Surveys near Gndevaz/Jermuk/Amulsar

I had been wanting to survey the mountains around Jermuk since coming for a hike here months ago and being told by herders to turn around because there were so many wolves and bears. Thanks to a friend, I finally found a contact in Gndevaz, a beekeeper named Armen, who agreed to help me with my surveys.

Armen told me there are rabbits, foxes, mouflon, martens, badgers, deer, bezoar goats, boar and three years ago, a rare leopard was killed in a trap, in the mountains around Gndevaz. He told me that wolves enter the village in the evenings in winter but they don’t have any issues with bears.

Before I describe my surveys, I want to give a little bit of background on the area, in particular the planned Amulsar gold mine, on the border between the regions of Vayots Dzor and Syunik, which will be Armenia’s largest gold mine. After years of protests, Armen is now one of the few remaining activists in his village actively opposing the mine. As with many mining projects in Armenia, many villagers succumb to the promise of a job and overlook (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not) the environmental devastation that will come as a result of irresponsible mining projects. As Armen told me, some people would “rather die with a full stomach than live with an empty one”. Sadly, the profits from such mining projects are few and short-lived whereas any damage to the environment and adjacent communities will last forever. The mine has been in the works for years and Armen said it should be operational in the very near future (sometime this year) and it would likely pollute not only the Vorotan River but the Kechut Reservoir, then Lake Arpa and eventually Lake Sevan.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Amulsar Mine Project area is home to one plant, eighteen species of birds, and four species of mammals (including bears) which are listed in the Red Book of endangered species of Armenia. So another reason I wanted to survey this area was to find out where bears were spending their time in relation to the site of the mine and mining infrastructure. According to the website of Lydian International, the owners of the mine, “the project will result in the loss of critical habitat for the brown bear” and will also “reduce the quality of habitats as a result of noise and dust deposition, and by blocking animal movement”.

On day one, we surveyed an area with a lot of cultivated fruit trees. We located one old bear scat and two fresh scats. One of them was full of wayfarer seeds and one with pear seeds.

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Woman showing me some of the damage bears did to her trees

Fruit tree damaged by bears

Fruit tree damaged by bears

On the second day, we went to the village of Kechut to speak to some villagers there. We first stopped by Armen’s sister’s house, who told us that bears entered her garden about a month ago, ate pears and damaged a few trees. She said it’s the first time that bears have entered her yard like this. Her son told us that dogs in the neighborhood killed a wolf recently and that kids collected the teeth. We asked around but couldn’t confirm this story or find the body of the wolf. We then went to visit a woman at the end of the village, near Kechut Reservoir who had reported issues with bears. She said a bear with cubs entered her garden (with apple and pear trees) and damaged a number of trees. We saw a lot of broken tree limbs and numerous piles of bear scat at the base of the trees. She said it’s the first time she’s had such an issue with bears but three years ago, a bear entered her stable and killed some pigs. When I asked her if she reported her losses to anyone, she said she told the village head but all he said was to “be careful”. We also heard that bears damaged some bee boxes in the mountains but only a few boxes were badly damaged.

We then drove over to the Jermuk side of the reservoir to survey those areas. The forest was full of wild pear and apple trees, hawthorn, rosehip, and oak trees (with strangely few acorns). We saw many many piles of bear scat, full of wayfarer, pear and apple seeds. I collected two of the freshest scat samples for analysis. We saw a lot of other bear activity in this area as well. It was clear that bears like this area as there were many broken branches, tracks and areas where they had been digging looking for ants.

On the third day, some friends from Yerevan joined us and they must have brought some good luck because we found the most bear scat I have ever seen! In total, I collected eight fresh bear scat samples! On our way to the survey area (very close to Amulsar), we saw three scats on the road. Unfortunately two of them had been run over by a car so I didn’t trust that they would be in good enough shape for dna-analysis but the third was in mint condition so I took a sample (with an audience of five people 😉

Big pile of bear scat on the road (with Amulsar mountain in the background)

Big pile of bear scat on the road (with Amulsar mountain in the background)

Checking out the scat with Armen

Checking out the scat with Armen

We continued on to a trail up the mountain and, no joke, there was bear scat in all directions. Again, there were many wild apple and pear trees, hawthorn and rosehip. Most of the scat contained pear. This area is a clear favorite for bears and I really worry about how their use of this area will be affected by mining activity.

My friends assisting me while I collect some scat

My friends assisting me while I collect some scat

Villager showing us all of the damage bears did to his fruit trees

Villager showing us all of the damage bears did to his fruit trees

On the fourth day, Armen and I drove through an area where there were a lot of fruit farmers (they come here in the summer to tend to their trees). We stopped by and spoke to four of them to find out if they had any issues with bears. All of them reported incurring some damage from bears to different degrees.

Not a bad place to have a garden, me thinks. Gorgeous!

Not a bad place to have a garden, me thinks. Gorgeous!

Spotted or Asian racer! Ver cool snake who tries to mimic a viper. Fooled me!

Spotted or Asian racer! Ver cool snake who tries to mimic a viper. Fooled me!

We then went to an area where Armen has seen bears for numerous consecutive years. Even though there were plenty of fruit trees (including the bears favorite, wayfarer), we didn’t manage to find any traces of bears! Not even old traces. But we did find a cool snake.

Barberry!

Barberry!

So after surveying this area, I’m even more concerned about the well being of the bears if mining activity begins. The government is making it really easy for the mining project to move forward, they’ve even financially assisted Lydian. And even though Lydian appears to be conducting all of the necessary impact assessments, their results clearly show that endangered species will be harmed by this project and their solution is to “offset” this damage by creating habitat elsewhere. But after seeing how beautiful and fruitful these areas are and how much time bears appear to spend there, I am highly doubtful that it will be that easy or effective. Aside from the obvious impacts of being displaced from their critical habitat, there could also be an increase in human-bear conflicts. One thing is for certain, if the Amulsar mining project proceeds as planned, the productive system that I saw will never be the same and will be replaced by open pits and toxic cyanide leachings, threatening life (humans, wildlife, plants) in the area and potentially far beyond.

Dewberry!

Dewberry!

Beautiful and tasty hawthorn berries

Beautiful and tasty hawthorn berries

Surveys near Gegharkunik village

So, I’ve reluctantly given up on the idea that I will be able to retrieve the photos from my iPhone after dropping it in a river… and will finally post about my time surveying around Gegharkunik village, near Gavar, in the region of Gegharkunik. Sorry that this post is late (I conducted the survey in September) and will not include many of the pictures that I took 😦

In Gegharkunik, I stayed with my local contact, Davo, and his wonderful wife. On day one, Davo and I went out with a local hunter, Avo. They told me about Spitak mountain (white mountain), the fourth highest mountain in Armenia, and how they have seen a lot of bear dens there but in recent times, there have been reports from a Yezidi community near the mountain of only one bear remaining. Davo also told me about some recent wolf attacks that he’s aware of. In April, wolves had apparently entered through a fence that wasn’t properly closed and killed 80 sheep. He also told me about a wolf that jumped through the window of his brothers barn. To keep it from coming back he kept lights on to scare it away, a strategy that I’ve heard used in other communities as well.

The very dry steppe ecosystem in the mountains was quite different than the other areas I had surveyed so I was excited to see what signs of wolves and bears we would find here since there was an obvious lack of fruit trees for bears and lack of wild prey for wolves. I asked what animals are present here and I was told that there a rabbits, foxes, badgers, jackals, wolves and bears. On our way up the mountain they told me how the grass here is very low quality and as a result, their cows often don’t give enough milk. They also pointed out the numerous mouse burrows and told me how the mice have increased in recent years (Davo told me that in Soviet times, they used to have funding to spray the fields from a helicopter with pesticides to keep the mouse population low but not in recent times).

As we approached the camp of some herders in the mountains, we got hit by a massive hail storm. After waiting it out in the car, we got out to speak with them to find out if they’d had any recent encounters with wolves/bears. One of the herders, Haig, told us that they normally stay in the mountains with their livestock until September and the best time to survey this area would be in July and August. He told us he’s recently seen a very large black wolf in the area in a pack of about five wolves. Since the weather wasn’t so conducive to surveys, we went back to the village for the day.

The next day, Avo and I set out to the mountains again. This day was sunny and perfect for surveying. We set out to talk to another family of herders. On our way, I noticed a tail hanging from Avo’s rearview mirror (I’m so bummed not to have this picture!). Scared of the answer, I reluctantly sked him if it was the tail of a wolf. He said it was and that his son had shot two wolves in the village last year. The wolves ran away injured but one of them came back to the village days later and was killed by another hunter. He tried to submit it to the government for payment but they rejected it because it had been treated. He told me that the wolf itself can be sold for $200 but that the ovaries of a female wolf can be sold for $1000. He said people keep them in a pouch and wear them for good luck.

A herder we spoke with, proud to show off the cheese she makes to sell to neighboring villages

A herder we spoke with, proud to show off the cheese she makes to sell to neighboring villages

We then stopped by and had a chat with another family of herders (from the village Lanjaghbyur). They stay in the mountains with their livestock for four months (until early October). They said they haven’t had many issues with bears but they do see wolves nightly and they shot one a few nights ago, which ran away injured. We continued and surveyed an area near Spitak mountain. We found two wolf scat samples (one old and one fresh).

On the third day, I set out again with Davo and Avo. We stopped by a Yezidi camp in the mountains. They told us that they stay here until the end of September and they regularly see  wolves but their dogs are very good at scaring them away. Still, they lost one horse and 2 cows this year to wolves. And again, there is only one bear left in this area. They said there used to be two (one male and one female) and two cubs but the female bear killed a woman in Martuni a few years ago and as a result the bear was killed and they don’t know what happened to the cubs. I’m not sure if this is the same bear they were referring to but here is a video on YouTube of a bear being hunted in Martuni in 2010. They said that at this time of year, the bear(s) go to Khosrov Reserve since it is right on the other side of the mountain and there are fruit trees there. They also told us a story about how a group of 70(!) wolves were released in the mountains a few years ago, even one with a collar, and he thinks they were from a private zoo because they aren’t afraid of humans. He said he killed a young wolf three years ago by beating it with a stick when it tried to attack his sheep. Since it was small, the government didn’t pay him for it.

We then went to survey around a man-made lake that bears used to visit for fish.

Pretty lake where bears used to come eat trout before someone fished them all out.

Pretty lake where bears used to come eat trout before someone fished them all out

The lake was created years ago by a member of the community in order to raise trout and sell them. Unfortunately, the lake was depleted of fish by poachers and the bears don’t visit anymore. We checked but didn’t find any bear tracks by the lake. We continued up Spitak mountain and found some plants that looked like they had been eaten by bears and found an old bear scat sample. We also found an old wolf scat sample at the base of the mountain.

Davo sitting on the rocks near Spitak mountain

Davo sitting on the boulders near Spitak mountain

On the last day, we surveyed the gorge where we were told there were a number of old wolf dens. We found the wolf dens but didn’t locate any that looked as if they’d been used recently. Although it looked to be perfect wolf habitat, we didn’t find many signs. The only sign we found was an old wolf scat sample near the pelt of a sheep that had been left near a fire pit. We also stumbled upon someone from a neighboring village that was cutting trees near the river. Davo immediately told him to stop and explained to him how the community planted these trees years ago to stop erosion. He stopped and we invited him to join us for lunch/vodka. It was an interesting encounter and it was sad to see someone cutting trees in an area with already such few trees. We kept hiking for a little while longer and…dun…dun…dun…as we were climbing out of the gorge, I fell into the river (and damaged my iPhone). So again, sorry for this post without many pictures but my next few posts will include extra pictures to make up for it!

Before I left Gegharkunik, Avo gave me the (untreated) head of the wolf that his son had killed. I am looking into donating it to the Institute of Zoology here in Yerevan.

The traveling scat samples and other updates

Hello! Sorry for the lack of updates recently. Due to some technical difficulties (falling in a river with my iPhone, which contains pictures from the field) I have been waiting to post about my recent surveys. I’ll post about my surveys in Gegharkunik village (in the Geghama mountain range) as soon as I recover my photos.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some good news! Thanks to a friend, my scat samples were safely taken to Ilia State University, where the DNA-analysis will be conducted. It will be months before I get any information from the samples but this was a big hurdle and I’m relieved that the samples are now at the lab in Georgia 😉

Over my last remaining months, I’m hoping to conduct surveys around the Zangezur Biosphere Complex (more about this soon…), in Vayots Dzor and hopefully more in Geghama. It will surely be a busy few months and I’ll keep you all posted!

One of the few pictures I have from Gegharkunik. I took this picture from the safety of the car, right before we got hit by an impressive hail storm.

One of the few pictures I have from Gegharkunik. I took this picture from the safety of the car, right before we got hit by an impressive hail storm.

Surveys in Margahovit

A few days ago I came to the village of Margahovit, in the region of Lori, the second largest village in Armenia, with 1500 homes.

Village of Margahovit visible in the distance

I met with the hunter I’ll be working with (I’ll refer to him as “Hunter” because he’d like to stay anonymous) to discuss the area and its wildlife. I also met the adorable elderly couple I’ll be staying with while here.

FullSizeRenderOn our first day of surveying, Hunter and I drove about an hour up a mountain to meet with some herders he knows. It was a foggy day which threatened rain.

The herders camp out at these high elevations for three months tending to the livestock (including over 950 sheep and hundreds of cows!) of a wealthy resident of Margahovit.

 

Sheep, so many sheep

Temporary shelter for one herder and his two young kids

Temporary shelter for one herder and his two young kids

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The herders told us how a lone, female wolf had entered three days ago and killed a sheep but they shot a gun and scared it away. They told us how the wolves seem to have increased this year and they’ve lost a number of cows and horses to wolves.

Next, we went to an area where Hunter had seen a bear den years ago. We searched and found a few caves that looked like they were winter dens for bears. We also found some bear tracks but sadly, we didn’t find any scat.

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View from inside a bear den where we waited out a storm…

On the second day, we drove out to a patch of forest containing many pear and apple trees. We found some bear tracks and followed them into the forest. We stumbled upon a huge area of bear activity. Bears had obviously come to this area repeatedly to see if the fruit was ripe.

The bear who left this has no idea how happy he/she has made me

The bear who left this has no idea how happy he/she has made me

We followed the tracks for quite some time and finally found a huge pile of scat from what we think was a large bear. The scat was in the middle of a patch of fern that bears had destroyed to get to the roots.

On the way back into the village we stopped by a house at which a wolf reportedly killed and ate a horse that had been let loose in the yard.  We looked around for tracks or scat but were unable to find any.

Cows that were very nervous about our presence. Maybe because a wolf(wolves?) was in their yard munching on a horse a few days ago.

Cows that were very nervous about our presence. Maybe because a wolf was in their yard munching on a horse a few days ago.

We started the morning on the third day by following up on a call Hunter received in the evening. His friend called to tell him that he found wolf scat with red fur in it, very close to the house where the horse was killed (a red horse, btw). We found the scat and some fresh wolf tracks. After measuring the tracks and collecting the scat, we head to a patch of forest that Hunter had seen much bear activity in the past. However, before locating bear signs, we found wolf tracks, and a wolf den with a large bone (femur?) in front of it.

Wolf den on the left, big bone on the right

We then found huge areas, completely overturned by bears but again, no scat!! After following their tracks for miles, we eventually lost the tracks and started to head back, which is when we stumbled upon some fresh wolf tracks and wolf scat near a stream.

I’ve heard and seen different things about the situation with wildlife here in the forests around Margahovit. I was told that the wildlife increased as a result of the Karabagh war (loud noises scaring animals), something I’ve heard in other villages as well.  But Hunter told me that recently, many wildlife populations have crashed. Rabbits haven’t been seen in 10 years, wild boar is no longer here, lynx used to be more common and deer numbers are noticeably less. I asked why he thinks this is and he said it could be from diseases but also because of the use and growing popularity of sniper rifles rather than the traditional hunting rifle. However, he seemed to think that the bear population is healthy here and doing well. Too bad I only have 1 bear scat sample to back up his claim…

I’ll be heading back to Yerevan for a few days while Hunter tends to some other work. I plan to come back, perhaps in October, to continue surveys here.

Days 3 and 4

After two days of intensive surveying, I took a day off to recuperate and spend some time learning more about Meghradzor. After logging my samples, I went out for a short hike with one of the members of the family I’m staying with, Mariam.  We went to a site up on a hill, overlooking the village where archeological remains were recently found. Her brother, Artur, an archeologst, had told me about this site and his attempts to protect it from development.

The town of Meghradzor

The town of Meghradzor

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Pottery from the site

During my hikes with Hakob, he had mentioned that many residents of the Marmarik valley, of which Meghradzor is a part of, are involved in gold mining and how residents in this area suffer from some health problems as a result. Looking over Meghradzor, Mariam pointed out where protests took place a few years ago against plans to construct a cyanic plant in Meghradzor. The protests were thankfully successful and the plant wasn’t constructed.

After a restful day off, we began our surveys of the Pambuk mountain range near the town of Hankavan.

A Yezidi camp we visited

A Yezidi camp we visited

The difference between this area and the areas we surveyed in Tsaghounyats was instantly clear. Signs of livestock damage were everywhere and thus, signs of wolves and bears difficult to find. We set out to find Yezidi communities to talk to about wolves and bears. We spoke to one man who told us that the local hunter’s union was recently notified about some bears causing problems and they killed 4 bears near Hankavan as a result. I’d like to visit this area again and talk with some residents in Hankavan to find out more about this.

Day 4 was incredibly hot but we endured the heat and hiked up to an area in the Tsaghounyats where Hakob had seen bears.

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Tracking bears...

Tracking bears…

We followed many bear tracks through the forest and found a patch where they had apparently been digging for acorns. We also found a scat sample containing acorns. We kept hiking and found some old wolf scat samples, a few of them containing thick white fur, which Hakob thought could be from a domestic dog, but I’ll have to confirm that.

Overturned boulder

Overturned boulder

We saw many overturned boulders in a large field, evidence that bears were here looking for food. We also found areas that bears had dug up and after closer inspection, it appeared that they were after onion bulbs. We bounced from hole to overturned boulder, in search of scat and finally found the motherload – a big pile of scat from what appears to be a large bear! By briefly glancing at the scat, we could see seeds of the wayfaring tree (what I previously thought were barberry seeds) and ants.

Stay tuned for more updates 🙂

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Taking a sample for DNA-analysis

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Embarrassingly excited to have found a large, fresh sample of bear scat (thanks for the pictures, Khatchig)

My innovative way to dry scat on a close line :-)

My innovative method of drying scat on a clothes line 🙂

Beautiful Tsaghounyats – days 1 and 2

For the past two days, I’ve been staying in the village of Meghradzor in the region of Kotayk. I’m here to survey the Tsaghounyats and Pambuk mountain ranges.

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On day one I met with a local hunter named Hakob who agreed to take me to areas where bears and wolves are found. Shortly after we discussed the project and the wildlife in the area, we set out to find some scat!  He had heard that a Yezidi community had their sheep killed by a bear a few days ago so we set out to look for signs

“Bear raisins” (barberry)

around the camp.  Along the way, Hakob and I kept stopping to eat many wild edibles (gooseberry, wayfaring tree berries, raspberry). I learned that wayfaring tree berries (what I previously thought were barberry) are such a favorite of bears that the local name for the plant is “bear raisins”.

We hiked about 10km this day, through beautiful oak and pine forests. Though we didn’t find any wolf scat (they’re likely at higher elevations, following livestock), we found a few bear scats. Hakob said the best time to find bear scat is when the wayfaring tree berries are ripe (still a few weeks away). By the looks of the scat, the bears are enjoying oak tree nuts and wild boar.

On the second day we hiked to a lake about 2500m above sea level. Hakob said he’s seen many bear tracks around the lake in the past.

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We also heard there was a family there keeping livestock so we wantedimage to speak to them about their encounters
with wolves/bears. Along the way we discovered a delicious patch of bilberries. Incredible. After eating our weight in berries, we reached the lake. Unfortunately, no adults were there, only an adorable little girl who said they don’t have any issues with wolves/bears. They had about 6 large, intimidating livestock guarding dogs.

On our way back down the mountain we saw many old wolf scats. One in particular caught my eye as it consisted entirely of sheep fur.

Scat from a wolf who clearly enjoyed a meal of sheep

Scat from a wolf who clearly enjoyed a meal of sheep

Hakob's dog, Basar, happy after rolling around in bear poop

Hakob’s dog, Basar, happy after rolling around in bear poop

We also found many many signs of bears – destroyed ant nests – and Hakob’s dog found us a few bear scats. One of them, clearly from a large bear, contained both sheep and boar hair.

Bear scat containing what looks like boar and sheep fur

Bear scat containing what looks like boar and sheep fur

Wolf and bear news

Hello!  So I’m back in Yerevan planning the details for my next site.  It’s looking like I will most likely survey an area in the Kotayk region of Armenia.  While I don’t have a field report to share, I do want to share some recent developments.

My colleague and friend Lena recently wrote an article about my research in the popular news source, The Armenian Weekly.  Check it out here.  The title is a bit dramatic (Serda and the Wolves: One Woman’s Mission to Protect Armenia’s Wildlife) but it’s a great article about why I’m here and what I’m doing.

Also, I recently created an online petition encouraging the Armenian government to enforce its own laws and halt the capture of bears from the wild in Armenia. Currently there are over 60 bears in cages in private facilities like restaurants, hotels and other random places. It’s a horrific (and illegal!) practice that really needs to stop. Please take a minute to sign and share the petition.

I recently went to a cement factory that I heard had two bears, a male and a female. I was instantly disturbed by how close I could get to the bears (I was inches away).  I was told that the female recently had cubs and they sold them/gave them away as gifts.  After learning so much about them, walking in their footsteps and seeing their natural habitat, it was quite heartbreaking to see them in a small, concrete cage.  Again, please sign and share the petition and hopefully we can at least stop more bears from being taken out of the wild here for this absurdity…