The first hints

of a leopard in the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge date from spring 2012, when rangers found foot prints in the snow. They were later identified by experts as typical for a big cat—most probably a leopard.

Caucasian/Persian leopard. IUCN Red List status: Endangered. (Photo: World Land Trust)

That summer, experts from the Armenian NGO, Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) started a systematic investigation of all areas of the refuge considered “leopard friendly”. They collected scat and pieces of fur found on thorny shrubs. Though the experts were sure that the samples came from a leopard, final confirmation could only be proved by genetic analysis.

Genetic tests of the samples conducted at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem recently confirmed that they are indeed from a rare Caucasian Leopard, also called the Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor). The news confirms what field experts have believed but had been unable to prove, that this highly endangered predator still dwells in Armenia.

The Caucasian Leopard

is found across several different countries including Iran, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Georgia. There are thought to be less than 1,300 Caucasian Leopards left in the wild and fewer than 15 of the cats left in Armenia.

Caucasus, Armenia. (Photo: FPWC)

Caucasus-wildlife-refuge. (Photo: FPWC)

They mainly live in remote, mountainous habitats which can range from dry and arid to forested regions and even extend up into snowy mountain ranges. In recent years, their population has been devastated by uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction. Leopards don’t know borders. Their migration routes cover not only a corridor through Armenia but also reach out in particular to Iran and Azerbaijan.

Armenia Caucasus Wildlife Refuge. (Map: World Land Trust)

The World Land Trust (WLT)

joined with FPWC in 2010 and established the 1,084 acre (439 hectare) Caucasus Wildlife Refuge—next to the 60,000 acre Khosrov National Reserve. A team of rangers stationed in the reserve have successfully reduced illegal hunting in the region, which has increased populations of the leopard’s prey species such as Bezoar goats and Ibex. The confirmed presence of the leopard shows that the refuge is increasingly becoming a safe haven for the big cats.

FPWC’s rangers have increased the number of Bezoar Ibex in the area by reducing hunting, this increase in prey is critical to the survival of Caucasian Leopard. (Photo: FPWC)

Threats and Conservation

The remote and mountainous habitats they inhabit makes the big cats extremely vulnerable to habitat fragmentation and a variety of other threats. These include reduction of prey species through poaching, loss of habitat caused by deforestation and over grazing by livestock, conflict with livestock owners, heavy military presence and fortification of borders, and being hunted as trophies or for the fur trade.

As is happening in the Bafq Protected Area in Iran (“Bafq Cats” ANIMAL POST 1/5/13), efforts are underway to strengthen regional cross-border cooperation in order to establish official wildlife corridors for the cats to roam.

Speaking of big cats in Iran

A Persian leopard was just recently photographed for the second time in the Bafq Protected Area.

Recent photograph of the old man. (Photo: Iranian Cheetah Society)

The cat was first photographed by a camera trap in 2004. He’s since been spotted by both game wardens and visitors on numerous occasions.

Most cats in the wild rarely live past ten. This dominant male is thought to be up to 14 years old, making him the oldest leopard ever to roam the desolate plains and valleys of this mountainous park—or anywhere in Iran.

Despite a new study that shows there are a total of only eleven leopards in the park, officials at the Bafq Governor’s Office do not believe that the populations warrant continued protection.