by Jeff Ettling
in the Herpetological Review
Volume 36, Number 3 - September 2005

Over the past decade, the Saint Louis Zoo has focused its efforts on the captive management and reproduction of mountain vipers, Montivipera, of the Near East. With a vested history in its 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 (Ettling 1996; Ettling and Marfisi 2002).

In May 2004 the Saint Louis Zoo officially announced its new Conservation Division, the WildCare Institute. Under the umbrella of the Institute are 12 Conservation Centers that focus on endangered species and their habitats. The goal of the Institute is to work through partnerships to help animals, ecosystems and people simultaneously. The key to the success of the WildCare Institute will be collaboration with universities, government agencies, conservation organizations, field researchers and other zoos. The Center for Conservation of Near East Mountain Vipers will focus on helping implement conservation management and public education to ensure the future of mountain vipers in the wild.

The Mountivipera xanthina complex is comprised of eight species with a distribution that includes southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, Armenia and western Asia. Our limited knowledge of their natural history is due in part to restricted and isolated rocky habitats (Nilson and Andren 1986). Over the past 20 years the combination of habitat alteration, over-collection and unnaturally high mortality resulting from human persecution has drastically reduced many mountain viper populations (Nilson and Andren 2000). In fact, five of the eight species are now listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, endangered or critical. Unless proper equipment, public education and human resources necessary for conducting basic conservation activities are allocated, this complex of snakes faces an uncertain future.

In June 2004 the first long-term project of the Center for Conservation of Near East Mountain Vipers was initiated. The species targeted for the inaugural study was the Armenian viper, Montivipera raddei. The population numbers of M. raddei, as well as other species, it will be necessary to establish a network of nature reserves. With little data available on home range size and demography, it is difficult to make sound management decisions at the current time.

The project is a collaborative effort that involves individuals from five institutions: Jeff Ettling (Saint Louis Zoo), Andy Snider (Detroit Zoological Institute), Dr. Nikolai Orlov, Dr. Natalia Ananjeva, and Roman Khalikov (Russian Academy of Sciences), Dr. Aram Agasyan and Alexander Malkhasyan (Armenia Misitry of Nature Protection) and Konstantin Shiryaev (Tula Exotarium, Russia).

The study is utilizing radio-telemetry and mark/recapture to determine the home range size, seasonal activity patterns, habitat preferences and demography of M. raddei. Our selected study site is in Khosrov Nature Reserve, considered one of the most important protected areas in Armenia because of its unique plant and animal communities. Over 50% of all Armenian plants and 171 animal species (60 endemic species) are represented in the Reserve. To date, six vipers have been implanted with radio transmitters. And additional four snakes were planned to be implanted with transmitters in May 2005. The movement patterns and habitat preferences of these snakes will be monitored for a period of fiver years. In addition to the specimens with transmitters, all M. raddei that are captured within the study site are sexed, weighed, measured and permanently marked for future identification with subcutaneous implanted passive transponders.

Although the radio-telemetry study will provide the fundamental information necessary for development of conservation management guidelines for M. raddei, it must also be accompanied by a strong education component. With assistance from the Zoo's education staff, a poster and brochure currently are being developed. The field team will use these materials in outreach programs in rural communities and with pastoral farmers who often encounter the snakes. Future plans include a workshop for teachers in Armenia that will provide them with curricula on ecosystems, conservation and the plight of the Armenian viper. It will also be important to provide training for future educators. A family in St. Louis, Missouri, interested in assisting our project, has offered to sponsor an Armenian exchange student who will be pursuing a career in environmental education. A search is currently underway and a student should be in place in 2006.

Through the combination of ecological fieldwork, development of management guidelines, and an intensive outreach education program, our goal is to establish a secure future for M. raddei in Armenia. In addition to continuing our work in Armenia, the Center for Conservation of Near East Mountain Vipers plans to pursue other collaborative projects involving the other seven species of mountain vipers.

Literature Cited

Ettling, J. 1996. Natual history, husbandry, and captive reproduction of mountain vipers (Vipera bornmuelleri and Vipera wagneri). In P. D. Strimple (ed.), Advances in Herpetoculture, pp. 139-144. International Herpetological Symposium, Inc.

Ettling, J. and A. Marfisi. 2002. Male combat in two species of mountain vipers. Montivipera raddei and M. wagneri. In G. W. Schuett, M. Hoggren, M. E. Douglas, and H. W. Greene (eds.), Biology of the Vipers, pp. 163-166. Eagle Mountain Publishing, Eagle Mountain, Utah.

Nilson, G., and C. Andren. 1986. The mountain vipers of the Middle East - the Vipera xanthina complex (Reptilia, Viperidae). Bonn. Zool. Monogr. No. 20:1-90.

Nilson, G., and C. Andren. 2000. Old World Vipers - Natural History/Natural Future. Presentation given at the Biology of Vipers conference in Sweden, May 2000.