Notes from the expedition to Armenia and Iran from the 13th to the 31st of October 2017.

The Caucasus ecoregion is recognized as one of the richest in the world in terms of biodiversity and cultural diversity. It has therefore been considered by the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) a priority location, in strategic terms, to step up efforts to implement conservation plans. 

Mirpuri Foundation funded this expedition to photograph the natural habitat of the Persian Leopard in the Caucasus and the surrounding communities.

The current situation of the Leopard in the Caucasus ecoregion is highly alarming. Current estimates place the population of leopards remaining from the Lesser Caucasus at close to 40; between eight to ten animals are known to survive in the eastern Greater Caucasus in addition to a small population, which is being re-introduced (at present three animals) in the western part of the Greater Caucasus.

This first expedition is part of the Persian Leopard Conservation Project in the Caucasus region, where the Lisbon Zoo has taken on the role of coordinator for the Reproduction Program for this particular species (European Endangered Species Programme) with the aim of updating the respective “International Studbook” (a database that includes all existing animals of this species on a global level) as well as providing the Centre for Reproduction and Re-introduction in Sochi (Russia) with technical advice. Because of the existence of the largely fragmented and diminishing population of Persian Leopards in the Greater and Lesser Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and Iran) cross-border efforts are underway to conserve this emblematic species.                            

During the first phase of the project, we had the opportunity to visit the regions of Armenia and Iran which offer optimal natural conditions for the inhabitancy of the Persian Leopard. This was followed up by seeing other regions in the Caucasus also conducive to the Persian Leopard. Photographic material gathered from this part of the expedition will be published in a book and shown in an exhibition in an effort to draw attention to the plight for survival of this species in a unique and fascinating region.

Armenia, the 13th to the 24th of October 2017

The Armenian expedition stretched from the capital city of Yerevan to the regions in the south. We visited the Gegham mountains, where we looked for cave paintings (9,000 to 3,000 B.C.) depicting the Leopard. To date, over 12,000 representations of the animal have been found in the region. In the Khosrov Forest State Reserve (KFSR) we witnessed rituals in Havuts Tar, the ruins of an imposing Monastery in a stunning location, which perfectly mirrors the Armenian people. In the Kakavaberd region (part of KFSR) we climbed to the top of a mountain to observe the surrounding area, a natural habitat for the bear where we also came across the ruins of a fortress (Kakavaberd). The reserve, established in 1958, with an area totalling 240 square km, located at an altitude ranging from 700 to 2800 meters, is confirmed to be home to the leopard. We then travelled through the Gnishik

Protected Landscape, which due to its proximity to Nakhchivan (an autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan) is particularly important for regular visits from leopards originally from there. In the Khachik region (within the reserve) we visited the camps of nomadic shepherds at a time of the year when they are preparing to descend the mountain. This border region is today an area of military tension rendering the borders impassable and making exploring the region unsafe. But further south we were able to explore protected areas that included Shikahogh State Sanctuary, Plane Tree Grove State Sanctuary and Arevik National Park. The latter, located on the border with Iran, is occasionally visited by the leopard which then has to overcome the fencing that separates the two countries as well as the Arax river. In one of the most remote villages in the region we collected a rare testament from an old shepherd who described in vivid detail an encounter with a leopard. Although there is no official record of resident leopard populations in Armenia, the border regions are particularly important because they provide an area for animals coming from Azerbaijan and Iran to spend time in while are crossing the borders in search pf new territories.                                         

We travelled a total of approximately 2,300 km by car accompanied by WWF technical staff, and while in each of the protected areas, high-ranking staff from the parks, as well as forest rangers.

Iran, the 24th to the 31st of October 2017

We crossed the border over land allowing us to access the protected areas in Iran that border Armenia and Azerbaijan: Marakan Protected Area, Kantal National Park, and the Kiamaky Wildlife Refuge. The latter is considered especially important because it appears to be a consistent breeding ground for the leopard. In fact, in the last 20 years, Kiamaky is the only place in the Caucasus where a leopard litter was spotted. Kiamaky, over 950 square km in size, has been a protected area since 1975. While in the region, we had the chance to cross the main valley used by the leopard and spot its principle prey: the wild Bezoar goat (Capra aegagrus) which we had previously seen in various points throughout Armenia.

In the mountainous region of Talysh (a region bordering Azerbaijan) near the Caspian Sea, we explored the Lisar Protected Area. The region of Talysh is particularly significant on the Azerbaijan side due to the presence of the leopard. We covered remote zones and stayed in small nomadic shepherd villages before their descent to the base of the mountain. These areas with the potential, and in some cases the confirmed presence of the Persian Leopard, are located in the north of the country (a region still belonging to the Lesser Caucasus) bordering Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey.

During the expedition to Iran we were accompanied by guides who work for Iran’s Department of the Environment (DOE) as well as several high-ranking staff and forest rangers from the respective reserves. We travelled a total of 1,500 km by car in Iranian territory.

While travelling across the two countries, we covered 3,800 km always at an altitude above 400 meters.

Lisbon, November 2017

Rui Bernardino / José Dias Ferreira