Dilijan National Park – a refuge for the threatened forests of Armenia

Armenia’s environment is harsh – in many places too harsh for trees to grow. Even the most optimistic estimations suggest that maximum one third of Armenia has ever been covered by forest. But this number has massively decreased due to human deforestation, making large forested areas like Dilijan National Park crucial for nature conservation in Armenia.

Massive deforestation in the 90s

Current studies estimate a forest cover of 6% to 11%, meaning that much of Armenia underwent deforestation and often resulting desertification. The climax of deforestation was during the energy crisis of 1992-1995 when Azerbaijan cut off all energy supplies that Armenia relied on during the Soviet Union. While forest cover was still at 15% in 1990, it might have decreased to 7% already in 1995. There are even stories that trees were cut down in the middle of the capital Yerevan.

However, Luba Balyan, conservationist and ‘ENPI FLEG II Country Coordinator’, tells us that unlike in Georgia, the main issue was not the collection of firewood, but illegal logging for timber that was exported to Iran and Europe in the 90s. The forest structure is consequently different than in neighboring Georgia, where coppice forest dominates. 70% of forests are high forests, because they are simply to inaccessible to manage them as coppice forests or extract a lot of firewood, because 80% of all forests are located on slopes with a gradient of 30% or more. In addition, only 5% of Armenia’s forests nowadays are primary. This is all even more surprising as logging was officially banned in the whole country during Soviet times.

Dilijan National Park

An important part of the remaining forests are the ones in Dilijan National Park. Of the 338 km2 park territory, around 270 km2 are forested. In 2002, the park was specifically designated to protect these forests and hence does not cover the alpine areas of five mountain ranges within its boundaries. While the alpine pastures are used for grazing, the forest is strictly protected, following its first declaration as a strict forest reserve in 1958. The dense oak, beech and hornbeam forests here are especially known for the diversity of naturally occurring fruit and nut trees as well as a 300-year-old stand of Taxus baccata or yew. In total, 902 species of vascular plants occur in the park, out of which 40 are rare species and 29 are registered in the Armenian Red Book. This shows the diversity of habitats in Dilijan ranging from deciduous to conifer forests, sparse juniper forests, rocky slopes, alpine pastures and other grasslands.

“If there are forests in heaven, they will be like Dilijan.”

Armenian writer

Thanks to its unique and picturesque forested landscape, Dilijan National Park is sometimes called ‘Little Switzerland’. It is not only of national importance for its forests, but also of the most popular tourist destinations of Armenia. The town of Dilijan is known for its mineral springs and the park is home to five old monasteries, several beautiful lakes and 26 hiking trails to explore the forests and alpine meadow above. The Transcaucasian Trail that runs through the area for 87 km has added another attraction to the park and large carnivores like lynx, brown bear and wolf are abundant.

Future plans to improve protection

Robert Alikhanyan, deputy director of Dilijan National Park, tells us that the park administration will make protection of the forests even stricter. After a re-zonation in 2025, the strict reserve will grow from 24% of the park’s territory to 41%. Inside this reserve, no interventions are allowed, while in the economic and recreation zone sanitary logging is still allowed. But Robert tells us they plan to also decrease this. In addition, the administration also controls extractive activities in the buffer zone that covers over 200 km². To enforce all of this, the park has the impressive number of 47 rangers.

Red deer reintroduction program

One symptom of the deforestation in Armenia is the local extirpation of red deer. The loss of their home habitat as well as hunting for meat have completely eradicated the species in Armenia about 15 years ago. Dilijan National Park is now the place where this will hopefully be reversed. In cooperation WWF and the Caucasus Nature Fund, the national park has started a red deer reintroduction program. In 2017, five red deer were brought from Iran and a breeding center was established. Today, 27 deer live in the center, while 3 red deer have already been released into the park. All three are equipped with radio collars to monitor their movement. Besides its role for the deer reintroduction, the breeding center has also quickly evolved into the park’s most visited facility with over 20.000 visitors per year. However, two of the released deer often return to the center because they became habituated to humans, which showcases how sensitive wildlife reintroduction is. To ensure that the red deer reintroduction is successful, visitors should not be able to approach those animals so closely and should definitely not be allowed to handfeed them.

Deforestation makes areas unlivable

How dire the consequences of deforestation can be becomes obvious in areas that have literally become unlivable. Agricultural fields turn into dust, land slides become more common in steep areas and many villages have already lost some or all of their water sources. Drying up of wells, desertification and a lack of firewood even force people to leave their homes and sometimes the country.

Hope in the shape of reforestation

The current extent of (illegal) logging and firewood collection in Armenia is debated, but Luba tells us that deforestation has come to a halt in recent years. However, that does not mean that Armenian forests are safe. Robert tells us that droughts and winters with little to no snow have become common. This intensifies the massive issue of desertification that has affected much of Armenia. Precipitation in most of Armenia is so low that natural regeneration of forests is inhibited and deforested areas easily turn into deserts. Luckily, the Ministry of Environment that is responsible for all forests as well as NGOs like FPWC, My Forest Armenia and Armenia Tree Project have realized the issue and started active planting and reforestation.

The government of Armenia has announced ambitious goals to reverse deforestation and committed to double Armenia’s forest cover by 2050. However, conservationists like Luba are skeptical and emphasize that the goal should not be solely an amount of forest cover. She is concerned that the state will resort to cheap and known pine monocultures that are neither native nor drought-resilient. Instead, the goal should be to protect and improve existing forests and replant native forests under close scientific supervision. Dilijan National Park can be a role model for this way forward.

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