© WWF Russia / Olga Pereladova

The goitred gazelle, known locally as the djeiran, is an inhabitant of desert and semi-desert landscapes and the only true species in Eurasia of a varied family of gazelles which live mainly in Africa. For a number of reasons including competition from cattle and sheep, as well as over-hunting and poaching, several subspecies of the gazelles are endangered throughout Asia. One of the subspecies, G. s. marica, is listed in the Red Data Book of the IUCN; another, G. s. subgutturosa, is listed in the Red Data Book of the USSR (1984) and Red Data Books of all of the countries of Central Asia and Caucasus where the species is found.

Although the goitred gazelle is considered merely a subspecies of Gazella subgutturosa, physically it is very different from all other species of the genus Gazella. The goitred gazelle is the only gazelle whose females do not have horns, excluding rare exceptions. Males normally weigh about 30 kilograms, versus about 20 for all others, and there are other differences as well. Scientists hypothesize that these characteristics are special ecological adaptations: the goitred gazelle is the only gazelle species that must survive in a continental climate with long periods of negative temperatures.

Until recently this species ranged throughout practically all the deserts and semi-deserts of Asia and was a common game animal. Gazelle remains found in archeological excavations from various periods all over Central Asia testify to the fact that people have hunted gazelles for centuries. Throughout most of its history, this hunting was sustainable: as recently as the 1930s and 1940s the number of the goitred gazelle was still rather high. In Eastern Transcaucasia about 6,000 gazelles lived on an area of approximately 800,000 hectares from 1937 to 1940. In Central Turkmenistan the density of the goitred gazelle population in the beginning of the 1930s reached 2 to 4,3 individuals per kilometer along their migration paths. In sum, several hundreds of thousands of goitred gazelle lived in Central Asia.

Theoretically, competition from domestic livestock is not a limiting factor for gazelles. Research has shown that the gazelle prefers feeding on plant species which are quite different from those which sheep and goats prefer. Moreover, gazelles can regularly feed on plants that are poisonous to sheep. Problems arise only in the availability of watering places, which are limited in some areas. In the vast majority of cases the problem is not the amount water itself, which is usually plentiful enough for both wild and domestic ungulates, but in the fact that these watering places are the “hot spots” where hunters wait for and kill gazelles.

As long as farmers, shepherds, and other local people were hunting gazelles for the needs of their family, the hunting was sustainable: the species thrived. But as soon as illegal commercial hunting (poaching) began – in order to bring meat to the market - in which people hunt at night using bright lights, vehicles, and heavy guns, this sustainable hunting turned into a bloody slaughter. By the 1980s and the early 1990s, their ranges seriously reduced even more in all countries of the species range, including Turkmenistan. All of the populations became seriously endangered. Some individual populations survived thanks to various types of nature reserves, such as Badhyz Zapovednik in Turkmenistan.

Fortunately for the species, these animals naturally live in relatively small groups, do not have any areas or migration routes of high concentration. Instead, they are widely dispersed throughout millions of hectares of suitable habitats. Thus even during the period of the highest anthropogenic pressure, some gazelle populations survived in deserts far from human settlements and in areas with rugged, inaccessible landscapes. But gazelles have become practically extinct in flat areas in regions with comparatively high human population density. In such areas, wildlife can be reintroduced only if the forces which probably caused the decline of the gazelles are eliminated, and only if the group of animals released is numerically strong.

To reestablish the goitred gazelle in its native area, captive breeding centers were created and species reintroduction initiated. Attempts to establish gazelle breeding centers were undertaken in 1980th in Western Kopetdagh and Gyaurs, but the most successful results were obtained as a result of animals relocation from Badkhys Zapovednik to Ogurchinsky Island in the Caspian Sea, using the sea waters as a natural fence. Some dozens of animals were set free here – and population grew up to about 800-1000. When it reached this number - which coincides to the carrying capacity of the area – natural regulation started (even in the absence of the predators!). To prevent mortality from different factors and to stimulate reproduction – a part of animals should be regularly taken away from the island – so there is now a natural source for gazelle reintroduction in Turkmenistan.

Why is the reintroduction so important? Large-scale work to reintroduce gazelles is important especially in the area surrounding the Aral Sea, which now primarily constitutes newly developed deserts. In this circumstance, the main reason for reintroduction is not so much to save the species itself, but to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems. Research in Repetek Zapovednik in Turkmenistan, in Bukhara breeding centre in Uzbekistan has shown that gazelle’s grazing exerts a positive influence on vegetation development. Moreover, the absence of ungulates in sandy deserts leads to formation of a solid crust on the surface of the soil, especially in case of high salinity, which is true around the Aral. Vascular plant seeds are unable to sprout through this crust, leaving a cover of black moss to develop that prevents the normal development of an ecosystem. Even the moderate grazing pressure of domestic sheep is much better for ecosystems than the complete absence of ungulates, but the influence of gazelles is the most natural and appropriate solution.

On the other hand, gazelles are important component of ecosystems as prey species for large predators. They were the major prey for the extinct Asian cheetah – and they were – and can be – one of the important prey species of leopard in the mountain foothill areas. That is why some activities on goitred gazelles restoration were initiated in the frame of WWF leopard conservation project. An infrastructure (system of pens) was built in Khodjakala valley – Western Kopetdagh. About fifty one month old gazelles were caught on Ogurchinsky Island in 2004, similar number – in 2005. The animals a brought up in the pens – and first groups are in preparation for releasing. We hope, that hilly plains of this area will be soon full of gazelle herds, which will give natural food for leopard and other predators. But besides that, in case of successful development of the populations, gazelles can return to be a regular game animal – an additional resource for local people – as it had been for centuries in the history of Central Asia.