Leopards Without Borders: Protecting Biodiversity in the Caucasus

In the diverse terrain of the Caucasus—in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan—a small population of leopards strives to survive.

At the top of the food chain, leopards are but one indicator of the health of the eco-region, in an area deemed one of 34 hotspots of thriving biodiversity in the world. (Photo courtesy of AFP)

Considered highly endangered, there are an estimated 1,500 Caucasus leopards in the world. Most have migrated out of the Caucasus into Central Asia and southern Iran (also referred to as non-Caucasus Iran). According to the Caucasus Nature Fund (CNF), less than 100 still live in the area. Seven inhabit the mountains and forests of Armenia; 50 northern Iran; 10 the north Caucasus region of Russia; 15 in Azerbaijan; and a handful in Georgia.

About 250 square kilometers are required to house a male leopard along with two or three females. It is important, therefore, to protect the core areas—or the national parks—where wildlife thrives. It is equally vital to secure the corridors that connect the parks.

“You need to have ways for the animals to get back and forth. Otherwise you have something that’s called the ‘island effect’ and the gene pool becomes poorer because there’s no mixing,” said CNF Executive Director David Morrison in an interview with the Armenian Weekly. “The seven leopards that live in Armenia need to mate with the three or four that live in Georgia, and those that live in Iran and Azerbaijan.”

A former corporate and financial lawyer, Morrison says the threat to biodiversity is “the world’s unknown or unspoken environmental crisis.” At the top of the food chain, leopards are but one indicator of the health of the eco-region, in an area deemed one of 34 hotspots of thriving biodiversity in the world.

Every 30 minutes or so, a species is erased from the face of the planet, Morrison noted glumly, a fate that can befall the endangered wildlife of the Caucasus.

The landscape in the three Caucasus countries, which together make up roughly the size of France, is incredibly diverse. “Landscapes that go from badlands that we would think of, like out to the Dakotas, to the highest mountains—higher than any of the Alps—and to the lowest points in Europe. [It has] 9 of the world’s 11 climate zones—all in this relatively small area,” Morrison explained.

In Armenia, the organization is supporting the Khosrov Forest, Shikahogh/Zangezur, and Arevik protected areas.

“Scientists break down the map of the world into hotspots—where biodiversity is still thriving even if threatened. People know about the Amazon and the incredible biodiversity in Indonesia. What people don’t know is that on this map of 34 hotspots in the world, there is 1 in a temperate climate zone, and that’s the Caucasus. [It] has the most biodiversity—Armenia, right up there with the rest of the countries.”

The area houses a unique assortment of mammals and plants: Caucasus leopards; wolves; the Bezoar goat, which is a subspecies endemic to the Caucasus; the Armenian mouflon, an animal that only exists in Armenia and Azerbaijan; various species of birds; and 6,500 species of plants (particularly rich in Armenia), over 1,500 of which are found only in the region.

So far, CNF has been supported by non-Armenians. The foundation was created by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Germany and the German government in 2008. It later received support from the Virginia-based Conservation International and, most recently, the World Bank. It now has around $20 million in funds available for the region.

“These areas are severely underfunded today. The point of my foundation is to give them the funding that they need,” said Morrison.

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CNF’s funds flow directly into the field, where they support the operating costs of national parks and the protected areas. They supplement the salaries of the rangers, and fund equipment such as Jeeps, gasoline, binoculars, and mobile phones. The organization also offers guidance on budgeting and planning, and undertakes training efforts in protection techniques and tourism development.

“The environmental world has understood that it is hard to persuade, especially the local people, to support an environmental cause unless they see that there is something in it for them,” Morrison added. Training and salary supplements are important since poaching is a continuing threat. For a park ranger in rural Armenia who makes about $100 a month, an offer of $1,000 in exchange for permission to hunt is an extremely tempting proposition, explained Morrison. “So, it’s important for these people to have their standard of living raised, to be trained, to be made to feel important.”

Recently, the organization received funding from the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility—$2 million, split evenly between Armenia and Georgia.

Thus far, Azerbaijan has refused to work with CNF. “We have not yet had success in [working] in Azerbaijan, and that’s a shame… It’s one world. We can’t save the animals in Armenia unless we save the animals in Azerbaijan, too. So I’m still trying to reach out to the Azeri government, and hope that I can persuade them to come along,” added Morrison, who said it was hard to gauge why Azerbaijan remained uncooperative.

The reason may be the country’s unwillingness to work in tandem with other regional players, especially Armenia. Or, it may be due to its reluctance to have an international organization monitor its internal affairs, especially because oil revenues would allow it to undertake similar efforts on its own. “It’s hard to know,” he said. “I don’t have an explanation.”

The success of the project will be visible over time. “This foundation is supposed to be here not for a year or 3 years, it’s supposed to be with Armenia and its protected areas for the next 20 or 30 years and beyond. You can’t measure success in six months or a year. You measure success by counting the number of leopards, by counting the number of wolves,” said Morrison. Both animals are considered keystone species.

For more information on CNF’s work in the region, or to make a donation (both general or to a specific country), visit www.caucasus-naturefund.org.

“People need to be aware that there’s a web of life out there, and we’re all part of that web,” said Morrison. “Humans are just as much part of it as the rest of the natural world. We depend on that web. If it starts to break down and fall apart, the world that we live in and the world as we know it will not survive.”

The interview with David Morrison was conducted by Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian and assistant editor Nanore Barsoumian in Watertown, Mass.


About Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk, and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in political science and English from the University of Massachusetts (Boston), where she is currently continuing her graduate studies. Email Nanore Barsoumian at writenanore@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter (@NanoreB).

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  1. Interesting article.  I see the beautiful picture of Mt. Khustup near the city of Kapan in Zangezur/Syunik, but at the same time in the same Kapan it is already 10 years that the Canadian “Deno Gold Mining Company” destroys the whole ECO-SYSTEM of the region. In the forested and mountainous southern  Syunik  of Armenia there are THREE major (and some other smaller) mining companies. In this environment no living being can thrive.


  3. i fully enjoyed the article and the 3 comments submitted to your editorial board.

    i recommend, as an extension of your article, for those interested in reviewing a more detailed and comprehensive study of the Southern Caucasus biodiversity world and related issues, to consult the FAO site

    We launched the 363 pages colourful book referred to in this site, only a few months ago, in Rome, at FAO headquarters.
    The book is fascinating and covers a full range of wealth in plant and animal genetic resources of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Please consult the agenda, video, and the photo gallery, as well as the summary text provided.
    I am very content that The Armenian Weekly had decided to make this article to its readership.
    Thank you Ms Nanore Barsoumian for offering us a different perspective and story about the Southern Caucasus . Is is informative and innovative.

    Zohrab Malek
    Permanent Representative of Armenia to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome

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