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Armenia - The ranger army

 =Oslo (Norway) 08 February 2019

In Armenia, war veterans from the civil war have moved into a new line of work. They are now fighting for the forest. Armenian war veteran Ruben Mkrtohyana has gone from fighting for his country to protecting its wildlife, with funding from the World Wildlife Federation. Today he battles against illegal logging and hunting. “The poachers here hate me,” he says curtly. “They can be aggressive, but they are afraid of me. I once had to confiscate seventeen weapons in one day.” (1218 Words) - By Henrik Pryser Libell

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"Sure I remember Norway: A beautiful country with beautiful cliffs."

The Armenian Ruben Mkrtohyana served as a Soviet commando soldier in the North Sea Fleet from 1978 to 1981. In those years, he was always ready for war with Norway, a country he often could see from the fleet. He is not the only one in his family who has gone to war. Ruben's dad fought in the Red Army, all the way to Berlin, and Ruben's only son died in Armenia's bloody war with neighbouring Azerbaijan in the 1990s.

The war was over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabach. Ruben fought in the same war. Not in a uniform, but as a guerrilla leader. The Karabach war was a "Bosnia war" in Caucasus, but one that NATO did not intervene in. A total of one and a half million people were forcibly moved. The war came to Ruben's town, the mining town of Kappan, in the shape of Azerbaijani militia and military forces, which caused it to rain shells over Kappan for years from hideouts in the mountains. At night, they attacked individual villages, and tried to burn them down.

At the time, Ruben was a ranger in the Shikagoh reserve, which is on the border to Nagorno-Karabakh. But as a guerrilla leader, the word ranger had a wider significance. Now, people also had to be protected. Ruben led the resistance groups that defended Armenian villages in the reserve, and had command of a group of about 30 men.

Today, the war is over. Nagorno-Karabach has become a no man's land controlled by the Armenians, but the two countries have never made peace, and the one and a half million people who fled are still on the run.

"You have to be strong to handle the war, but you have to be just as strong to handle the peace," says Ruben, who went back to his ranger job after the war. Defending the Shikago reserve has become his new war after the peace, in which the battles are about illegal logging and hunting.

"The poachers here hate me," he says curtly. "They can be aggressive, but they are afraid of me. I once had to confiscate seventeen weapons in one day."

The war Ruben leads is no insignificant war. Caucasus forms a kind of biological bridge between Europe and Asia. During the last ice age, the warm area with its mountains and plains became a haven for animals and plants from both continents. Shikago is Armenia's most species-rich reserve, and is home to several endangered species. The last Caucasian leopards have the civil war-torn Shikago and Nagorno-Karabakh as some of their last territories.

That is why the Armenian WWF has contributed money for the armament of Ruben's wood forces, while the Shikago reserve's protection rules were tightened two years ago. The money comes from the Norwegian WWF and the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment, and has contributed to the ranger service - which previously could protect the forest only on the paper - getting real control.

Not only have the funds provided Ruben with new rangers to protect the forest, many of them are also former veterans of the war, but the little ranger army has been equipped with four jeeps, enough fuel, new GPSes, binoculars, better and more detailed maps, new uniforms, new weapons, and a new headquarter, as well as small stalls on the lookouts so that it's possible to monitor the incoming roads to the reservation.

But the head of WWF Armenia, biologist Karen Manvelyan, emphasises that it is not possible to save a forest only by strengthening the guard of it. You also have to prevent the local population from doing illegal logging, illegal hunting and illegal grazing by convincing them that the forest is most valuable if it is left untouched.

"We have to get the locals who live off the forest to want to protect it," says Manvelyan. "The difference between the running of the Shikago reserve under the Soviet Union and under the new protection plan is that we now think of what the local population should life of when it can no longer use the forest for grazing and hunting."

Manvelyan believes the local population has gradually started to realise that the forest will disappear if they don't take care of it. Illegal hunting causes extinction of species, and too much grazing makes the ground incapable of growing new grass and plants.

"Everyone needs food to survive, but if everyone makes use of the forest, there will be less to live on for all, or eventually nothing to live on at all," he says.

To remedy for the illegal use of the forest, Karen's organisation has helped the villages in and around Shikago to get started with other measures that might provide them with an income, such as bee keeping, fruit cultivation, and accommodating of reserve guests and other nature tourists.

A few tourists will arrive today, and increasingly more will come as the road standards between the capital, Yerevan, and Shikago improve, and as people become more affluent and get more time to travel within their own country.

With its placement in the green mountains, Shikago is spectacularly beautiful. Many tourists come in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Caucasian leopard. That is quite difficult. Not even Ruben has seen one, he says, and the closest he has been to seeing one is a shadow on a mountain top far away. There are perhaps only ten leopards left, and several of them roam between Shikagoh, Karabach and the northern parts of Iran.

Khorozyan has studied predators for twelve years and will soon have a PhD in the Caucasian leopard, but also he has yet to see it alive. He has only seen traces of it in the places where it has left carcasses behind. Wolf has often been on its menu. For environmentalists in Norway, wolf carcasses are a catastrophe, but in Armenia, environmentalists are more concerned about the animal that eats wolf, the leopard, than about the wolf itself.

Predator researcher Igor Khorozyan says he has heard about the debate on wolfs and sheep in Norway.

"Here in Armenia, shepherds are worried about the wolf, just like in Norway. But here, the wolf has to worry about the leopard."  

Humans are the leopard's greatest enemies. The endless Armenian and Iranian mountains that it roams around in are not the safest area to travel in for a predator.

"We lost a leopard last winter," says Khorozyan. "It was a leopard that had strayed into Nagorno-Karabakh, where it was shot by an Armenian officer, and he bragged about it afterwards," says the researcher with a sigh sounding as if he has given up all hope for the protection of the leopard.

Translated from Norwegian by Iselin Rønningsbakk

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