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Saving the leopard in the Caucasus

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They do not care about human borders, political situation or any other stuff that we humans are so obsessed about. The largest feline predator in Europea is a good example of the trans-boundary nature of conservation work.

 leopard in Armenia

What is the largest feline predator in Europe? If you think the answer is lynx, you are mistaken. The answer is Caucasian (or rather Persian) leopard, the biggest cat in Europe, that still lives in the Caucasus.

There are only about 50-60 animals left in the whole Caucasus ecoregion, mainly in Southern Armenia, parts of Azerbaijan and Iran (see the map). A few hundred years ago it was quite wide-spread throughout the Caucasus, but poaching, habitat destruction and human-caused prey decline brought it to the brink of extinction. The core population lives in Iran and animals cross the border between Iran and Armenia/Azerbaijan on a regular basis. They do not care about human borders, political situation or any other stuff that we humans are so obsessed about. They live their animal lives, follow their prey species and yearly cycle, look for a suitable mate or a safe place to raise their cubs. It’s a very elusive animal that covers huge distances and moves in the most inaccessible terrain, using mountain ridges as safe corridors. Its presence in the area is detected mainly by footprints, scats and images from photo traps. Occasionally, a hard proof is obtained when an animal is shot illegally. Considering the very small size if the population, the loss of every animal is a serious blow to the population.

During my previous trips to protected areas of Southern Armenia I have never come across even a footprint, let alone the leopard itself. Not that I have ever had the slightest hope anyway. I have only seen its habitat – highland shrublands and mountain ridges, and that has made me realize how difficult this species is for research. Scientists have to cover long distances on foot or on horse-back to set up photo traps and follow the tracks. Caucasian leopard is also a good example of the trans-boundary nature of conservation work. To ensure the survival of this sub-species, coordinated efforts of all countries in the Caucasus region are required. It is happening already as leopard monitoring is carried out throughout the region and Russia recently established a leopard captive breeding centre with the future aim to start a re-introduction programme in the Russian Caucasus.

WWF works in many places in the world where political situation within and between countries can be rather difficult. Caucasus is not an exception. It’s a relatively small but extremely diverse region that has more than 30 ethnic groups and languages and a long history of mutual grievances and wars. As a result, several countries in the region have problems talking to each other, e.g. Azerbaijan and Armenia, Armenia and Turkey, Russia and Georgia. The last military conflict happened as late as summer 2008, between Russia and Georgia. This makes a challenging working environment but WWF Caucasus Programme Office manages to bring people together from the whole Caucasus region (including Russia and Turkey). If anyone in the region is fit for the job, then it’s WWF CauPO. In summer 2010, the independent audit of WWF CauPO’s conservation programme was carried out (see full version at http://assets.wwf.no/downloads/2___wwf_caupo_audit_report.pdf). And one of the findings it came up with was that WWF is currently the ONLY institution in the Caucasus that has such a capacity “to facilitate region-wide dialogue, collaboration and translation of the ecoregion vision to intra-national and transboundary action”. The audit also stated that “this is one of the best functioning and highest impact large, multi-country programmes” they have reviewed. Such acknowledgement is worth a lot.

I just came back from the steering group meeting of the WWF Caucasus Programme Office and the strategy planning process for the next five years. It was decided that the Caucasian leopard will continue to be one of the priorities for WWF CauPO also in 2011-2015. This is good news for the leopard and with WWF CauPO continuing its role as a facilitator of the regional dialogue, there is hope to increase transboundary cooperation for saving this beautiful animal.

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