In the 90s, a group of friends started making some of the first nature documentaries in Armenia. 20 years later FPWC, the NGO they founded, established the first private protected area in the South Caucasus, started an annual international environmental film festival and has earned a standing in the nature conservation of their country and beyond – all thanks to the passion of the team and the close involvement of local communities. We met with the team during our time in Armenia, and were blown away by the sheer variety of creative, bold and most importantly impactful projects one single organization is able to juggle. Getting inspired is a guarantee with this story!
What is FPWC?
The ‘Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets’ or short FPWC, is an Armenian NGO founded by Ruben Khachatryan – director of the organization – and a group of friends in 2003 as one of the first NGOs in Armenia. Since then, they have gathered a team of young and passionate conservationists in Armenia and expanded their activities.
Currently, FPWC is focusing on three core topics:
- The Caucasus Wildlife Refuge (CWR) and the affiliated SunChild Ecotours
- The Wildlife Rescue Center
- The SunChild Environmental film festival
Caucasus Wildlife Refuge
The largest project and probably FPWC’s biggest achievement is the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge (CWR). Since 2011, FPWC has bought or leased around 300 km² of land directly adjacent to the State Forest Reserve Khosrov. Besides protecting wildlife in this area, FPWC has created eco-tourism possibilities under the umbrella of SunChild Ecotours. On the edge of this private protected reserve, they created an ecolodge, where visitors can book all kinds of tours to explore the wildlife of the CWR. This creates jobs for local people and makes the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge less dependent on donations or similar kinds of funding.
FPWC generously invited us to stay at the camp and we did not hesitate to ride our bikes 70 km outside of Yerevan into the mountains. As we get closer, villages become less frequent and at the end of a road dirt, we find the camp with accommodation and conference spaces, horses for rent, an orchard, from which FPWC makes local products, and their very own wildlife rescue center. This little island of peace is surrounded from all sides by rugged mountains that are home to some of Armenia´s rarest wildlife, including the Caucasian leopard.
Wildlife Rescue Center
The real centerpiece of the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge is definitely the integrated Wildlife Rescue Center. At the time of our visit, 25 bears that were rescued from captivity live here. Even though most of them are in hibernation in January, we can count eight that are still active. As we watch and hear the bears, we have contradictory feelings. On one hand, it is great to follow these amazing animals from up close and observe their behavior. They seem healthy and “happy”. On the other hand, in the office of FPWC in Yerevan we learned about the conditions most of these bears were rescued from. Some of them were held in tiny cages or even basements, suffered from malnutrition and were severely traumatized mentally. FPWC rescues captive bears since 2015 in cooperation with the International Animal Rescue. The harsh reality is, only a very few of these animals are able to live in the wild after captivity. FPWC successfully released two rescued, young bears into the wild, and provides the best possible care to those which are not in such lucky positions. Aside providing a home in the Wildlife Rescue Center within CWR, many were sent to sanctuaries and zoos in different countries – with rigorous standards applying for any transfer.
Many bears are rescued from dire conditions, but recover quickly. Watch their transformation in this short video:
But how come that there are so many bears to be rescued in the first place? Unfortunately, as Ruben tells us, it is still a common practice in Armenia to keep bears in private zoos, homes or even restaurants as a show for visitors – often after their mothers were poached. This is why FPWC is currently constructing a second wildlife rehabilitation and education center in another province, where they can keep more bears and other animals with more space available for them. And thanks to their tireless lobbying, the Ministry of Environment just enacted an order that requires a permit in line with international zoo standards to keep wild animals in captivity.
Christian, PR manager of FPWC shows us the facilities and shares some of these bears´ stories prior to their rescue. We also meet other rescued inhabitants of the center, such as a majestic bearded vulture.
The wider impact of the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge
After admiring the bears, we leave the camp to explore some of the CWR. It is a dry, loosely forested habitat, but many threatened species can be found here like the Caucasian leopard, wolves, brown bears and bezoar goats. FPWC monitors them closely with the help of the camera traps and at the same time uses that footage to promote the reserve and raise awareness for Armenian biodiversity.
In the Caucasus Wildlife Refuge, as in all their projects, the team of FPWC puts focus on community involvement. Most employees of this private protected area are locals, many women and some even with a background in poaching. This creates jobs in disadvantaged communities and presents a real alternative to working in the mining industry, which is mushrooming across Armenia. FPWC also helps villages with solar panels, LED lighting, tractors and other infrastructure. Rangers receive education, training in firefighting, wildlife monitoring and more. This carries FPWC’s vision into the local communities and even on the international stage, where the organization’s rangers received the IUCN WCPA International Ranger Award.
Ruben admits that it is not easy to find passionate and qualified staff. Their 18 employees in the field must take their jobs seriously, even if that causes conflicts with other community members. Conservationists and other people with special expertise that FPWC direly needs are unfortunately still hard to find in Armenia. Nevertheless, Ruben has gathered a team in which each member burns for the task at hand.
“The team is the most important way to get through challenging times. Their fire in combination with an attitude to never give up is the key to FPWC’s success.”Ruben Khachatryan, Director of FPWC
SunChild Environmental Film Festival
FPWC also holds a large-scale, annual event, called the SunChild Environmental Film Festival. The 11th festival took place in November 2022 and showed over 30 films from different countries. As the founders started their nature conservation career as filmmakers, this topic is close to their hearts and they are aware of the power that videos and films can have. Throughout the 11 iterations, the festival has screened over 780 films from 150 different countries, truly covering all kinds of topics and regions of the world.
The theme of the 11th festival was climate change:
“While the global environmental community continues to raise awareness and take preventive and adaptation measures, for the general population, the scope is just too large to grasp, and many of the most noticeable impacts are still too far removed from our daily lives. […] For many, climate change is either overwhelmingly challenging or abstract enough that it is easy to ignore. We are here to become your guide to understand its impacts, to empower you to make a step forward towards the changes in your life, to share the stories from all around the world, and show that you are not alone!”
Eva Martirosyan, director of educational programs, tells us that the festival does not end after the main four day-event. FPWC travels across the country with the films, showing them to children and local communities which can often identify with the depicted issues. They facilitate discussions and local actions based on solutions presented in the movies to transfer the films from the screen into real life.
In the past and hopefully again in the future, this was complemented by the SunChild ecoclubs. Across the country, FPWC has established these ecoclubs for 12-15 year-olds, where, within one year, they learn environmental skills coupled with videography climaxing into making their own little nature documentaries. Eva proudly tells that 90% of these ‘SunChildren’ later choose a careerpath somewhat connected to environmental issues. Currently, the ecoclubs are unfortunately paused due to funding issues, but Eva is fighting hard to continue them soon.
“We focus on youth because they are the change-makers of tomorrow and being so passionate, many already have a strong impact on their families today.”
Eva Martirosyan, Director of educational programs
FPWC’s impressive impacts
The impact of FPWC is visible in many ways. Villages approach them to dedicate their land for nature conservation purposes rather than mining, generations of SunChildren make nature conservation part of their life and FPWC as well as Ruben, the director, personally have received several awards for their work. We definitely can´t wait to follow what comes out of the hands of this creative team of conservationists next!
We wish FPWC all the best for its 20th anniversary!
Don´t miss out on checking FPWC´s YouTube channel, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter for many other informative content on their wildlife rescue efforts, wildlife monitoring and environmental documentaries!