Human greed is being blamed for the near-extinction of the spectacularly spiral-horned markhor (Capra falconeri cashmiriensis) in the northern Indian state Jammu and Kashmir. The critically endangered goat has faced years of population decline from illegal trophy hunting, competition with livestock for habitat and other man-made threats. The subspecies is now down to its last 300 to 400 individuals.

There is some good news for the markhor, though. Four parks already maintain small, protected populations of the rare goats, and a fifth was announced on April 27. Officials have yet to say how many markhor will be protected in the newly established, 66-square-kilometer Tatakuti Wildlife Sanctuary.

But critics say protecting a small population may not do much to help the markhor as a whole. "Declaring a protected area is just the starting point and not the end of the crusade of conservation," Intesar Suhail, wildlife warden with the Shopian Wildlife Division told the Indo–Asian News Service (IANS). He says the existing national and state laws that protect the goats need better enforcement.

Unfortunately, enforcing those laws could create conflict with people who have decades or centuries of tradition on their side. The nomadic Bakkarwals herd their livestock into the markhor's protected areas every spring, pushing the endangered goats out and forcing the animals to graze in less suitable areas. State Forest Minister Mian Altaf Ahmad told IANS that local herders "have their rights. You cannot deny them those."

Suhail suggests that alternative grazing areas or other ways of making money be provided for the herders to keep them out of the markhor's habitat.

Other than this competition for resources, their habitat in Kashmir faces increasing fragmentation, as new roads and other development further separate small subpopulations. Fences along the disputed Kashmir border have also disrupted the markhor's movement.

Illegal hunting for trophies and meat also remains a threat. Hunting markhor is legal in Pakistan, which controls part of Kashmir, and U.S. trophy hunters have reportedly paid $65,000 to $80,000 for permits from the Pakistani government.

Not everyone agrees that that Kashmir's markhor is its own subspecies. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes three markhor subspecies but not the Kashmiri subspecies. The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species does categorize all markhors as "Endangered," with fragmented populations and declining habitats throughout their range in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The mountain-loving animal thrives at elevations of up to 3,600 meters above sea level. The IUCN estimates the total world population for the entire markhor species at less than 2,500 mature individuals.

Photo of a markhor (Capra falconeri) by Ron Dunnington via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license