In June last year I traveled with photographer Thomas Haugersveen to the war-ridden Nagorno-Karabakh enclave to meet the “forester guerilla,” a troop of foresters, mostly veterans from the bloody Azerbaijani-Armenian war. Ever heard of that war? Didn’t think so. Back in the early 90s they fought alone to protect their villages from enemy fire, while tens of thousands of people died. Now, that the last 20 (or less) Caucasian leopards living in the area are facing extinction, the war torn Nagorno-Karabakh enclave has finally become a matter of international concern, and the old war veterans have received all the supplies they need. To save the cats.
When the forester guerilla leader, Ruben Mkrtchyan, heard we were Norwegian, he told us about his days as a young red-fleet navy seal in the Soviet North Fleet in the late 70s. He was always prepared, if called, to go to war with the West. “We often sailed along the NATO border. The Norwegian cliffs and the Arctic ocean were magnificent,” he said. The cold war never caught heat in the Arctic, but about a decade later, when he was serving as a local forester, he was once again forced to take up arms. He told us how, when the war hit his town, his troop of 30 men fought alone, for months, against the Azerbaijani militia and armed Azerbaijani forces. He lost his son, some 30,000 people died, over 80,000 were wounded and a million people became, and remain, refugees.
The Nagorno Karabakh enclave, where the last Caucasian leopards live, remains disputed but de-facto controlled by a government that has Armenian support. Being an endangered eco-region, the area has finally gained the West’s attention and Ruben’s squad of armed foresters has been provided with jeeps, petrol to patrol larger grounds, binoculars, GPSs, detailed maps and new uniforms and weapons.
Cerush Adamir and the other foresters have received new binoculars and GPS transmitters to secure the forest watch from the Norwegian Environmental Department, through the WWF.
In the aftermath of the Soviet regime’s collapse and the bloody war, local villagers have survived only thanks to the natural resources in the forest. Now, the fines for poaching and illegal logging have been scaled up, and the villagers can no longer live off hunting, cattle and firewood. These efforts, politically backed by the government in Yerevan, have been co-sponsored by foreign aid departments in Europe and channeled through green organizations, such as the WWF.
The elected spokesman of the small village of Nerkin, with 100 inhabitants in the middle of the reserve, tells us that, “In Soviet times we all had jobs in offices and factories. Now we depend on nature. But Ruben explained that if we hunt too many animals, they become extinct. If we gather too much wood, the trees will die. We accept that it’s a fact. But at the same time it pains us that the government is spending so much money on protecting animals when we’re suffering.”
To win the villagers’ hearts for the leopard protection program, a few investments have now been made in alternative livelihoods for them.
Hardly anyone has seen a Caucasian leopard outside captivity, and there are probably only a dozen of them left in the region. Some cross freely over the borders of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and northern Iran, but they’re not safe outside Ruben’s watch.“We lost a leopard four years ago,” carnivore researcher Igor Khorozyan tells us, “when it crossed the border into Nagorno-Karabakh and was shot dead.” Khorozyan has studied leopards for 12 years, but seldom seen one alive. Seeing them is virtually impossible, they keep roaming the endless mountaintops of Southern Armenia. The only way to see where they’ve been is through scat tracks, scrapes, and prey remains, sometimes of dead wolves.
War might be the largest killer in Southern Armenia, but its majestic cats still top the food chain.
Foresters on the Meghi-edge, above the enclave in southern Armenia. The edge is the only big way in to the reserve and has to be guarded 24–7 to prevent poachers from getting in.
It may not be popular among the locals that the foresters have been given Jeeps, arms and other equipment from the West, but they still respect them personally as many of them fought to protect the villagers in the Karabakh war.
The elected spokesman of the small village of Nerkin, Tatjik Vagdasaryan (to the right) and forester guerrilla leader Ruben Mkrtohyana (to the left).
A war torn Armenian city.
The Mother USSR statue still stands in Yerevan’s central park, while the Soviet reign has become a faint memory for the tiny Caucasian state of Armenia.
The leader of the forester guerilla, Ruben Mkrtohyana, telling us about his days as a Former Soviet elite soldier.
Thanks to the natural conservation efforts and Armenia’s stunning mountains, eco-tourism has been picking up in the little country. So hopefully the villagers will soon be able to make a buck or two.