Center for Conservation in Western Asia
Photo by Erika Travis/Saint Louis Zoo
Photo by Mark Wanner/Saint Louis Zoo
Photo by Vicki Brown/Beyond Motion Productions
Photo by Mark Wanner/Saint Louis Zoo
Location: Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, The Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia
Project Managers: Jeff Ettling
Species: Caucasian leopard and black grouse, Bezoar goat, Armenian mouflon, Kaiser's spotted newt and multiple species of mountain and shield-headed vipers
Three of the 34 biodiversity hotspots designated by Conservation International occur in Western Asia: 1) Mediterranean Basin Hotspot, 2) Caucasus Hotspot and 3) Irano-Anatolian Hotpsot. These “hotspots” harbor large percentages of the world’s plant and animal biodiversity, many of which are endemic to these regions. The greatest threats to biodiversity in Western Asia are overgrazing, mining, agricultural development, poaching and overharvesting of timber for fuel wood.
As the biological crossroads between Europe and Asia, the region is home to a unique assemblage of species found nowhere else. Since 2004 the Zoo’s WildCare Institute has focused its efforts on the Armenian viper (Montivipera raddei), which has a fragmented distribution in Armenia, eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, northwestern Iraq and northeastern Iran. These areas have experienced an 88% decrease in viper population numbers over the last 20 years.
St. Louis Interest
Over the past decade, the Saint Louis Zoo has become a leader for its captive work with mountain vipers. With a vested history in this snake complex, the Zoo found value in focusing its conservation efforts on a group largely ignored by other zoological institutions. The Zoo's studies of captive vipers have already provided useful information on reproduction and behavior. This center will continue to combine ecological field studies and taxonomic investigations to provide the fundamental data necessary for development of conservation management guidelines.
The Center for Conservation in Western Asia is building on the successful program that has been established for the Armenian viper by expanding to include other mountain vipers, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals that call Armenia home and on wildlife in surrounding countries of Western Asia. The Center, like all of the other Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Centers, takes a holistic approach to troubled ecosystems by addressing three key ingredients in conservation success: wildlife management and recovery, conservation science, and support of the human populations that coexist with wildlife.
Our ultimate goal is to create a sustainable future for both the biodiversity and the people that inhabit the region.
The Center’s research team is using radio-telemetry to study the spatial ecology and habitat preferences of Armenian vipers inhabiting human-modified and natural landscapes. In addition, genetic analyses are being used to study population structure to see if gene flow has been impacted by human alterations to the landscape. As a result of our studies, the boundaries of Khosrov Forest State Reserve have been enlarged, and our data was used in part to establish Zangezur Sanctuary and Arevik National Park. The research protocols developed for the Armenian viper will be used to study other mountain vipers in the future.
Educational programs and materials will involve local communities in Armenia and eventually other countries in the region, and emerging partnerships will help to develop alternative, non-disruptive ways to make use of natural resources. Although we can collect the data needed to develop a conservation strategy for a species, the success of a conservation program ultimately depends on “buy in” and support from the people who live with the wildlife.
A truly unique international collaboration has been formed that brings an unprecedented level of conservation to the Armenian viper. The Center is working with staff from the Ministry of Nature Protection – Republic of Armenia, Scientific Center of Zoology and Hydroecology, National Academy of Sciences – Republic of Armenia and the Russian Academy of Sciences on long-term ecology and population genetics studies as well as development of conservation strategies. The free exchange of information between the researchers from these countries will include a series of visiting lectures, creating a precedent and a model for future conservation and habitat protection projects to follow.