The Caucasus Nature Fund is supporting an exciting new initiative to re-introduce Caucasian Red Deer to Armenia, decades after the species became locally extinct. A new breeding center in Dilijan National Park is expected to produce enough animals over the next five years to be released back into their natural habitat.
The re-introduction project is being jointly implemented by the Armenian government and WWF Armenia, which has received a €60 000 grant from CNF over two years (2015-2016) for the construction and operation of the breeding center facilities.
Known as ‘Little Switzerland’ by the locals for its forested mountains and picturesque architecture, the spa town of Dilijan (from the Persian meaning ‘heart of the soul’) draws both local and foreign visitors in large numbers. The 33,765 ha Dilijan National Park, which surrounds the town, was established in 2002 on the territory of a former national reserve. With its thick mixed forests, springs and mountain lakes, Dilijan is an ideal habitat for the Caucasian Red Deer (Cervus Elaphus Maral).
However, due to hunting the red deer population in Armenia dwindled during the 20th century, becoming locally extinct in the 1950s. Although some small groups from neighboring countries managed to re-establish themselves in Armenia, according to Karen Manvelyan, Director of WWF Armenia, these groups were subsequently killed off by poaching in the early 1990s. In 2010 the species was listed in the Armenian Red Data Book as ‘Critically Endangered.’
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a very chaotic situation in the country. Many people had guns due to the war with Azerbaijan, so there was a lot of poaching as well as illegal logging in the protected areas” Manvelyan says. “The population of red deer in the country was not so high and it was very sensitive – even a small amount of interference in this population could destroy it.”
The new breeding center is being constructed on 10 ha of forested land not far from Parz Lake, one of Dilijan National Park’s main tourist attractions. The complex includes two large enclosures with electrified fencing, one of which is designed to keep the young deer isolated from excessive human contact before release. Facilities also include a supplementary feeding station for the older deer, shelters for monitoring staff and an observation tower to which tourists will also have access.
“There are three reasons for building the breeding center here” explains Arman Vermishyan, CNF’s Country Project Coordinator in Armenia. “First is the ecological factor – this territory is very appropriate for red deer. Secondly, it isn’t far from the road and it’s important to have access to infrastructure, since the fences will be electrified. Thirdly, this area is close to Parz Lake, and we hope tourists will come to the breeding center to see the animals before going on to rest at Parz Lake, where there are restaurants and opportunities for boating and fishing. We hope it will work!”
The breeding center is soon to receive its founding population of 15 deer – 4 males and 11 females. Some of the deer will come from a reserve in the Russian Federation, while the remainder will come from protected areas in Georgia.
“In five years when the young deer will be more or less adults, we will put radio collars on them and release them, but the older population will be kept. For this reason the younger ones will be kept separately before being released” Manvelyan explains.
High hopes are being pinned on the Dilijan breeding center project, which was launched in 2013. To date there have been no successful species re-introduction projects in Armenia, but Manvelyan is confident that the project can deliver.
CNF is also helping to ensure the sustainability of the project with a €62 000 grant for Dilijan National Park to cover operational costs.