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.
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 😉
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.
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.
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.
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.