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Armenia Welcomes A New Caucasian Leopard

Posted on 18 June 2018

Exciting news, leopard lovers! A young male leopard has found his way to Armenia. We spoke to our very own wildlife expert, Alexander Malkhasyan, to get all of the details. He has been working on the WWF leopard program since he joined the team in 2002. Doing field work and monitoring across the southern parts of Armenia may not sound like a glamorous job on paper, but in reality it is a different level of adventure that many of us cannot even imagine.
Alexander is the best expert that Armenia has to offer. In order to do his work, he needs to literally become one with nature, often cutting himself off from civilization for weeks or even months at a time. It is not an easy job, but his love and dedication to his work shone through during our conversation, and today we are happy to share with you some of the fruitful results of his hard work and perseverance.     
Part of what Alexander does is setting up and installing cameras across the wilderness with the hopes of capturing photos and videos of our hard to glimpse wildlife. Thanks to one of his cameras, we were able to capture footage of a young Caucasian leopard in the Khosrov Forest State Reserve (appx. 74.5 km from Yerevan). Alexander explains how the placement of these cameras are really important; you need to understand the animals very well. Think about where they would go, so that you can choose where to place the cameras to capture the best shots; “If you put it in the wrong place, years will go by and you will never get a photo.”
This particular leopard, that we have decided to name Leo/Neo, was photographed in the Khosrov Forest State Reserve, an area which was recently badly affected by a massive forest fire. The last leopards in this area were sighted about 18 years ago, but they were poached one by one and forced out of this region. Leo/Neo has miraculously come back to the land of his ancestors without ever having been there before himself. “This area of land actually has favorable conditions in terms of prey,” said Alexander, “but the fact that he managed to get this far is nothing short of a miracle.”
That’s right, this young leopard’s journey was a long and dangerous one, his story is quite shocking! It is highly likely that Leo/Neo is the same leopard which was first sighted and photographed in Nakhijevan when he was just a little cub. “If our calculations are correct, then he was most likely born in the Zangezur Mountains, in July 2015,” said Malkhasyan; that would make this beautiful creature about 3 years old.
This also means that, in order to get here, he needed to trek across treacherous terrain, crossing the conflict border from Azerbaijan to Armenia travelling, at the very least, 250 km through the mountains of Vayotz Dzor and Zangezour. He needed to avoid dangers such as soldiers, dogs from herders, the human population, and more. “Plus it doesn’t help that he’s a male,” chuckled Alexander to himself, “male species are not as clever as females, they are automatically at a higher risk of dying until they reach a certain age. This is especially true for this leopard, as he’s unfamiliar with the area.” 
It is a truly rare and happy moment as there are fewer than 1,300 caucasian leopards left in the wild and their range has extremely declined. “Many of the challenges leopards face are unfortunately man made,” said Alexander. “I can’t stress it enough, it’s so unlikely that he’s managed to make it this far without dying already.”
Poaching and heavy military presence are two direct ways in which humans threaten this species’ survival. However, while there are laws in place against killing the caucasian leopard (especially when done on preservation lands), in reality, it’s very rare for a leopard to be seen by any human. “In all the years I’ve worked, I’ve never seen a leopard in person” said Malkhasyan,  “I’ve seen tracks and I’ve seen prey, but I’ve never come face to face with a leopard itself.” Further habitat protection measures have allowed for favorable conditions, which are beginning to ensure a sustainable habitat for the Caucasian leopard in new regions of Armenia.
“People have little to no awareness about the beautiful wildlife we have,” said Alexander with a touch of sadness and frustration. “They don’t value animals, and certainly don’t understand them. It’s unlikely that an animal will attack a human. There are very few cases where that might happen. Either they are feeling trapped and afraid, or they are protecting their cubs. Otherwise, they are either mildly curious or completely ignore people.”
Of course being faced with a leopard is a terrifying experience. “I know of a case where a person was so scared after having seen a leopard that they became ill with diabetes after the incident,” said Alexander seriously. Humans are more dangerous to leopards than the other way around, but dangers people cause are usually less direct. The troubling problem is that humans hunt down the leopard’s prey, their main sources of food. “More needs to be done to protect their environment and ecosystem. People should understand and be aware of the domino effect that will eventually lead to the extinction of this glorious animal,” said Alexander. In the case of Leo/Neo, we need to cherish and pamper him, so that he will feel welcomed and at home.
This means protecting the leopard indirectly by protecting umbrella species, those creatures which make the habitat liveable for larger predators. In short, we need to stop the process of habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. Caucasian leopards are particularly vulnerable to this on account of the remote and mountainous regions that they inhabit. These leopards are truly a gem, and we need to make an effort not to chase these rare beauties away. “That’s the kind of work we try to do,” said Alexander. “For example we managed to stop the government from building a highway through certain parts of Meghri, in order to protect the natural habitat in the area.”
So, taking into consideration all the dangers and risks, why did this big cat travel so far from his mother? In fact, there are a few reasons for the leopard to have come here. Leopards are known to like open spaces, and they always seek new territory in the hopes of finding food. At 3 years old, it’s the perfect time for a young male leopard to separate from its mother and go in search of a lovely female leopard. “Actually, he needs to find his own territory, separate from his father,” explained Alexander. “Each dominant male takes up a huge amount of space, as his territory reaches areas of up to 451 square kilometres.”
They specifically like undisturbed environments where prey is abundant and the preconditions are set for them to create a family; If food is scarce, he’ll have no reason to stay. Getting photos of Leo/Neo was cause for celebration though; “we had very little hope after the recent forest fire in Khosrov,” said Alexander, “it’s as though he decided to bring new life to a place we thought would die out.”
Setting up the cameras was no easy feat for Alexander either; he had to convince employees at the reserve. “I knew that it would be a strategic spot, but people kept arguing with me, saying that there haven’t been sightings for years,” he smirked. “Besides that, we always have issues with poachers damaging or stealing the cameras, but we never lose hope. We continue to patiently work for years and years, until we finally get to see results like this.”
“I didn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the footage,” said Alexander, with a smile that reached his eyes. “I took out the chip from the camera and when I saw the photo, it took me a while to snap out of my shock. I called the office straight away, excited to share the news!” It seems only fitting that the man who has worked for years in the field would be the first to discover the results of his work. As for the rest of us, we hope that the leopard finds a suitable home with a perfect mate, ultimately breeding a new population of Caucasian leopards, here in Armenia!
© WWF Armenia
© WWF Armenia
Khosrov Forest State Reserve
© WWF Armenia