Boris Vanyan wrestles confidently with the steering wheel as he drives along rough mountain trails under the early morning sun: tracking down poachers is not a 9am-till-5pm job.
A dentist by profession, Vanyan turned to his lifelong love for the wildlife in 2017 and decided to become a ranger. Since then, his life has been paced by the cycle of nature and his focus to curb poaching in the area around Tigranashen, his village which lies on the border with Azerbaijan’s territory of Nakhchivan.
In Armenia hunting is legal, yet strictly regulated and limited to certain periods and certain species. The season, in 40 areas in Armenia’s ten regions, runs approximately from the third week of August through the end of February, before breeding period for most species - but illegal hunting remains a problem.
“A harsher and more thorough controlling system is needed to curb the phenomenon,” maintains Artur Beglaryan who heads the Wildlife Supervision Division within the Government. “This would include expanding the number of inspectors and increasing awareness about the law in place and the fine people can run into.”
Statistics are not available but illegal hunting has found fertile ground in years of neglect towards poaching.
“Poachers have become more organised, moving around with SUVs and locating where inspectors are,” explains Beglaryan. “Over the last few years between 150 and 200 cases were registered annually, with different scales. We talk about a damage to our wildlife of millions of Armenian drams.”
Vanyan and his fellow ranger Radik Matevosyan agree - and are committed to stop the phenomenon in the area they call home.
Vanyan was eight when his family, in the wake of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, left his native village of Begum Sarov, in today’s Azerbaijan, and moved to Tigrashen, formerly Karki. He hasn’t left since and by now he knows every brook and every cave in the region. Vanyan met 36-year-old Matevosyan, a native of the neighbouring village of Zangakatun, in summer 2018 and soon the work relationship morphed into a close friendship - love for nature unites them, although Matevosyan’s views on hunting more complex.
A recovering hunter Matevosyan sees himself as an environmentalist and today he advocates for a total ban on the practise.
“Every person was born for one job and I think I was born to protect nature”, he maintains, adding that a total ban for a few years would work as a deterrent for illegal hunters and would re-balance the wildlife affected by decades of neglect. His views are shared - the National Security Service has proposed to discuss a formal ban on hunting for three to five years. In addition, in May of 2019 the government approved a new set of rules about protected species, included in the so-called Red Book, and increased penalties for those who breach them. Fines depend on the season and the animal and can be up to 400 to 600 times the minimum salary and imprisonment up to three months.
“The previous government reduced nature to rubles, they destroyed everything. If the proposal will pass, hunters can stop for three years, and nature will have time to recover and develop. It is not hard to wait for three years, is it?” asks Matevosyan to Vanyan who does not oppose legal and highly regulated hunting.
Poaching however is not the only threat - the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the Nagorno Karabakh region has also an impact on the wildlife. The area around Tigranashen is considered as a migration corridor for wild animals like the Caucasian leopard and mouflons, but being the two countries at war, it is also militarised. Most soldiers are hunters themselves and the presence of mine threatens the animals’ survivor.
“Military posts are off of our control, but we are working with the local military authorities to supervise those areas too, while Azerbaijani rangers do the same on their side,” explains Matevosyan. “Animals move from Nakhchivan to our region and vice versa, they know no human border.”