It began as any other working day, but as events on 10 November 2013 unfolded, it quickly became clear that this was anything but a routine day on the reserve. Vicky Mkrtchyan, Environmental Projects Coordinator (FPWC) reports.
When Ruben Khachatryan and Gor Hovhanissyan started their patrol, it was a perfectly clear day, sunny but already cool. Ruben is the founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of Cultural and Wildlife Assets (FPWC), the Armenian conservation partner of World Land Trust (WLT). Gor works as a ranger in FPWC’s Caucasus Wildlife Refuge, his post supported by WLT’s Keepers of the Wild programme.
Ruben and Gor began their tour of the refuge in the territory where most of the camera-traps are placed, an area known to be the hunting ground of at least one Caucasian Leopard. A particular leopard, known to have been living in the area since March, has been partially recorded twice by camera-traps, although the images have not yet shown a complete picture of the animal.
The patrol started with the sighting of two large male Bezoar Goats some 50 metres away. With their magnificent horns, the animals were probably 12 to 14 years old. The animals were very calm and did not take flight even when Ruben’s dog Bonny started barking at them. The behaviour of the Bezoars is a clear indicator that the animals now feel perfectly safe in the area. Only three years ago an encounter like this would have been impossible as the Bezoars would have immediately vanished from view. Now men and animals peacefully observe each other for a long time.
Another reason for the bold behaviour of the male Bezoars is that it is mating time and the males are on the look-out for brides. In the breeding season they are unwary and, in many areas of Armenia, poachers take advantage of this. Just after the encounter with the two big bucks, Ruben and Gor saw four males around 700 metres away at the foot of Dahnak mountain.
The two men continued on, to check the footage of the first trap camera. They were greeted with a fantastic surprise: the film showed a beautiful lynx – an animal that has become very, very rare in Armenia. While the two men were checking one camera after another a group of some 40 male and female Bezoars ran into view, among them a mighty buck of about 14 years of age.
But the best was yet to come. While checking the footage of the last camera Ruben and Gor could hardly believe what they were looking at: on 8 November the camera had recorded full body pictures of a mature male leopard in daylight!
The video shows the animal calmly resting in the grass. It is well nourished and seems to be waiting for an opportunity to catch a Bezoar.
Interestingly, the footage clearly shows that this beautiful predator, although healthy and strong, has lost a hind leg to an injury, now completely healed. Ruben thought initially that this was probably as a result of a trap set to catch a wolf or a bear.
Just as they were viewing the video, shots rang out from an automatic rifle about 2.5-3 kilometres away – this could only signify that poachers were nearby. Luckily, the hunters were clearly outside the refuge and the Bezoars were heading into safety. Although there was no immediate danger, the incident shows how important it is to keep the area under permanent control and to expand the protected area to safeguard more land and wildlife from poachers and other threats.
On their way back to the ranger station there was one more surprise for them. A pair of Bearded Vultures, also known as Lammergeier, who raised a chick in 2012 were building a new nest in the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge. So there is hope that next year – as in spring 2012 – a young Bearded Vulture will safely be raised in the area. And who knows? Perhaps a female leopard on her long search for a mate might find her way into the refuge, if she hasn’t done so already!
Vicky Mkrtchyan works for FPWC.