In November of last year, Armenian journalist Kristine Aghalaryan began her investigation into Armenia’s exotic animal trade with the words, “Armenia now enjoys the dubious distinction of being a transit nation for endangered animals.”
At the time, not even Interpol knew how right she was.
Aghalaryan’s investigation began as an attempt to figure out if the creature in the video below was in fact a bonobo (Pan Paniscus), an endangered species of primate endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the killing or capture of which is against national and international laws.
Aghalaryan photographed the small primate in a cage in Dzoragbyur’s newly-opened Jambo Park. If it was a bonobo, the creature was in the country illegally, especially since Armenia had signed the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2009, which regulates the export, sale and transport of rare animals.
Unfortunately for the bonobo (it was indeed a bonobo), the export, sale and transport of rare animals is the fourth most profitable illegal business in the world.
According to a 2013 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, “various organizations and reports estimate that the trade is worth at least US$19 billion per year and rank illegal wildlife trade, including timber and fisheries, as the fourth largest global illegal activity after narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking and ahead of oil, art, gold, human organs, small arms, and diamonds.”
The bonobo in Jambo Park was owned by one Artyom Vardanyan, who not only admitted how expensive it was, he also did so on a local TV show. When questioned by the press, Vardanyan said that he had a CITES permit to prove that the sale was legal. When his permit proved an obvious fakery, he told Aghalaryan that he hadn’t actually bought the bonbo, he’d only leased it from Artur Khachatryan, an animal importer and founder of Zoo Fauna Art.
When questioned by the press, Khachatryan said that he’d imported the bonobo from Guinea. If that were true, Armenia’s Ministry of Nature Protection (MNP) would have had to grant preliminary permission for the animal’s importation, which they would not do, Aghalaryan wrote, “without confirming that the animal comes from a CITES approved breeding facility for the species and there is no such facility in the whole of Africa.”
Furthermore, after obtaining the list of critically endangered animals being imported to Armenia from the MNP itself, Aghalaryan found no record of the bonobo.
In the course of her investigation, Aghalaryan discovered that Khachatryan had actually imported 30 monkeys into Armenia using “dubious” CITES permits, which resulted in Khachatryan being brought up on criminal contraband charges. In April, Aghalaryan was invited to serve as a witness in the animal trafficking case.
But the founder of Zoo Fauna Art is hardly an isolated case in Armenia.
As Aghalaryan wrote in her first article, of the exotic or rare animals that actually remain in Armenia, “Some are used as ‘attractions’ at various businesses, like the street hawkers of old, to pull in customers. Some wind up as pets in the homes of Armenia’s rich or wannabe-rich, to impress the neighbors or to add a touch of ‘class.’”
Mher Sedrakian, a parliament member of the country’s ruling Republican party, allegedly keeps more than one lion in his home in Yerevan. According to the Guardian, the neighbors complain about the roaring, which is constant.
A spokesperson for Gagik Tsarukian, the head of the Prosperous Armenia Party (and a millionaire to boot), told the Guardian that the man owns 24 lions and white tigers.
Lieutenant General Manvel Grigorian, a former deputy defense minister and the head of an organization of Karabakh war veterans, has a private zoo in Etchmiadzin where he keeps birds, bears, lions and tigers.
Environmentalists are still waiting to see documentation that proves Hovik Abovian, the governor of the Tavush province, can legally own his endangered brown bears.
So even if the Armenian government had effective legislation to prevent the sale and trade of exotic, rare and endangered animals, its government is apparently uninterested in enforcing it.
According to the Guardian, recent amendments to the country’s wildlife legislation “seem to facilitate” the cultivation of exotic menageries. As long as the “life, health and safety” of wild – and even endangered – animals is provided for (and supervision is “constant”), this behavior is perfectly legal.
But legal or not, it is dangerous. Last December, Yerevan supermarkets offered crocodiles for sale. In 2012, a lion (believed to be owned by a former police colonel) seriously injured a two-year-old in a village near the Turkish border. Last November, tiger cubs were found in the streets of Etchmiadzin, the same town where Manvel Grigorian keeps his private zoo. This year, loose bear sightings have been reported twice in Armenia’s capital.
But at present this is not something Armenian citizens can be bothered about. Environmentalist Silva Adamian told the Guardian, “The field is controlled by certain influential people, while society is so busy with other problems that it simply has no time to take an interest in these issues.”