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Articles > Environment > Endangered animals on Armenian coins
Armenian coinsBy Dennis G. Rainey
This column is about animals on some coins from the Red Book of endangered and threatened animals of the Republic of Armenia.
Armenia's size is 11,483 square miles, and it is typically mountainous with a dry sub-tropical climate. There are six ecosystem types: deserts (below 3,000 feet), semi-deserts (2,000 to 3,900 feet), steppes (3,900 to 6,600 feet), forests (1,640 north-8,262 south feet), subalpine and alpine meadows (7,546 to 9,186 feet).
Some 17,000 species of animals (mostly invertebrates) have been recorded in Armenia including 75 kinds of mammals, 302 birds, 43 reptiles and nine amphibians.
Biodiversity suffered greatly during the Soviet period, and after the Soviet breakup Armenia underwent a severe economic crisis with additional dire consequences on habitats and animal life. The Spitak earthquake of 1988 destroyed the city of Spitak and 58 villages, and resulted in horrendous damage to industry including food production and widespread environmental damage. Twenty-five thousand people were killed, 20,000 injured and 500,000 made homeless. By 1998 the average monthly earnings were equivalent to $16 U.S.! Now slow recovery is in progress aided by a shift to democracy, market-based economy, private ownership of land and decentralization in industry and agriculture. Foreign investment is now encouraged.
All this has severely damaged biodiversity. Forests have been particularly hurt with only 25 percent of the original left. Deforestation has produced extreme erosion and subsequent flooding. Equally severe soil erosion has occurred due to poor agricultural practices and thousands of acres are now unusable. Vegetation cover (up to 40 percent in some areas) has diminished because of overgrazing of pastures by livestock. Pesticide residues from overuse also enter into this sad picture resulting in heavy river pollution and changes in plant cover. Mining and chemical industries have caused pollution of several natural ecosystems with heavy metals (about 20,000 acres). All of this unfortunate history has severely affected Armenia's animal life, but one has to admire the ongoing successful road to recovery by the government.
The Central Bank of Armenia has issued several coins depicting animals in Armenia's Red Book, and hopefully sales revenue is being used for conservation and research purposes. I gladly purchased all the coins. Let's discuss these animals on coins.
Eurasian Otter
A subspecies of the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra meridionalis) is depicted on the 1997 100 drams (KM 71). This subspecies is called the Caucasian otter on the coin. Otters (13 species worldwide) belong to the "smelly" group of mammals - Family Mustelidae (skunks, weasels, polecats, badgers, wolverine, sable, fishers and martens, etc.). Otters are the only amphibious members of the family.
This species has an incredibly large geographic range, too large to give details here. Suffice it to say it occurs in almost all of Europe, northwestern Africa and much of Asia. They dwell from sea level to 13,500 feet in Tibet. The IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red Book lists it as near threatened. Its habitat is freshwater lakes, rivers, ponds, swamps, rice fields, marine coves and estuaries.
This species is 3 to 4.5 feet long and weighs 15 to 20 pounds. They rely solely on their fur while in water to keep warm because their body lacks a fat layer like in seals. The outer guard hairs keep the fine insulating undercoat dry. The front legs are shorter than the hind legs allowing them to swim better, and the toes are webbed. They are said to be able to stay submerged for only 20 seconds. Its diet is fish (80 percent), frogs, birds and small mammals.
A 2004 paper by G. Gorgadze titled "The Eurasian Otter in the South Caucasus," published in the IUCN Otter Specialist Group Bulletin indicated practically no research has been done in Armenia and Azerbaijan in the past 20 years. Records are better for Georgia. Trapping there for skins began in early 20th century and by the 1930s 4,000 otters were killed annually. At the beginning of the 1980s it was estimated there were 6,000 in South Caucasus and 12,000 in Russia. Of the 6,000, 4,500 were in Georgia, 1,200 in Azerbaijan, but no estimates were given for Armenia. There was abundant evidence of a serious population decline in the South Caucasus (and Armenia?). Threats to the Eurasian otter in the three nations above are killing by fishermen (viewed as competitors), illegal trapping for the fur trade, unsustainable use of forests leading to loss of habitat, and over-exploitation of rivers and lakes. Drainage of wetlands was rampant in Soviet times. So, otter population declines are due solely to human activities.
Wild Cat
The wild cat, Felis silvestris, may be the most widespread member of the Family Felidae. It occurs in most of Africa, much of Europe and western Asia. The subspecies, F. s. caucasica, is depicted on the Armenia 2006 100 drams coin (KM 121).
The IUCN 1996 publication, Wild Cats, divides the species into three groups: African (14 subspecies), Asiatic (3 subspecies) and European (6 subspecies). The wild cat in Armenia is in the European group and goes by the common name of Caucasian forest cat or Caucasian wild cat. It is found in southern Armenia, most of the rest of Caucasus and Turkey. I wrote about the life style of F. silvestris in detail in the article "Wildcat and Woodpecker At Risk In Moldova" in the December 2004 issue of World Coin News and will not repeat that here.
Brown Bear
The brown bear is depicted on the 2006 100 drams (KM 119). The scientific name on the coin is Ursus arctos syriacus. The taxonomy of brown bears in the Caucasus is unsettled as Dr. Gennady f. Baryshnikov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences and specialist in brown bears of Caucasus informed me in an email on 12 June 2007. He said one view is all brown bears in the Caucasus belong to U. a. syriacus and another view is the subspecies in most of the Caucasus is U. a. meridionalis, and U. a. syriacus is in the southernmost part including Armenia. However, he has not studied any specimens from Armenia. I. E. Chertin and N. G. Mikeshina in the paper titled "Variation in Skull Morphology of Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) from Caucasus" that appeared in the Jour. Mammalogy, V.79, No. 1, 1998, consider all brown bears in Caucasus to be U. a. syriacus.
Literature on the brown bear in Armenia is non-existent, at least that I can find. I did find one sentence that stated the bears are found in forests, steppes and meadows depending on the time of the year. I was informed by an Armenian biologist that young mammalogists there are reluctant to work on large mammals, and funds for research are very scarce.
Long-Eared Hedgehog
The long-eared hedgehog is depicted on the 2006 100 drams (KM 120). The scientific name on the coin is Erinaceus (Hemiechinus) auritus. The corect name in my most recent reference is Hemiechinus auritus. Again, I found no literature on this mammal in Armenia; however, the same species was discussed in my article "Turkish Coins Feature Ricochet Mammals," World Coin News, April, 2007. Refer to this article for more information. I suspect it dwells mainly in the Armenian semi-desert ecosystem.
Spur-Thighed Tortoise
In 2006 the Central Bank issued a 100 drams coin (KM 122) depicting what they called the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo graeca); this scientific name is on the coin. This tortoise has numerous common names such as Greek tortoise, Tunisian tortoise, Algerian tortoise, Moorish tortoise, but I choose to call it the spur-thighed tortoise following C. H. Ernst and R. W. Barbour, Turtles of the World, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1989, and other references.
What is the difference between a tortoise and a terrapin? They are both turtles. A tortoise is a terrestrial turtle, and a terrapin is usually an aquatic turtle.
An apparent valid subspecies has been described from Armenia that also occurs in parts of Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey and is named T. g. armenica. A reference I found called it the Armenian tortoise. Additional subspecies have been described, but many are considered invalid.
This wide-spread species occurs in Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Spain, Syria, Macedonia, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Ukraine. It is rare in Armenia and occurs in the Araks river valley in the south of that country in dry steppes, shrubby mountain slopes and low forests habitats. They are declining largely due to habitat loss. There are only about 1,000 surviving in the wild in Armenia, but many are in Russian and other country's zoos. They are bred in captivity for possible reintroductions by the Zoology Institute of the Republic of Armenia Academy of Sciences. The species is protected in Armenia, but some are still taken from the wild for the pet trade. The species is listed as vulnerable in the 2006 IUCN Red List.
The species has been one of the most exploited chelonians for the pet trade with millions captured and sold. For example, more than one million captured in Morocco were imported to Great Britain between 1967 and 1971 (inquire for reference). It was estimated that only five million were in Morocco in that period so the population was severely damaged, but later they were protected. Again, apparently this species has not been studied biologically in Armenia.
Do not fail to log on to the following Web site named "Persian Leopard": http://www.persianleopard.com/. Then, click on the link "Gallery" to the left and view some remote camera pictures of Armenian mammals such as the brown bear and wild cat (notice "raccoon-like tail."). This is the Web site of biologists Sh. Asmaryan and Igor Khorozyan, the only scientists studying highly endangered leopards (Panthera pardus) in Armenia. Igor furnished valuable information for the brown bear portion of this article.
Lastly, kudos to the Central Bank of Armenia for putting scientific and common names on their animal coins.
Source: World Coin News, 05 March 2008 (with adjustments)
Comments and questions are welcomed. Send to denrain@charter.net

Added: Thursday, March 20, 2008
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