by Sarah Hayes
ATP actively collaborates with organizations working on ecosystem preservation and raising environmental awareness. One of these organizations is the World Wildlife Fund.
One of our greatest joint success stories was in 2005, when we opposed the construction of a road through the Shikahogh State Reserve in Syunik. Armenia's second-largest forest reserve, covering more than 25,000 acres, is home to many species that have been identified as endangered or threatened. Through a combined effort of advocacy, education, and local grassroots activism, we were able to stop the road from being built and an alternate route was established.
There was widespread opposition to the road being built through the reserve, because it would disrupt the habitat of the endangered Caucasian leopard.
Caucasian leopards are the world's largest leopard subspecies by size, and one of the most endangered. Once common in the mountainous regions of the Caucasus, habitat loss and hunting have decimated populations. There are fewer than 20 Caucasian Leopards left in the wild and their range has declined significantly, bringing them to the brink of extinction.
"The Caucasian leopard is an extremely cautious animal, and also one that's verging on extinction," says Arsen Gasparyan, coordinator of WWF Armenia's Leopard Conservation Project. "Seeing one in the wild is rare, so we want to increase public awareness about this threatened species."
WWF launched its Caucasian leopard conservation project in 2002 to raise awareness and protect the handful of individual leopards still remaining in southern Armenia.
The Caucasian leopard is considered an "umbrella species" by conservationists, meaning that protection of the leopard indirectly protects many other species that live in the Caucasus eco-region, including bezoar goats and mouflon, a type of wild sheep.
Despite the dire projections, a male leopard has recently found his way back into Armenia! It has been tracked by Alexander Malkhasyan, who works on the WWF leopard program.
This particular leopard, which has been named Leo/Neo, was photographed in the Khosrov Forest State Reserve! This forest reserve is one of the oldest protected areas in the word, established by King Khosrov more than 1,500 years ago. The last leopards in this area were sighted about 18 years ago, but they were poached one by one and forced out of this region.
Leo/Neo has come back to the land of his ancestors, without ever having been there before. "This area of land [in Khosrov Forest] actually has favorable conditions in terms of prey," explains Alexander, "but the fact that he managed to get this far is nothing short of a miracle."
Wild animals require four basic habitat components: food, water, cover, and space. ATP's tree planting efforts help to expand this much needed habitat, and its environmental education programs raise awareness about Armenia's rich natural heritage.
We were so pleased to hear about Leo/Neo returning to his forest, and hope that he will lead other species in returning to Armenia.