Armenia offers refuge for Europe’s last leopards

Daniel McLaughlin
The Irish Times

High on an Armenian hillside, Gor Hovhannisyan eases a camouflage-green box from its hiding place in the trees and opens the back to see what he has caught.

This time, only a bird and a rabbit triggered the camera trap’s motion sensors. But far bigger beasts also roam the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge: lynx, bears, wolves and at least one of Europe’s last remaining leopards.

Across a deep gorge speckled with thyme and wildflowers, Hovhannisyan points to the snowy ridge where a Caucasian leopard was last captured here on camera; behind him, far below, a lush plain of farmland and fruit trees stretches away to Mount Ararat, an ice-clad 5,000m volcano just over the border in Turkey.

The refuge is breaking new ground in Armenia and the region, by leasing a large area of outstanding beauty and biodiversity and ensuring that local people contribute to and benefit from its protection.

The challenge is considerable in a country where environmental awareness is low, large predators are seen as a threat to life and livestock, and the rule of law is too weak to control either small-scale trappers or wealthy hunters.

Geopolitics doesn’t help, either. Barely 25km south of the refuge is Azerbaijan, which officially is still at war with Armenia after an early-1990s conflict. Some 10km further lies Iran. The leopard’s territory spans all three countries, further complicating conservation efforts.

Hovhannisyan is one of several local men who work as wardens in the refuge, patrolling its 4,000 hectares in a battered green 4×4 and on horseback.

Hunting ban

“All hunting is banned in the refuge,” he shouts, as the groaning 4×4 bounces beneath a troop of iridescent bee-eaters preening on a telephone line.

“We make sure no one’s in the refuge without permission, and we talk to the villagers. We tell them that if they hunt bezoar goats or boar or even rabbits, then there will be less food for the wolf and bear and lynx. And then they are more likely to come to our yards and fields and take a sheep or cow.”

People’s lives are intertwined with nature here, to a degree that is not always comfortable. In winter, hungry wolves sometimes come down from the mountains to snatch a sheep, chicken or dog from a yard; in spring and summer the shepherds take their flocks to the high meadows, into the domain of the big carnivores; and autumn is the bears’ favourite time to raid the valley’s orchards – though they also amble down in warmer months to feast on fruit.

“Last year a bear family ate lots of apples and damaged the trees, and they like to come for apricots,” says Ashot Manatsakanyan, who lives in Urtsadzor, a village on the edge of the refuge.

“And I’ve seen a bear sitting and eating watermelons like a man – splitting them open in his lap, eating the best bits, throwing away the rest and grabbing another,” he recalls.

“Sometimes a wolf comes into the village, but it’s the shepherds in the hills who have the most problems. Even with six or seven guard dogs, a pack of wolves can take a sheep or even a horse. They complain that the wolf is taking money from their pockets, but I’m glad the wolves are here – and they need to eat too.”

The refuge aims to boost and diversify the local economy through eco-tourism, and it helps villagers access clean and cost-saving technology such as solar panels, and runs classes for adults and children on nature and sustainability.

Conservation model

“We want this type of conservation model to be spread more widely through the Caucasus,” says Ruben Khachatryan, the founder of the refuge and director of Yerevan’s zoo.

Though it is barely an hour’s drive from Yerevan, there are few visitors to the refuge, which is supported by the UK-based World Land Trust.

Most that do make the trip dream of glimpsing a Caucasus – also know as Persian – leopard, but the chance is minuscule: only a handful survive in Armenia, and the entire population may be less than 1,000.

“In Armenia, people and leopards have co-existed since the early prehistoric times. Depictions of leopards can be found in many ancient petroglyphs . . . recounting origin myths and tribal traditions of ancient Armenia,” says Khachatryan.

“The inhabitants of Caucasus region should be proud of not killing the last of the species, and to have this amazing feline thrive in their territory.”

No one in Armenia has a better hope of seeing a leopard than refuge warden Hovhannisyan.

“Sometimes, when I’m alone on my horse in the hills, I wonder if it might attack me,” he says. “But I’d still love to see a leopard up close. It’s great to know that it’s out there.

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