Notes from the Field: Update on Eurasian Otter Conservation in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) continued its field conservation work in Armenia this spring to study and preserve declining populations of endangered Eurasian otters.

Armenia is a nation slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts, but in terms of biodiversity and topographic variation, it boasts an impressive richness. A day’s drive can include visits to snowy mountain passes at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet near the spa town of Jermuk, as well as hot and arid lowlands of the Meghri Valley along the Iranian border. It is a landlocked nation in the Caucasus region between Asia and Europe, but its abundant streams and rivers provide ecological and economic lifeblood for the nation. During this spring’s expedition, we spent a little more than a week traversing the serpentine roads as we followed up on leads and evaluated potential otter habitats.

We began this trip in the capital of Yerevan and worked our way through all of the watersheds in the southern half of the country. A consistent theme throughout the week was high water due to heavy spring rains. This limited our access to the riverbanks and made it challenging to select suitable locations to deploy motion-activated cameras and conduct formal surveys. Previous trips to other watersheds in the north, such as Lake Arpi, had recently yielded numerous photographs and video clips of otters with these cameras, with in some cases as many as four individuals in a single frame. This time around, we had to rely on other methods to document the presence of otters in each of the southern watersheds.

Interviews with local conservationists, fish farmers, anglers and hunters proved to be our most valuable resources. Through these leads, we were able to locate and explore otter habitats and document signs such as footprints, feeding remains and scat. We also visited several fish farms, ranging in size from small residential ponds to larger facilities with dozens of cascading holding pools. In most cases, the fish farmers were challenged by otters raiding their stock, and in some cases, significantly threatening the viability of their entire operation. Dogs are frequently used as a deterrent, and one resident with a small fish pond showed us security camera footage of an otter taking shelter in the water until the dogs were distracted and allowed an opportunity for it to escape. In some cases, we were able to provide counsel to fish farmers regarding what type of perimeter fencing modifications would be effective in excluding otters.

The people of Armenia clearly value their biodiversity and have an openness to learning more about the important role that Eurasian otters play in it. Key challenges ahead for the species appear to be direct human conflict, pollution from mining, and habitat fragmentation due to hydroelectric dams. The DZS will continue to work with Armenian researchers to document the distribution of otters and strengthen efforts to establish protected areas for them.

– Brian Manfre is a mammal department supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Experience our Digital Animal Observation Trek

The Detroit Zoo is widely known for its expansive and naturalistic habitats. From the 4-acre Great Apes of Harambee to the 4-acre Arctic Ring of Life, these spaces provide the animals with plenty of room to roam and to demonstrate natural behaviors that enhance their well-being.

It is because of this that the viewing experience for guests is similar to what it’s like when observing animals in the wild. It requires patience and an understanding of our animal welfare philosophy to ensure the individuals in our care have choice and control over how and where they spend time in their habitat. A variety of viewing areas are incorporated into the habitats’ design for guests to have the chance to walk around and observe the animals’ behaviors throughout the entirety of the space.

We also give guests curated suggestions of how to explore the Zoo in different ways through our interactive mobile map system called Detroit Zoo Treks. Guests can choose among several timed treks, a Fitness Trek, one that focuses on our wildlife conservation and animal rescue work, one that highlights our award-winning sustainability initiatives, and the new Animal Observation Trek. This latest trek provides visitors an opportunity to share their observations of animals with Detroit Zoological Society staff through simple surveys that can be completed on a mobile device. The digital trek currently features six animals: otters, lions, giraffes, kangaroos, wolves and eagles. As guests visit each of their habitats, they can access the survey and indicate if the animal is currently in view.

If the animal is visible, guests are asked to share what behaviors they observe the animal engaged in. After submitting their observations, information on how to distinguish between individual animals is shared through the system. If an animal is not viewable, guests are then prompted to look for signs of where the animal may have been previously spending time in the space. When the survey is submitted, a tip on where the animals prefer to spend their time in the habitat is shared to help guests observe them on their next visit. All of the survey results are recorded and shared with DZS staff, which is added to their own research and observations about where and how the animals are choosing to spend their time.

The Detroit Zoo Treks are based on a map of the Zoo and include important locations such as rides and attractions, concessions, restrooms and other guest amenities. To participate in the Animal Observation Trek on your next trip to the Zoo, visit www.dzoo.org/trek and select your digital adventure.

Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation Continues in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) latest wildlife conservation initiative, preserving endangered Eurasian otters, continued with an expedition to Armenia in late 2018. Their status in this country has declined dramatically in recent years while numbers have also fallen in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran.

Our first goal of the project is to understand where the otter population currently stands throughout the regions of Armenia that contain separate river systems, which provide suitable habitats for otters. These 13 systems – called watersheds – don’t always show signs of otters inhabiting them, so the DZS is working to identify and prioritize which of those locations are best suited for the preservation of this species.

On our first expedition in June, we discovered that the otter populations the southcentral region of Armenia were significantly greater than expected. If these conclusions are accurate, it would be rare but exciting news in conservation work.

We returned in December and traveled to watershed areas in north and central Armenia to confirm the presence and relative abundance of otters in these regions During these investigations, we confirmed reports of otter conflict with humans in the area. Otters were found to be eating the trout in fish farms that would eventually be reintroduced to Lake Sevan as part of a native species restocking project.

Surveys conducted on foot of the areas near Arpi Lake National Park and Dilijan National Park showed signs of the presence of otters, including tracks, feces and other indicators such as partially eaten fish. These surveys, along with interviews with local residents, suggest that hunting by humans has also led to the decline of otters in the area.

Additionally, photographs downloaded from our trail camera along the Arpa River revealed not only otters, but illegal fishermen. Proof of this activity will help us greatly in making a case to establish a protected area. In addition to documenting illegal fishing in these areas, which depletes otter food sources, we’ve also documented illegal otter trapping efforts. We hope that if this illegal activity can be stopped, migration of otters from neighboring populations will help restore their numers in the area.

Plans for 2019 include reviewing additional trail camera images from Arpi Lake National Park, and surveying the remaining watersheds in Armenia. After completing this work, we will be able to provide a robust update on the status of otters in this country. With that information, we can continue to explore options to set up sustainable protected areas, as well as develop local education programs to enhance otter conservation in these important areas.

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

Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently began a new wildlife conservation project with Eurasian otters, which are classified as Endangered in Armenia and Near Threatened in the whole of their range. Their numbers have fallen dramatically in Armenia and in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran; therefore, it is essential that we gather data on their status and work to preserve their populations.

Otters are important indicators of the health of aquatic systems. They are found in a wide variety of habitats, including highland and lowland lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, swamp forests and coastal areas. Armenia, which is a small country about the size of Vermont or New Hampshire, is located in the Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian Seas. Despite its small size, Armenia is a biodiversity hotspot important for wildlife conservation because it is located at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

While conducting fieldwork in Armenia this summer, we walked five transects along rivers and streams in Central Armenia to look for sign of otters such as feces, tracks and/or feeding remains. In every Armenian transect, we found feces and/or feeding signs, such as crab shells, within the first 200 yards. We also set cameras along the rivers to document the otters present in those areas. We heard credible reports of otter sightings in several other areas of Central Armenia – including in urban areas – as well as in the south, west and northern parts of Armenia. It appears that otters have made a comeback, which is great news.

Most otter sightings were accompanied by reports of conflict with humans, due to the otters eating fish out of the ponds at fish farms. A major component of this project – as with many wildlife conservation initiatives the DZS is involved with around the world – will be to investigate ways to mitigate this conflict. We plan to track the success of the farmers we encountered who used dogs and/or fencing as methods to protect their fishponds.

We will also be surveying suitable habitats for otters in all of the Armenian watersheds.  This involves overlaying a 6-mile by 6-mile grid on top of a map of Armenia and noting areas within the grid that have a confirmed otter presence. We also plan to obtain robust population estimates using genetic analyses from the otter feces. With this data, we will be able to determine important locations for otters and explore the potential of setting up sustainable protected areas. This project furthers the DZS’s mission of compassionate conservation as part of the effort is to reduce human-otter conflicts and save individual otters while establishing protected areas for otter populations to thrive in the future.

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

Notes from the “Field”: Expedition to the Detroit Zoo’s Otter Habitat

The Detroit Zoological Society conducts field conservation work all over the world; however, a recent venture required traveling only a few hundred feet from my office. Preparatory research for an upcoming trip to Armenia to preserve otters involved traversing the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat at the Detroit Zoo. Otters are classified as Endangered in Armenia, but there is no current data on their status. As part of this project, we will be assessing the status of these animals across Armenia and identifying important areas for protection. Early on, the focus will be on conducting sign surveys along rivers and streams, looking for traces of otters. Becoming familiar with otter tracks and feces was essential before this fieldwork could begin; where better to do such research than inside the otter habitat at the Detroit Zoo?

Armenia is part of the greater Caucasus biodiversity hotspot, and otters are an important part of the diverse fauna. The otters in Armenia are Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra), a different species from the North American otters (Lontra Canadensis) that are present at the Detroit Zoo. However, both otter species are similarly sized and they both have diets that consist primarily of fish, so their feces is likely to be similar.

Detroit Zoological Society animal care staff shared helpful identifying information inside the otter habitat, including the variability and size of the feces, which were less compact than one might expect. Scratch marks often accompany the feces, which also often occurs with snow leopards. In addition, because the habitat at the Zoo is cleaned regularly, it was clear how quickly the feces can degrade. Proper estimation of the age of feces can be important for estimating animal density.

We’ll be sure to report back with findings following our research in Armenia.

– Dr. Paul Buzzard is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which is involved in wildlife conservation efforts on six continents.

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.