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Tracking the Persian leopard, a cat caught between two warring states

  • Written by  Jack Losh
  • Published in Wildlife
The Persian leopard was once widespread across the highland region between Russia, the Middle East and the Black and Caspian seas The Persian leopard was once widespread across the highland region between Russia, the Middle East and the Black and Caspian seas SHUTTERSTOCK
01 Oct
2021
A rare encounter with a leopard in the mountains of Armenia sparked a hunt for the elusive creature, caught between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Listen to this story on The Geographical Podcast along with expert commentary about the war in Nagorno-Karabakh

The attack came without warning, punctuated by a roar unheard for decades in these remote peaks. As Arman Gabrielyan clambered down the forested slope, a flash of tan fur burst towards him.

Instinctively, the father of two thrust his arms up to protect his face as sabre-like teeth sank into his left hand and claws mauled his shoulders, legs and torso. Pinned to the ground, teeth fastened through his palm, Gabrielyan began to be dragged down the steep valley by the creature. His rifle still hung around his right shoulder, just out of reach.

The day had started without drama. It was November 2019 and the first hints of Armenia’s long winter were appearing as snow began to dust this rugged corner of the Caucasus – a vast, mountainous wilderness inhabited by brown bears and grey wolves. Persian leopards, too, had once stalked this area in Armenia’s north-eastern province of Tavush but, following decades of persecution, none had been seen for generations. Gabrielyan had driven up to the high-altitude pasture above his home near the town of Ijevan to collect his drove of foraging pigs. On arrival, he found that more than a dozen were missing and three had been killed, their half-eaten remains left to the elements. Searching for the rest, he entered a narrow trail that descended past small caves that dotted a sheer rock face.

A roar rang out and he was knocked to the ground. ‘It all happened so fast,’ said Gabrielyan, then aged 35. ‘I didn’t even have time to think of being scared.’ After a few adrenaline-soaked seconds, he managed to reach his rifle and fired two shots into the air. The animal leapt away then turned to meet Gabrielyan’s stunned stare, before roaring a final time and bounding into the woods. 

Bloodied and bruised, Gabrielyan was dumbfounded. Despite its decades-long absence, the shape, size, sound and markings of this iconic creature were unmistakable. The Persian leopard had returned.

1hAleksander Malkhasyan walks down a ledge in Ijevan State Sanctuary, close to where the leopard attacked Gabrielyan the year before. Image: Jack Losh

ONCE WIDESPREAD

Until the 20th century, leopards were the uncontested kings of the Caucasus. Weighing upwards of 60 kilograms and marked by a mesmerising array of rosettes, the average leopard measured more than two metres in length, from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail.

These big cats were once widespread across this highland region between Russia, the Middle East and the Black and Caspian Seas, feasting on bezoar ibex, mouflon (wild sheep), roe deer and wild boar. Presiding over the food chain as skilled ambush hunters, they kept ecosystems in check in territories that spanned upwards of 30,000 hectares across subalpine meadows, juniper forests and rocky ravines. Their demise began after Tsarist Russia conquered the countries of the Lesser Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – during the 19th century. Regarded as a pest, the predators were hunted for their skins and pushed to the brink of extinction – whether gunned down or poisoned by prey spiked with toxic pesticides. Deforestation, expanding farms, road construction and fortified borders fragmented its habitat elsewhere through the 20th century, as trophy hunting, a declining prey base and retaliatory attacks for preying on livestock compounded this relentless assault.

A glimmer of hope came in 1972 when the Soviet authorities banned leopard hunting and set a fine for poachers. Fifteen years later, the subspecies, Panthera pardus saxicolor, was registered in the USSR Red Data Book, which catalogued rare and endangered animals and plants. After taking another hit during Armenia’s rocky emergence from the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, conservation activities ramped up during the 2000s.

In 2002, WWF and Armenia’s Ministry of Environment began a collaboration to restore leopard numbers and preserve the creature’s habitat, analysing its transboundary movements and monitoring its tiny population. Today, that population stands at around half a dozen known individuals, possibly up to ten, in a region that ranks among the world’s biodiversity hotspots, recognised for its exceptional concentration of endemic fauna and flora.

Khosrov leopard 3A leopard caught by a camera trap placed by WWF-Armenia. Image: WWF-Armenia

‘A healthy ecosystem depends on predators,’ says Arsen Gasparyan, a conservation officer for WWF-Armenia. ‘If we protect leopards, then we can protect the whole ecosystem.’ He says that the global population of this endangered subspecies amounts to fewer than 800 animals, with most found over the border in Iran, although its vast and remote range across multiple, often rival, countries stymies any systematic survey and reliable estimate. Still, protecting each one is crucial and benefits the rich web of species that share its domain. ‘Five or six individuals matter,’ adds Gasparyan. ‘Each one must be treasured. If we take care of the habitat here, the population will increase.’

However, the gains made by the long campaign to save this enigmatic creature could now be reversed. Last October, war broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave that Armenia and Azerbaijan both claim as their own. During weeks of relentless bombing and military advances, the toll on the region’s human population was terrible, leaving around 150 civilians and thousands of soldiers killed.

Conservationists now warn of other, less obvious repercussions that leave the leopard and the wider ecosystem with an uncertain future. Halted by a Moscow-brokered ceasefire that sealed Azerbaijan’s victory, the conflict has spawned a multitude of new threats to the Persian leopard, whose territory spans the two enemy nations.

New borders have been redrawn in a region awash with weapons. The laying of landmines and deployment of troops threaten to disrupt ecosystems. Conservationists also fear that the war’s punishing economic impact will fuel desperation and, in turn, more poaching, facilitated by new military roads. ‘These animals are going to suffer,’ says Aleksander Malkhasyan, a leopard specialist with WWF-Armenia. ‘And they’re going to be killed.’

Likewise, the conflict has further polarised Armenia and Azerbaijan, exacerbating a divide that severely hampers the ability of conservationists in the two countries to collaborate across the closed border. ‘The war changed everything,’ says Gasparyan. ‘It’s hard to persuade people of the importance of protecting nature when we can’t even protect ourselves.’

7cThe cliffs beneath the site where the leopard attacked Gabrielyan overlook an immense valley of rolling grasslands. Image: Jack Losh

Yet against this alarming backdrop, the re-appearance of the leopard near Ijevan shows what can be done in the face of overwhelming odds. In the immediate aftermath of the war last November, I was travelling back to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, from Nagorno-Karabakh, where I had witnessed first-hand the reality of that miserable conflict: dead bodies strewn along roads, homes burning in valleys, refugees fleeing in their thousands. The healing solitude of the mountains – an immense wilderness prowled by a Persian leopard indifferent to the folly of war and nationalism – beckoned me on.

Two Armenian trackers agreed to let me join them for a week as they set out to find the elusive specimen that had attacked Gabrielyan a year earlier. One of these trackers was Malkhasyan of WWF, a 51-year-old former Soviet Army conscript turned wildlife expert whose grizzled, glowering fa ade masked a warm spirit enchanted by nature. The other was Gabrielyan himself. Despite his harrowing encounter with the animal, he enlisted as a ‘leopard caretaker’, dedicating himself to halting the environmental devastation of his homeland and protecting an endangered animal that had once tried to kill him.

LEOPARD TRACKING

At dawn, golden sunlight streamed over the ridge above Ijevan. After a breakfast of omelettes, salty cheese and fresh bread smeared thickly with sour cream and dogwood jam – all washed down with cupfuls of wild-thyme tea – Malkhasyan assembled his gear and got into Gabrielyan’s tatty, trusty 4x4. Together, we drove up the mountainside and into Ijevan State Sanctuary.

The plan was to collect memory cards from camera traps the pair had hidden throughout the extensive forests and precipitous trails that surround the site of the leopard attack. Any further evidence of the big cat’s return could be used to refocus attention on saving the country’s valuable ecosystems.

As the vehicle ascended the rough, winding track, an awe-inspiring vista of colossal, snow-capped mountains opened to the north. I asked Malkhasyan – a true outdoorsman whose love of nature was kindled by the writing of Gerald Durrell – if he had ever encountered a leopard since becoming a conservation biologist during the mid-1990s.

‘I’ve never seen one,’ he replied, adding with a wry grin: ‘Arman has, but not me.’

‘They’re shy, right?’ I asked.

‘No, they’re not shy. They’re careful.’ Within half an hour, the vehicle had reached the highland pasture where Gabrielyan’s pigs had been attacked. Streams scoured the undulating grassland amid rocky outcrops as a vulture circled above.

As Gabrielyan sped down a rutted trail, Malkhasyan nudged him jokingly: ‘Mountain Schumacher.’ Cigarette in mouth, Gabrielyan grinned with roguish charm. He stopped the vehicle at the top of a steep, forested escarpment and the pair set off on foot towards the place where Gabrielyan had been attacked.

1aArman Gabrielyan checks his GPS device before setting off on the first day’s hike in Ijevan State Sanctuary. Image: Jack Losh

The year before, bloodied by his mauling, he had struggled back up the trail and called his uncle, who sped out to collect him before rushing him to the nearest hospital, in Ijevan. Over the coming days, doctors treated his array of wounds: gashed lip, shoulder cut to the bone, left hand fully pierced by a bite.

Local TV stations came to interview Gabrielyan, but so did WWF and other environmental groups. ‘It’s very rare for humans to be attacked,’ he said. ‘They wanted to find out what the animal could be. My older brother escorted them to the cliffs to inspect the area and put out camera traps.’

Few believed a leopard was responsible, but two months later, on 24 January 2020, the infrared sensor of a camera was triggered at 5.05am, prompting the device to record 30 seconds of grainy black-and-white footage of heart-stopping significance. The video showed a leopard ambling into frame from the left at the base of a sheer crag. It paused for a few moments to sniff the ground then continued on its way, disappearing into the pre-dawn darkness.

Ten months on, Gabrielyan and Malkhasyan were back to change the cameras’ batteries and collect the latest footage. Since July, the devices had been covertly filming wildlife – including, it was hoped, the leopard. ‘Even now, I can hear its roar in my ears,’ said Gabrielyan.

After several hours of hiking through steep, wooded inclines, we returned to the vehicle, memory cards stashed in rucksacks, and drove back to the base above Ijevan. There, a fire was lit, tea brewed and the footage downloaded. We gathered around a laptop to scour the clips for another glimpse of the leopard. There were deer, bears, porcupines and badgers, but not one second of the secretive, solitary creature had been captured.

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A DRINK TO THE LEOPARD

The coming days brought similar trips into the wild. Gabrielyan and Malkhasyan hiked along another steep, forested gorge to reach a camera by sheer sandstone cliffs. Fresh bear prints marked the ground but there was no footage of the leopard, although large claw marks on a fallen tree nearby suggested the animal had passed here. Elsewhere, close to the ruins of an abandoned, centuries-old village, the trackers retrieved memory cards from other cameras monitoring this wooded valley. Again, no leopard. 

One morning, they drove to the snowy north face of a dramatic peak, where a camera was hidden among the rocky crags. After rumbling up the high-altitude track, followed by a scramble across loose scree, Gabrielyan sat down to rest. One of the camera bags came loose and tumbled down the slope. He leapt up and ran down after it, soon disappearing from view.

Alone in the silence of these rugged heights, deprived of the trackers’ reassuring presence, looming peaks closed in around me. Among these black bluffs, which are frequented by grey wolves, I felt less like an inquisitive observer, more like helpless prey – little more than a nourishing lump of meat, vulnerable to the killer instinct of these master hunters.

Gabrielyan reappeared, bag in hand. The spell broken, we pressed on towards a hamlet in the valley below.

Among the cluster of ramshackle stone dwellings was the simple home of 73-year-old Romik Karapetyan, a sprightly farmer rearing chickens and cattle in the shadow of the leopard. After a warm embrace, he led the trackers inside for a feast, the table laden with bowls of beef casserole, pickled cauliflower, persimmons and thick slices of cured sausage, as well as the obligatory bottle of moonshine, distilled from a bumper crop of plums.

new persian leopardA small farmstead a few miles from the leopard sighting. Image: Jack Losh

The old farmer championed peaceful coexistence. ‘If we don’t bother the bears, they don’t bother us,’ he said. ‘Of course, wolves attack our livestock – they can’t go to the market to buy meat. That’s just part of life here.’ I asked him about the leopard. ‘I’ve never seen it,’ he replied. ‘I’ve only heard its roar and seen its footprints. My neighbours are afraid – it killed three of their cows. It’s just not a common animal here. There was one 50 years ago but it didn’t return for a long time.’ Shot glasses were topped up and Malkhasyan made a toast. ‘We drink to Romik and the leopard,’ he said. ‘Without the leopard, we never would have met.’

CONSERVATION AND CONFLICT

The leopard isn’t the only big cat to have stalked this land. Centuries ago, Asiatic lions counted the area as part of a domain that ranged from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. Reduced now to an endangered population in north-west India, the animal is extinct in Armenia, although its image lives on, most famously in the country’s coat of arms but also in another, lesser-known place. 

On our final day, Gabrielyan and Malkhasyan trekked to Lastiver Hermitage, an ancient sanctuary of atmospheric, cave-like rooms hewn into a gorge. Among its wall carvings is the image of a lion, a surprising, sobering reminder of the majestic fauna that once stalked this land. Unlike its leonine cousin, drawn from the same genus, is the Persian leopard destined to make a decisive return, or is that flagship subspecies condemned to the same tragic fate, only to be viewed in heraldic symbols and mysterious carvings?

Conservationists hope that a programme to reintroduce red deer to the region could help. These herbivores would provide prey, while also regulating the undergrowth in the ecosystem. Poaching and deforestation in Armenia wiped out these animals by the 1950s but, between 2018 and 2020, eight individuals were transported from Iran to a breeding centre near Ijevan. Six fawns have since been born; the first release is planned for next year. 

At the centre, project coordinator Vasil Ananyan described his fears about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s environmental impact. ‘We are recovering from the war and, given the hard economic conditions, there will be high pressure on natural resources,’ he said. ‘We are entering a concerning time.’

Yet examples from around the world show how conflict can sometimes help wildlife to flourish. The Korean Demilitarized Zone has locked humans out of a now-verdant space in which Asiatic black bears and other species struggling elsewhere on the peninsula can thrive. In Ukraine, a hunting ban prompted by the war in the east helped to repopulate industrial wastelands with wolves and wild boar. And in Colombia, rare yellow-eared parrots colonised no-go zones for civilians during the civil war.

new6dRomik Karapetyan, a 73-year-old farmer, shares a meal with the trackers at his small farmstead. Image: Jack Losh

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While ceasefires are rightly welcomed, transitions to peace can threaten newly depopulated habitats as demobbed soldiers pillage resources, displaced communities return and economies lie in tatters. The tragic irony is that any tentative tilt towards peace can keep wildlife in the firing line. Conversely, rather than succumbing to the conflict, some argue that the Persian leopard (also known as the Caucasus leopard) could become a catalyst for peace. Conservationists believe this transboundary animal presents a unique, unifying symbol to foster dialogue and cross-border cooperation in a region otherwise riven by ethnic division.

‘It could be a tool for reconciliation,’ says Gasparyan, of WWF. ‘There is no “Armenian” or “Georgian” or “Azeri” leopard. Leopard is leopard. Conferences, monitoring, migration corridors and other joint activities could help the peace-building process. People would meet each other, talk with each other and, in time, work with each other.’

That concept isn’t new. Over the past century, transboundary protected areas – or so-called ‘peace parks’ – have been set up across borders to preserve wildlife habitats and promote goodwill. While Norway and Sweden were the first to establish such a transnational area in 1914 to celebrate their shared political harmony, the first park created with the specific intention of stopping a conflict – rather than honouring friendly relations – was in a mountainous region between Ecuador and Peru. Following clashes in the long-disputed Cordillera del Cóndor area during the 1990s, conservation groups were brought in as part of peacebuilding efforts, using protected areas to consolidate the ceasefire around the dense cloud forests.

While proponents of this strategy say environmental cooperation can spur reconciliation, others doubt its peace-building potential, arguing that, in the wrong hands, transboundary conservation can extend authoritarian control, exclude Indigenous people and even perpetuate conflict. However, at its most effective, this beguiling concept has the power to highlight common ground between conflict-torn societies.

And one of the planet’s most potent symbols of a world without borders is the ever-roving Persian leopard. Even as tensions persist, this enigma of the mountains offers an alternative. Years of deadlocked peace talks since the first Karabakh war of the 1990s failed to prevent fresh hostilities last year. A new approach is needed. ‘The animal could offer a starting point for peace,’ said Malkhasyan.

Back in Ijevan, however, after a week of trekking, Gabrielyan and Malkhasyan were at a loss; no new footage of this magnificent mammal had been captured. But they remain undeterred. ‘It was fantastic that the leopard was here,’ Malkhasyan said one evening on the drive back to Yerevan. ‘We don’t know where it is now. Next we need to speak with villagers and ask what they’ve seen or heard.’

As the road unfolded towards a bustling city and the sun set on Armenia’s rugged north, its wilderness turning from purple to black beneath a cloudless night, a pendant hung around the tracker’s neck. It showed the unmistakable form of a leopard, based on an ancient petroglyph found in mountains farther south.

Malkhasyan gazed out at the darkening peaks. ‘The leopards are in danger,’ he said. ‘We just have to wait and see what happens next'.

Watch our interview with author Jack Losh, featuring original footage of his time in the Caucasus and the characters in his story:

 

This story originally featured in the monthly print magazine of Geographical. In the magazine, you'll find the best images and stories. If you enjoyed reading this story, subscribe to the magazine today.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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