The Leopard: The Mystical Beauty of the Armenian Highlands Returned

The Leopard: The Mystical Beauty of the Armenian Highlands Returned

The King of the Armenian Highlands promenades around its kingdom, moving its giant paws, shifting from one leg to another. It soundlessly moves between the trees, listening to the whispers of the forest, leaving no trace of its presence. Very few people have encountered the animal from a close distance, as it chooses to stay away and live its life in privacy. Despite its secretive character, the Caucasian Leopard (Panthera pardus ciscaucasica), a native of these lands, has earned the respect to be named King of Armenian Highlands. In the late 90s, the King left the mountainous area of Armenia, turning into a legend of our elders. Only in recent years, however, the situation appears to have changed. The Leopard has been spotted at several sites around the country: marking its trails in the north, chasing its prey in the south. The mystical beauty, they say, has returned to breathe a new life into the Armenian highlands.

Text : Margarit Mirzoyan    Photo : WWF Armenia

 

 

Today, there are around ten individuals permanently inhabiting Armenia, while two decades ago there was no trace of the leopard. The experts named several reasons for its departure. The rise of poaching on leopard and its declining food base (particularly, bezoar goat and Armenian mouflon) were amongst them. Besides, protected areas available for its population in Armenia represented only 12% of its usual habitat. “The Caucasian Leopard is not a tiny animal to live in a small area; each leopard needs 5,000-20,000 hectares,” says Dr. Karen Manvelyan, the Director of WWF Armenia. “Thus, it would be impossible to make the animal stay in this small area, there was a need to provide it with a new home.” Having in mind this objective, since 2002, the large-scale project on Caucasian Leopard Conservation has been implemented, and the recent positive trend in the size of the population illustrates that the project has reached its primary goal. To celebrate the tangible results achieved, the RA Ministry of Environment declared 2019 the “Year of the Caucasian Leopard.”

This initiative has a number of pillars. For the first time in 15 years, the leopard was captured on a camera trap from a close distance, which means that it has become more trustful and perceives the camera as something usual, like a tree or a stone. Also, as the number of the species of its prey in the country has increased, a need to raise public awareness has emerged.

Caucasian Leopard caught on the hidden camera

 

The Leopards inhabit the central and eastern parts of Khosrov Forest Reserve southwards to the Armenian-Iranian state border, covering the Geghama, Zangezur, Vayots Dzor, Bargushat and Meghri ridges. The habitats of Leopard include arid mountain grasslands, arid sparse forests, mountain grasslands, subalpine and alpine meadows. The maximum possible number of Leopards in Armenia is 10-15 individuals. The extent of occurrence is 7497.2 km2. The area of occupancy is 2856.8 km2. The presence of Leopard is beneficial for the sustainability of the ecosystem. An animal at the top of the ecological pyramid keeps the dynamics of its prey species and makes the ecosystem functional and stable.

“To communicate these ideas to the broader public, the Ministry established a working group and initiated a number of events and activities. Press conferences, publications, and social clips are only a small portion of the planned operations,” indicates Ms. Diana Yeritspokhyants, Assistant to the Deputy Minister of Environment. In February of 2019, a workshop on development of the National Action Plan for Conservation of Leopard in Armenia for 2020-2030 was organized by the RA Ministry of Environment and WWF in Vayk town. The Ministry of High-Tech Industry suggested creating a new postmark with the image of the animal. The Central Bank, in its turn, will release a commemorative coin called “The Year of the Caucasian Leopard.” The central event of the initiative – the Caucasian Leopard Summit is set to happen in 2020 in Lori region, gathering experts and Government representatives from all the countries that have leopard populations. The guests of the summit will visit the Khosrov Reserve, and a declaration for mutual strategic cooperation on the matter will be signed.

Khosrov Forest State Reserve

 

Finally, the RA Ministry of Environment took the conservation of the animal to a higher level, introducing a new bill on the matter of poaching of the leopard. The draft law suggests increasing the previous 3 million AMD fine to 100 million AMD and sets a higher penalty of 500 million AMD for the hunt in specially protected areas.

 

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Back in 2002, when experts had just begun operating in the region, there was no hint about these developments. In that period, Dr. Victor Lukarevsky, a wildlife expert well-known for his work “Operation: Snow Tiger” was invited by WWF and with the local experts Mr. Alexander Malkhasyan and Dr. Igor Khorozyan made a survey on the identification of possible habitats of the Caucasian Leopard. They were the first specialists to place camera traps, and in 2005 they received the first images of the leopard. Unfortunately, the research identified that Khosrov and Shikahogh Reserves were the only protected areas suitable for the life of the leopard, representing only 12% of its historic habitat size. The further operations became a basis for one of the first projects of WWF Armenia, “The Conservation of the Caucasian Leopard” supported by WWF Germany and WWF Switzerland. Since 2002, WWF has been supporting the RA Ministry of Nature Protection (now RA Ministry of Environment) in planning and establishing new protected areas, to include more leopard habitats under protection and to promote the safety of the leopard and its prey species. Finally, in 2009, Areviq National Park with an area of 34,401 ha and Zangezur state sanctuary with an area of 17,368 ha were established in Syunik under WWF/CEPF projects. In 2013, under a UNDP/GEF project and WWF co-financing, Khustup state sanctuary was established with an area of 6,947 ha, and Zangezur state sanctuary was expanded to 25,871 ha.

Zangezur Sanctuary

 

To promote safe migration of the leopard and species of prey, in 2015 WWF started a project on the creation of an eco-corridor in southern Armenia, which will connect protected areas in Syunik region with the Khosrov Forest State Reserve. The project is funded by KfW, on behalf of BMZ. The main purpose of the project is the establishment of an eco-corridor via the creation of Community Conserved Areas for the protection and sustainable use of natural resources as well as for the migration of the leopard and some other large mammals. As of today, five Community Conserved Areas have been created by the Council Decisions of five communities, covering a total area of 61,000 ha.

To protect and to monitor biodiversity in Community Conserved Areas 20 caretakers from local communities are recruited and trained. WWF provided these people with all the necessary equipment, camera traps and off-road vehicles. These guardians also receive monthly salaries, which also addresses the lack of job opportunities in rural Armenia. Wildlife expert Mr. Alexander Malkhasyan works at these sites half of the year. In Ararat, Vayots Dzor, and Syunik regions, he monitors large ungulates and defines the main trails of the leopard with the rangers of the protected areas and caretakers of the Community Conserved Areas. Even though he has heard the roar of the Leopard, he has never seen the animal closely and says that he does not believe that any one has. “There have been very few cases of actual encounter. Those who have really seen the animal, say that it won’t attack you but on the subconscious level, the form of the head and the spots arouse huge fear in them,” says Alexander.

Alexander Malkhasyan during field work

 

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Recently the Caucasus Nature Fund (CNF) marked the 10th anniversary of its work in Armenia. In 2009 CNF began supporting the protected areas by covering operational costs and co-financing the state budget (including salary supplements, essential equipment, and maintenance of the PAs). CNF support has been crucial in enhancing the management effectiveness of the PAs particularly the conservation of the main habitats of the leopard (Areviq National Park, Khosrov Forest State Reserve, Gnishik Protected Landscape, etc.). “Today CNF not only contributes to the essential costs of PAs but also introduces new technologies to the PAs such as online cameras, drones, camera traps, and other. Thus, CNF significantly supports the protection of leopard’s habitats,” mentions Mr. Arman Vermishyan, Representative Office Director of CNF in Armenia.

Khosrov Forest State Reserve

 

Besides the enlargement of its habitat, the food base of the Caucasian leopard – the bezoar goat population – has also increased, reaching more than 3000 individuals, and this was another reason why the leopard came to stay. Previously, some male specimens would visit the country and then disappear, but now several reproducing couples have settled near the borders of Iran and Azerbaijan as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan. With regards to the latter, three leopard cubs were born at Zangezur Mountain Range. Then, after a year of silence, in 2018 a male cub leopard was photographed in Khosrov Forest State Reserve, the Northern habitat of the leopard. It was a huge surprise as the last leopards in that location were killed back in 1999. His name is Neo and he is three years old now. According to the WWF information, the cub was born in the border area between Armenia and Nakhijevan. His parents, Yeva and Aras, the latter having injured his leg at the border, were previously spotted on the territory of Armenia. Several other individuals were noticed in the south of the country, in Areviq National Park. People say, a female leopard has settled in Noravank Canyon (part of the Arpa Protected Landscape) and, from time to time, can be seen looking down at the Monastery.

Noravank canyon in winter

 

Unfortunately, up to this day, there are many threats facing the Caucasian leopards, especially near the borders. The locals put traps and snares to catch a goat or a wild boar for hunting, and eventually, the leopards fall into these traps and get severe injuries. Since 2014, the situation at the border in Nakhijevan has worsened with new block posts and mines, and it has become very dangerous for the leopards to stroll in those areas; three leopards were seen with injured paws. To prevent similar cases, the experts and rangers work hard to detect these traps and remove them.

 

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Since ancient times, Armenians have honored feline family animals portraying them on historical engravings and dynasty emblems. Thus, the return of the animal home is not only of environmental but also of historical and cultural importance. “They have a secret life. They usually hunt at night or early in the morning to stay unnoticed. Foggy, snowy and rainy weather proves perfect for their activities,” says Alexander, “but the images from Khosrov Reserve illustrate that they have started moving around in the daytime as well.” This means that the animal feels safe in the Armenian mountains and, most likely, will stay here, at least in the near future.

Zangezur Biosphere Complex, Areviq National Park

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