Notes from the Field: Mitigating Human-Bear Conflicts in Armenia

Armenia is a small country in the south Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. Despite its size, Armenia is a hotspot for biodiversity and important for wildlife conservation because of its location at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

The Detroit Zoological Society is a world-renowned leader in animal welfare, and an important convergence between wildlife conservation and animal welfare is the reduction of human-wildlife conflict. Far too often, humans perceive wildlife as having negative impacts on their productive activities and security – particularly in the case of large predators – which leads to the regular practice of animals being killed. As the largest predator in Armenia, the brown bear (Ursus arctos) suffers heavy persecution from intrusions into farmlands and perceived threats to human life. A recent global survey of the human-bear conflict emphasizes the need for investigations into the effectiveness of various approaches to mitigate the conflicts, such as providing compensation for damage to fields and the use of electric fencing to prevent bear intrusions. This is especially true for Armenia, where there is no current plan to alleviate the human-bear conflict, despite its ubiquity. Fortunately, there is great potential in Armenia for compassionate conservation work that mitigates the human-bear conflict and decreases the intances of humans killing bears in retribution.

I recently convened with our partners with the National Academy of Sciences to document the distribution and intensity of this conflict by conducting interviews and installing trail cameras. In early August, I travelled to the Shikahogh State Reserve in southern Armenia and the Vayats Dzor region in central Armenia. Our team connected with reserve officials, village leaders and landowners, and documented a great deal of evidence of this conflict including damage to orchards, fields and beehives – most interviewees indicated an increase in conflict over the last several years. To verify the presence of bears, we set trail cameras in the Shikahogh Reserve and adjacent villages as well as in the villages of Vayats Dzor.

We also gathered data on other wildlife in the area. For example, at one of the sites in the Vayats Dzor region, we heard reports of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra); the camera we set in this area will take pictures of both bears and otters. Otters are endangered in Armenia and one of the threats comes from hunters mistaking otters for introduced nutria (Myocastor coypus) and other wildlife. There is potential for us to implement an education program that would educate hunters about the protected status of otters in the hopes that it would prevent them from killing these animals. In addition, several of the cameras at Shikahogh were set in areas that are also promising for endangered Persian leopards (Panthera pardus taxicolor). Shikahogh borders protected areas in Iran where underpasses were recently established to act as wildlife corridors. Evidence of leopards using these underpasses would be very significant.

The trail cameras will be moved and reset this fall and additional cameras will be set in new villages. Next spring, we plan to establish a robust estimate of the number of bears in Vayats Dzor by placing cameras in all or most villages. We will also analyze the time stamps on the photos together with the characteristics of the bears photographed. In the coming years, we will document the bear conflict in the Syunik region between Shikahogh and Vayats Dzor as well as northern Armenia and explore ways to mitigate the conflict, such as offering compensation programs, installing electric fencing and facilitating safe bear ecotourism, so the bear presence can positively impact the economy. The camera data will also be used to find important areas to potentially implement protected status. The National Academy of Sciences in Armenia is striving to set up a network of protected areas that will stretch across Armenia, linking Iran in the south with Georgia in the north.

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Habitat Expansions Benefit Animal Welfare

You may have noticed some changes at the Detroit Zoo recently, with construction occurring at many animal habitats. We recently unveiled the expansion of the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat, which tripled the outdoor space available to the North American river otters, complete with a flowing stream and a sandy beach. We’ve also been working on improving the giraffe habitat by adding much needed additional outdoor space and doubling the size of the indoor area. This past spring, Homer the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth moved to newly remodeled digs near the rhinos, and we’re currently renovating his former home in the National Amphibian Conservation Center to provide a more spacious habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders.

Sometimes, as was the case with the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and the Cotton Family Wolf Wilderness, we have the ability to design and build new habitats from the ground up. In other instances, we are able to take habitats that already contain many features that benefit the animals and expand upon them to provide even more space and complexity. In both situations, we begin with the knowledge we have about individual animals and how they interact with their environments.

For example, we know that otters are semi-aquatic. Staff at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare have observed the animals engaged in a variety of water-related behaviors. When it came time to design the expansion of their habitat, it was very important that we incorporate features that would enable them to enjoy the water even more. It’s easy to see how much time they spend in the new stream, now making the most of both deep and shallow areas of water. And the island portion of the habitat enhances their opportunities to interact with various substrates and amplifies the overall complexity of their space.

As we move forward, we will continue to improve the habitats we provide for the animals that call the Detroit Zoo home, ensuring that they are stimulating and naturalistic. We are always a work in progress, keeping the welfare of the animals as our top priority. Up next are the tigers and several species of reptiles in the Holden Reptile Conservation Center. As we continue to learn about and understand the needs of the animals in our care – both the individuals and the species – we can make better choices that result in great spaces for them to live in.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Animal Welfare: Residency Program Advances Mission

The Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare acts as a resource for knowledge about animal welfare, and in many cases, this includes providing training to others in various ways.

One such way is through our residency program. Residencies offer individuals the opportunity to better understand animal welfare and how to apply scientific principles in order to assess it. Residents are recent college graduates who join our team for a period of six months, during which they assist with data collection on various welfare-related research initiatives and conduct their own independent project designed to provide us with more information about how animals are doing. Past residents have examined such concepts as the impact of underwater complexity on North American river otters, how temperature and social relationships affect how Japanese macaques use their habitat, and the effect of varying how food is presented on the behavior of the king brown snake.

We currently have two brand-new residents working with us, and we are so excited to have them join the team. They will be helping to collect data on the penguin welfare project we are currently working on as we prepare for the opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center; using video recordings of what the aardvarks are doing at night so we can have a better idea of how they spend their time and what environmental features they might prefer, and focusing on assessing the welfare of one of the species at the Zoo as part of an independent project. The information they gather will help us to figure out if the animals are thriving, and if any changes could result in even better welfare.

We are glad to be able to provide these kinds of educational opportunities to aspiring animal welfare professionals. Not only does this enable us to undertake even more welfare-related projects here at the Detroit Zoo, which helps to expand the existing body of knowledge about animal welfare, but it also promotes the advancement of animal welfare as these residents go on to the next part of their career.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.