The abundance of livestock and other foodstuff, coupled with proximity to wildlife habitats, makes villages vulnerable to animals like wolves and bears. Often the threat is not physically against humans but against their economic assets. Wolves kill sheep, cows, and fowl, while bears damage fruit trees, destroy beehives, and deplete honey supplies. Over time these can take a heavy economic toll on villages that are surviving on meager means.
Before suffering heavy economic damage, however, villagers typically resort to killing the wolves or the bears, dealing a blow to an already tattered ecosystem. According to official statistics, 170 wolves have been killed during just three months of 2012.
The AUA Acopian Center for the Environment (AUA ACE), in cooperation with the UK-based Fauna and Flora International (FFI) recently launched a baseline study to better understand these human-wildlife conflicts and approaches to mitigating them. The AUA ACE researchers, all AUA graduate students, are being led by Dr. Karen Aghababyan, the AUA ACE chief scientist, to study nine rural communities across Armenia, as well as the habitat conditions of the wildlife.
“Each rural community has its own set of unique conditions that will impact the nature of the conflict and availability of favorable solutions,” says Dr. Aghababyan.
FFI has been involved in human-wildlife conflict mitigation projects for many years, working extensively in Southeast Asia, eastern Europe and, most recently, in the Republic of Georgia. In Georgia, the organization worked very closely with the Tusheti people, traditional sheep farmers who move their flocks between summer and winter pastures. Through a program that combines direct intervention, raising awareness, and market-based innovation, the FFI initiative has seen a marked improvement in the attitudes of livestock farmers towards wolves.
“This is increasingly becoming a favored approach to mitigating the negative impacts of human-wildlife conflict,” explains Gareth Goldthorpe, FFI’s Technical Coordinator for the Caucasus. “For the people involved, conflict with wildlife is primarily an economic issue; whether it is elephants eating crops or wolves attacking sheep, there is a loss of earnings for the farmers. However, in many cases there are other external factors that may be limiting access to markets and therefore incomes. Our approach is to take the whole system into account and explore ways that such access can be improved. By taking the pressure off the farmers in this respect, they are able to better tolerate reasonable losses from, in this case, large carnivores.”
FFI will draw on its extensive experience, both regional and international, to help the AUA Acopian Center for the Environment develop and implement a rigorous and effective program of work that will unravel the complexities of the system: from wildlife to farmer, and from market to consumer.
“For humans it is very easy to demonize other animals when they attack our interests. This is a morally blind and an ecologically dangerous tendency on our part. Wolves and bears often approach human communities for food when their habitats and food supplies are destroyed or depleted, usually by humans. And the humans that do the destroying are often not the villagers but those with larger interests in logging, mining, agriculture, or urban sprawl,” says Alen Amirkhanian, director of the AUA Acopian Center for the Environment. “So, it’s incumbent on us to figure out solutions both at the local and at the national levels,” suggests Amirkhanian. At more advanced stages of the study, Amirkhanian aims to engage relevant regional and national authorities.