The Caucasian Leopard: Protect, Save or Hunt?
Since the ancient times, it has been spoken about the leopard in Armenia. In the Soviet times it was a valuable trophy for hunters because of its precious fur and the fact that in general leopard was considered as a predator causing damage especially to livestock.
In 1972, the Soviet Government banned leopard hunting for its key role in biological chain. The survey conducted by zoologists in 1978-1987 revealed more than 20 individuals of leopard on the territory of Armenia and the species was included in the Red Book of Armenia published in 1989. It is noteworthy, that the leopard was registered also in the USSR Red Book and IUCN Red List of threatened species.
The well-known zoologists of the Soviet period mentioned in their scientific papers that till the beginning of 1970s leopard as an inhabitant of the southern regions of Armenia was met also in the northeastern areas of Ijevan and Berd regions. In fact, the last time leopard was observed in the above-mentioned area on the border of Berd and Kazakh. To get from south to north leopards paved their way through Karabakh and Areguni mountain chains.
According to the Soviet Armenia zoologists, the causes of the Armenian leopard decrease (“Armenian Nature” Journal) were because of human (anthropogenic) impact, namely poaching. According to the fact-based information, 75 leopards were killed from 1950 to1972, on the territory of Armenia.
Dr. Mamikon Ghasabyan, Head of the Biological laboratory of vertebrates of the RA NAS Scientific Centre of Zoology and Hydro-Ecology, says that till 1972, the State bodies allowed leopard hunting.
“If I am not mistaken, at that time, the state paid 50 soviet rubles per wolf and 100-150 rubles per leopard,” he said.
According to the zoologists, in the Soviet period predatory birds or mammals were considered harmful, notwithstanding the fact that they played a vital role in ecosystems. Now the specialists say that the government eventually included leopard in the Red Book as realized that its population was endangered and it was necessary to protect this animal.
In 1978-1992, the zoologists registered 4 leopards in the “Khosrov Forest” State Reserve. Mamikon Ghasabyan who worked in the State Reserve for many years, points out that at that period there were collective and state-owned farms and there was a large goat population in Kaqavaberd districts of the reserve to ensure good food base for leopard.
No special research on leopard was implemented by the RA NAS Institute of Zoology. The first research was undertaken by zoologist Igor Khorozyan, who mentions that in 1997 -1998 he started collection of the facts of leopard presence (excrements, footprints, feed residues, etc.) on the territory from “Khosrov Forest” State Reserve down to Meghri (Araks valley) region in the south.
“The biochemical analyses proved that the animal is a permanent resident on the territory of Armenia. Meanwhile, in Vayots Dzor and Syunik Provinces the leopard migrates, meaning that it leaves and comes back,” said Igor Khorozyan, adding that besides the above mentioned territories, leopard is passing the Bargushat Mountains, crosses Karabagh Highland and makes its way to the Greater Caucasus Mountains.
The experts say that at present the conditions for leopard are not favorable. Though the populations of its prey species are improving continuously, the leopard is still endangered in our region. The quantity of bezoar goat, wild boar, roe deer and other mammals is enough to feed more than currently recorded 3 - 5 individuals (some of them are migratory) in our country. The zoologists also state that given the small territory of Armenia, the quantity of leopards in the country cannot exceed 20-25. It is scientifically proven that each leopard needs 18-25 thousand ha area as a habitat.
Alexandr Malkhasyan, Leopard Conservation Project Coordinator of WWF Armenian Branch, says the largest leopard population is observed in the neighboring Iran area. More than 1000 leopards have been recorded there. The reason is a large territory adjacent to the Armenian border was taken under protection by the Iranian Government.
Dr. Karen Manvelyan, Director of WWF Armenian Branch, says that the Caucasian leopard is in the list of target species for WWF, and “bezoar goat, Armenian mouflon, brown bear are also in IUCN Red List, but while protecting the leopard we also protect its prey species”.
In 2002 WWF started implementation of the project on leopard conservation and in its framework protection regime of “Khosrov Forest” and “Shikahogh” State Reserves was inforced through technical support (installed roadblocks and preventive signs, established rangers shelters, provided off-road vehicles, set up anti-poaching units, implemented awareness raising events in a number of communities).
Years ago, experts from 6 countries (Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran) developed and approved the Regional Strategy on Leopard Conservation. Based on it the National Action Plan was developed for Armenia, which has been already implemented by about 60 percent. Still there are activities to be implemented such as establishment of eco-corridors and new protected areas.
In 2009 “Arevik” National Park (34,401.8 ha) and “Zangezur” Sanctuary (17,369 ha) were established by the Governmental decrees. These areas are of vital importance for the leopard conservation. Some activities are already being implemented in the framework of the UNDP/GEF and the RA Ministry of Nature Protection project to have “Shikahogh” Reserve linked to “Zangezur” Sanctuary through establishment of “Khustup” Sanctuary and extension of “Zangezur” Sanctuary and as a result a large ecological network in the Southern Armenia will be established, where according to Karen Manvelyan 3-4 leopards can feel safe.
“Leopard does not need to be protected. If there are protected areas with properly working staff then leopard can live safely in its area,” says Igor Khorozyan.
According to Mamikon Ghasabyan, the migration of leopard is complicated as the border between Armenia and Nakhichevan is controlled from both sides and people do not allow regular movement of leopard.
According to unofficial data, during the last 10 years, about 5 leopards have been killed on the territory of Armenia; the last accident was recorded in winter of 2009. Till now in Armenia the leopard photo in nature was taken only twice - in 2005 and 2007, when they came to Armenia from Iran. Both photos were taken by WWF Armenia.
Currently, a new Iran-Armenia Hydro Power Plant is under construction, and the question is how the leopard will come to Armenia without obstacles. Over the past 10 years, the leopards have been able to cross the River Araks and pass to our region. According to specialists the construction of a new water reservoir can cause obstacles to this migration way.
According to Dr. Aram Aghasyan, Head of Department on Specially Protected Nature Areas of the Ministry of Nature Protection, in the frames of the Armenian-Iranian cooperation, the establishment of eco-corridors between “Arevik” National Park (Armenia) and “Dizmar” Pro¬tec-ted Area (Iran) is underway and the eco-corridors will stretch to Araks valley totally embracing an area of nearly 4000 hectares. “This is very important especially for migratory animals, such as leopard, bezoar goat and other species,” says Aram Aghasyan.
It should be mentioned that leopard is also protected by legislation. Some years ago, a law on Compensation Tariffs for Damages to Fauna and Flora due to Environmental Offences was adopted, according to which the fine for leopard hunting makes 3 million drams. The Criminal Code also sets forth a penalty for illegal hunting. Over the recent years, the protection of flora and fauna and tackling illegal hunting is a priority for the State Environmental Inspection of the RA Ministry of Nature Protection. However, the question on its effectiveness especially against shadow hunting is left to the reader.
By Galust NANYAN