A Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) has seen light in Armenia since 2002. Funded by the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) and supported by the UK-based World Land Trust, the Foundation aims to raising local and international awareness for Armenia’s rich natural heritage through the SunChild environmental education program, the activities of Yerevan Zoo, which is an hour’s drive from Yerevan, and also through the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge,that 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, at the Eco Training Center in Urtsadzor.
Wardens of the refuge, who patrol its 4,000 hectares in an old four wheel drive and on horseback, have set camouflage green boxes with motion sensing cameras that await animals, among the trees, high on the outskirts of Urtsadzor village along the foothills of the mountains, rich with thyme and wildflowers and fruit trees. They have been able to catch on camera birds, rabbits, lynx, bears, wolves and at least one of Europe’s last remaining leopards in the snowier areas.
The program is set to raise the awareness of the locals on the beauty and importance on wildlife, and to introduce them on why and how they should protect it in an often war zone between azerbaijan and Iran, and the Ararat Mountains. Here these animals 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.
“All hunting is banned in the refuge, 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.”
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’ favorite time to raid the valley’s orchards they also pass by 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 a villager who lives in Urtsadzor, 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.”
“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.
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 the refuge wardens. “Sometimes, when alone on his horse in the hills, I wonder if it might attack me,” says one of them. “But I’d still love to see a leopard up close. It’s great to know that it’s out there.”