The saiga antelope is one of the world's strangest-looking mammals. Its bulbous, tubular nose filters out dust and warms cold air before it reaches the animal's windpipe.
The bulging-eyed nomadic antelope is found in Russia's Republic of Kalmykia, as well as in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. But its population has shrunk to around 40,000 -- a decline of more than 80 percent in just the last 10 years.
Now, however, there is a growing awareness of the need to preserve these unique animals and grounds for cautious optimism concerning their ultimate survival in the region.
David Mallon is co-chair of the antelope specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an umbrella organization that groups hundreds of environmental associations around the world. He tells RFE/RL that the decline is mainly the result of hunting -- for meat and horns.
"In the economic crisis, which has affected the former Soviet Union from about 1991 onwards, many people made much greater use of natural resources, including saiga, for meat," Mallon says. "Secondly, the horns of the male saiga are very valuable in traditional Chinese medicine, so many, many [male] saiga were hunted just for the horns.
"[And] the sex ratio became so biased in the end -- with a very small proportion of males remaining -- that many females didn't breed, which has severely affected the reproductive rate," Mallon adds.Critically Endangered
The saiga, whose horns fetch around $100 a kilogram in China, was placed on a list of critically endangered species by the IUCN in 2002.
Antelope populations in many parts of the world are being adversely affected by hunting, habitat degradation due to economic development, conversion of land to agriculture uses, and increasing numbers of domestic livestock.
According to a report released on March 4 by the IUCN, 25 species of antelope out of 91 around the world are threatened with extinction.
The goitered gazelle, also threatened
The situation is particularly grim in Asia, where Mallon says 75 percent of antelope species are considered to be threatened.
The goitered gazelle -- the second species of antelopes inhabiting Central Asia -- was listed among vulnerable species by the IUCN in 2006.
Mallon says the decline of its population is estimated at about one-third over the past 10 years.
"The formerly large populations in Kazakhstan -- several tens of thousands -- have been greatly reduced. There's probably about 10,000 to 15,000 left," Mallon says. "In Turkmenistan, they've been reduced to very, very low levels. [In] Uzbekistan, there are still small numbers left, probably 2,000 or 3,000.
"In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan," he continues, "there are probably less than 100 in each place. But that's largely because of the area of mountains is so large in the [two] countries, so suitable habitat for gazelles is quite small."Seasonal Migration
The gazelle, whose name refers to the male having an enlargement of the neck and throat during the mating season, is also found in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Iraq. It is now extinct in Armenia and Georgia.
The animal inhabits semi-desert and desert habitats and migrates seasonally in search of grazing land and water.
It is killed for meat and to a lesser extent as a trophy for hunters. Like the saiga, only the male carries horns.
There are very good indications from the annual counts that the population decline has stabilized and numbers in some places are increasing.
Despite the threats faced by Central Asia's antelopes, Mallon believes their disappearance is not inevitable. He says that, despite the pressure of living in a country with the world's second-largest population, antelopes are doing well in India, for example.
"There are four species of antelopes in India. Three of them are not threatened, surviving in good numbers alongside 1.2 billion people. So there's not a lot of habitat and so on," Mallon says. "And the fact that so many antelopes do survive is probably largely the result of the fact that in India, hunting is just a very uncommon activity and gun ownership is very rare."
Mallon points to positive signs in Central Asia, including increased regional cooperation that has led to "very concerted efforts" by Russian and Kazakh authorities in setting antipoaching patrols.
"A big meeting was held, consisting of all partners involved in saiga conservation in all range states, in 2006 [in Almaty]. And this produced a work program to conserve the saiga, which involves everybody involved with saiga," Mallon says.
"This is really an excellent example of cooperative working on a very large scale. There are very good indications from the annual counts that the population decline has stabilized and numbers in some places are increasing," he continues.
Mallon also notes the "very positive" reaction of local communities to attempts to establish collaborative, preservation programs.Success Of The Springbok
He says Central Asian communities could benefit from the experience gained in southern Africa in the preservation of the springbok, the only antelope species with a long-term increasing trend.
"Springboks have been increasing partly because of game management through trophy hunting and game ranching for meat," Mallon says. "The animal has been seen as a useful source of protein and a useful trophy-hunting objective, so people are actively conserving it and raising it on game ranches instead of raising cattle, sheep, or goats."
Mallon believes more people in Central Asia are realizing it is in their interest to help preserve native antelopes. It can be done, he says, and the benefits are incalculable.
"Biodiversity is part of the natural heritage which we've all inherited, and we have a duty to pass on at least some of that heritage to following generations," Mallon says.
"Saiga antelope are a very key species on the steppes of Central Asia. They are part of herding people's everyday lives. [And] gazelles are very much praised in poetry, art, and literature for their grace and beauty, so they have a cultural value," he adds.