its habitat still need better protection. He says that the population has disappeared in Tajikistan's Romit Nature Reserve, while only a few animals remain in the Qarotogh Nature Refuge.
Pereladova says Central Asian states have demonstrated their commitment to preserve the Bukhara deer and tugai, despite often limited resources.
Central Asian governments are “doing what they can and sometimes even more than they can, initiating activities for which they don't have enough funding, but anyway trying to do what is possible; and applying for support,” she said. “So it's not that we're coming and doing something from outside, but we are combining our efforts."
But she says education among the local populations and winning their participation in nature conservancy work is crucial, and begins with educating children.
"When we started work, the habitats suffered from illegal logging, grazing, etc. And people didn't know what Bukhara deer was. They had forgotten it. Now all of them know it,” Pereladova said.
“Children participated in special actions, collecting winter forage for our deer, and they transferred this knowledge to their parents,” she continued. “In Turkmenistan, go along the border of the [Amu Darya Nature Reserve and] talk to people: they know what the [Bukhara deer] is, why it is protected, and [they say] it is an honor for them that they have saved their national heritage."
RFE/RL Tajik Service's Nosirjon Mamurzoda contributed to this report.