Back in spring 2012, the experts of the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) which manages the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge made an unexpected discovery. The Refuge rangers detected some footprints which were later identified by the experts as typical for a big cat – most probably a leopard, the Caucasian Leopard.
More thorough exploration of this first indication of the presence of the Caucasian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) in the Wildlife Refuge was carried out. In summer 2012, a team of FPWC field experts started a systematic investigation covering all areas of the refuge considered leopard “friendly” habitat. During their excursions they collected scat and pieces of fur which the animal had most probably lost while passing thorny shrubs. The genetic analysis of these samples confirmed the presence of the extremely rare Caucasian Leopard in the Wildlife Refuge.
As a major part of the project, FPWC has installed trap cameras along the possible pathways of this big predator to get footage of the whole animal. In June 2013, the installed trap cameras recorded only the tail of a leopard, and more cameras were set up. A video taken in daylight later provided striking images of the species.
The Caucasian Leopard is the largest sub-species of leopard and it ranges across several different countries including Iran, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Georgia. Sadly, in all these countries the leopard population has been devastated by uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction. The Caucasus Wildlife Refuge can offer an excellent habitat for this rare predator, as the prevention of hunting has increased wildlife in the area resulting in a lot of potential preys.
Leopards don’t know borders and their migration routes cover not only a corridor through Armenia, but also reach out in particular to Iran and Azerbaijan. Much more field exploration is necessary to map and understand this regional leopard corridor, which is why FPWC experts have undertaken field trips visiting villages in different regions talking to the local people and searching for traces. For FPWC, it is essential to strengthen regional cross-border cooperation in order to form a leopard coalition uniting capable NGOs and governmental institutions in all countries of the South Caucasus.
The FPWC was established in 2001 with the primary aim to raise local and international awareness for the preservation of Armenia’s unique natural heritage. One great example of FPWC’s efforts in Armenia is the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge.
The Caucasus Wildlife Refuge is a 2,000 hectare protected area near the Khosrov Forest State Reserve. This territory with unique biodiversity has been leased to the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) with the support of the IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands, the British organization World Land Trust and VivaCell-MTS. The main activities implemented in this area concern the conservation of the Caucasian Leopard, the education of the villagers on sustainable use of resources and the increase of job opportunities for young Armenians by involving them in nature conservation and ecotourism activities.