The visit was hosted by WLT’s partner in Armenia, Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC).
The visitors’ programme included meetings with Armenia’s newly appointed Minister of Nature Protection, Aramayis Grigoryan; the famous botanist and FPWC adviser Professor Eleanora Gabrielyan and Ralph Yirikian, General Manager of VivaCell-MTS, which provides corporate support to FPWC.
The group also met several representatives of local communities, among them Urtsadzor village mayor, Raffael Andreasyan.
During these meetings John publicly expressed his admiration for FPWC's nature conservation efforts: “FPWC is to be applauded for setting up the first privately protected area in Armenia. The Caucasus Wildlife Refuge is a ground breaking approach to protecting biodiversity in the buffer zone of Khosrov Forest State Reserve.” John called on both Armenian and international stakeholders to support FPWC and its work.
It was John’s fourth visit to the country and he was delighted that others in the party were able to witness for the first time the landscape and extraordinary biodiversity of the region.
He said: “It is important that WLT ambassadors like Bill, Simon and Nicola see for themselves Armenia’s biodiversity. All three are leaders in their own fields. They are specialists in communication and they are well placed to raise awareness of need for conservation in Armenia.”
Simon described his encounter with the ranger: “Sometimes – actually quite often in wildlife conservation – you meet a person characterised by quiet but ferocious dedication in impossibly forbidding circumstances. You feel a little ashamed; you feel a lot inspired.”
Since the visit Simon has covered different aspects of the trip in a series of articles in The Times. In one piece he describes the rugged terrain: “It’s a tough, bare, hard place, and it takes a juniper tree 300 years to grow the size of your own Christmas tree. It’s not teeming like the rainforest or the Serengeti.”
With extreme heat in summer and temperatures well below freezing in winter “nothing about this place is easy”. But, as he goes on to say: “Not all great wildlife projects are about fantastic abundance. These fierce scarce places are also part of the planet and need conserving along with the tough, scattered creatures that live here.”
Bill was also enthusiastic about the trip. He said: “The scenery is absolutely fabulous: nonstop ravines and mountains. And the wildlife, the really special wildlife is not easy to see but it’s there. The bears, the ibex and, of course, the big star, the leopard, they’re up there somewhere. We know that.”
Nicola Davies joined the field trip in order to research her next book for children. She explored the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge and visited Urtsadzor village to get a deeper understanding of local people's perception of living close to wild animals such as leopard, bear and lynx.
She too was touched by her visit to Armenia: “I hope my new children's book about the leopard will portray some of the unforgettable experiences I had here. Not only the unique landscapes, the amazing flora and the rich wildlife but also my impressions about the people living in rural Armenia. About their kindness, hospitality, endurance and how - in spite of all hardships – they live in and with nature. For me this was a journey into a new world.”
During the trip, the group visited the Armash wetlands, where they were thrilled to see a remarkable variety of birds. Some of the birds dipping and diving in the Armenian wetlands are common to the British Isles - swallows, house martins and swifts - but in numbers not seen in this country for decades.
Mary McEvoy, WLT Conservation Programmes Manager, was also in the group. She said: “Knowing how much wildlife we have lost in Britain in recent years makes us all the more determined to protect biodiversity in Armenia. That’s why WLT’s support for FPWC is so important. Our site visit gave us the opportunity to see FPWC’s outstanding achievements to date and to discuss how WLT can continue to support FPWC’s conservation programmes into the future.”
The visit took place 16-21 May 2014.
Since 2012 WLT has been running a special appeal to protect habitat for the Caucasian Leopard, listed by IUCN as Critically Endangered. Other large mammals including the Bezoar Goat and the Syrian Brown Bear are also benefiting from WLT support along with a range of birds including Eurasian Black Vulture and Lammergeier.
You can support conservation in Armenia by donating to Save the Caucasian Leopard or by supporting WLT's Keepers of the Wild appeal.