November 24, 2015

By Jeff Ettling, Ph.D.
Former Curator of Herpetology and Director of the WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Western Asia

The sun rises over the serene, rolling hills of Meghri Ridge in southern Armenia. The fog begins to lift, and bright red poppies dance in the morning breeze. I breathe in fresh mountain air and carefully scan the ground as I hike through the knee-high grasses. With a watchful eye and attentive ear, I continue along the rocky ridge. At last, my trained ear hears something shuffling. And there it is—an endangered Armenian viper slithering its way through the grass in search of a warm basking site, a place to hide, a mate or maybe something to eat.

At this moment I am thrilled. Finding this snake means that this important species only found in the Armenian Highlands and Lesser Caucasus Mountains is—at least for now—still on our planet, enriching Armenia’s ecosystem and heritage. Just decades ago, the Armenian viper was thriving, so much so that it was considered “common” by the IUCN. Today the snake’s populations have dropped by 88 percent due primarily to mining and agriculture activities destroying their habitat. And the Armenian viper is not alone. Another 10 species of amphibians and reptiles native to Armenia are in danger of extinction thanks to human impact. Ironically, it’s now up to humans to save them.

Why should we care about this? From a practical standpoint, each species plays a vital role in Earth’s ecosystem. Snakes play an important role in both managing rodent populations and serving as food for other animals in the food chain. When one of these species goes extinct, there is a disruption in the food chain. Rodents run rampant and spread disease. Birds of prey that depend on snakes for food have to adjust their diets. These disruptions have a cascading effect on a multitude of animals—and ultimately, humans.

Snakes can also benefit humans directly. The venom from Armenian vipers, for instance, can be humanely collected and was historically used as a blood-clotting agent in surgery. Today synthetic clotting agents, based on the components in the venom, are used instead.

But from an ethical standpoint, it is our responsibility as the caretakers of the earth to nurture our ecosystems and the other species that call them home. The harsh truth is that thousands of species vanish from our planet each day, and many of us idly sit by and watch. If we continue to wait for someone else to step up, who will save these species? Who will ensure that this amazing diversity of wildlife is on the planet for future generations to enjoy? Who will stop the rapid epidemic of extinction before it reaches the human race?

We need to do what we can where we can, and we need to do it before it’s too late. The Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Western Asia has been studying Armenian vipers for the past 11 years. Our studies of their spatial ecology, genetic diversity and population structure have been used to increase the size of two protected areas in Armenia. We have also developed a successful breeding program for Armenian vipers here at the Zoo. Now we are proposing that we apply what we’ve learned about captive breeding to our conservation work in Armenia. The Saint Louis Zoo and our Armenian partners will create Armenia’s first conservation breeding center. We will concentrate on 11 endangered species of amphibians and reptiles native to Armenia, breeding them at the center and augmenting the wild populations with offspring until they are stable.