By Tatjana Rosen, Conservation Adviser, CNF and IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group member
It has been a long absence. Last time a Persian leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana) was recorded in Georgia, was in 2009, in Vashlovani National Park, close to the border with Azerbaijan. A leopard that was recorded first in 2003 and that lingered in and around the Park for several years, until he disappeared: he either moved on somewhere else and then died of natural causes or was killed, some thought.
Bejan Lortkipanidze and the team at NACRES, a Georgian conservation ngo, never stopped searching since for evidence of the leopard, focusing, with cameras provided by WWF, their search in Pshav-Khevsureti and Tusheti Protected Areas, in the borderlands abutting Russia’s Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. 12 years later, in a forested patch close to the border with Dagestan, a camera trap recorded the ghostly black and white image of a Persian leopard. The photo capture came a little more than a month after a Tush herder reported witnessing a leopard attack and kill his prized Alabai shepherd dog. This event prompted the decision to set cameras in this particular area and ignited the excitement that this time a leopard would finally be re-recorded after a long absence.
To understand the meaning of this sighting as well as understand how best to ensure a more permanent return of the leopard in Georgia, it is important to understand the context.
Already 13 years ago experts speculated that fewer than 15 leopards inhabited the Greater Caucasus – a very small number. Nugzar Zazanashvili of WWF Caucasus Programme, who died earlier this year, suggested that leopard range in the Russian Caucasus is likely limited to two patches, the Iori-Ajinour Plateau (southeast Georgia and northwest Azerbaijan), and the eastern Greater Caucasus (Georgia, and Dagestan). While most likely absent from the western Greater Caucasus (with the exception previously of two leopards released by the Sochi reintroduction programme which subsequently died) it is not to be entirely excluded that these two populations have maintained some connection along the Greater Caucasus range with remnant leopards in Chechnya and Ingushetia, with leopards using Georgia as occasional “highway”.
The future of leopards in Georgia depends to a great degree to conservation initiatives and measures in Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. If leopard numbers grow there, so will the leopards’ spatial requirements, and the likelihood they will recolonize the mountains and valleys in Tusheti, Khevsureti and Svaneti and the cliffs of Vashlovani. And this is where protected areas, well trained and amply dedicated rangers and specialists, and a harmonious relationship with local communities is crucial in this process to see leopards return for good to Georgia: protecting leopard prey, including East Caucasian and West Caucasian Tur, bezoar goat, wild boar, red deer, goitered gazelle and porcupine and ensuring a threat free abundant habitat is essential. The Tush herder who reached out to the Tusheti National Park ranger for help when he lost his dog, instead of taking retaliatory action against the leopard is a positive example of collaboration that has enabled the NACRES team to lead to this very important discovery.
The Caucasus almost lost the leopard during the last century, as under Soviet times it was seen as a pest and a threat to agricultural and livestock production. Killing of leopards was encouraged through a bounty system. Times have changed, but leopards could still face persecution, as long as measures are not in place to facilitate coexistence between livestock herders and leopards as well as to dispel myths about leopards that instill fear and spark negative feelings towards them.
In collaboration with NACRES and WWF, through the long term commitment to protected areas in the Caucasus, especially those in Persian leopard range, we will continue to do our part to ensure that protected area are safety islands for leopards, offering hope that one day connectivity between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus is restored: Nuzgar Zazanashvili’s dream.