In the southern part of Armenia, on the northern slopes of the Meghri Range, there is an exceptionally beautiful area of untouched nature: the Shikahogh Reserve. The World Fund of Wild Nature has classified Shikahogh as one of the unique areas in the region. The Reserve is protecting leaf-bearing trees, mainly oak-tree and hornbeam-tree forests, yew-tree and plane tree groves, as well as areas with particularly interesting and rare flora, populated by rare animals unique to Armenia and to the entire world.
High altitude of Zangezur Range, which stretches from the south to the north, is a natural hedge that blocks humid air streams from the Caspian Sea, while Meghri and other ranges block the penetration of hot air flows coming from the Iranian deserts. The arrangements of mountain ranges and hills create a large variety of climatic conditions. Here, as well as in the mountains of the southern Caucasus, each small gorge literally has its specific microclimate, where interesting plants (peculiar to that very same gorge) are found. There are many shallow mountainous streamlets and brooks, which flow into the blue artery of the region: the Tsav River. All the brooks in the Reserve are mountainous, rapid and stormy. In the Reserve there are many springs with waterlogged areas found around them. Surprisingly beautiful groves, caves, pictorial rocks and archeological monuments can be seen in the Reserve.
The Shikahogh Reserve was formed in 1959 on basis of local forest enterprise. The area of the Reserve is 10,000 hectares, where there are 1,074 varieties of plants. It is the only reserve, where luxuriant virgin forests with very interesting species are preserved. Very rare relic ferns (from the dinosaur era), common ophioglossum and Crimean bracken, Lambert’s bluebell, Egyptian willow, etc. live here. The Reserve provides a shelter to many disappearing and endemic plant varieties such as Transcaucasian and Artyushenko’s snowdrops, mixed tulip, Zangezur pear, and many varieties of orchids, Symphyandra zangezura, and Eleanor’s wort. Eighteen plant varieties are registered in the Red Book of the former USSR, and 70 varieties of plants from Shikahogh are listed in the Armenian Red Book.
Due to relatively mild climate and the abundance of small covered gorges, individual representatives of the past geological epochs have also been preserved; moreover some islands of the tertiary flora exist here. Among them is yew-tree grove, which is the only place in Armenia, where cord-rooted sedge, a species of the Mediterranean flora is found. In Shikahogh there is a small beech grove, which is the only one in southern Armenia. Ivy, persimmon, pomegranate, plane trees with walnuts, velvety euonymus, periclopa vulgaris, etc. live in Shikahogh. Chestnut and Zelcova carpinifolia are rare but can also be found in Shikahogh.
The Tsav plane tree grove (a state preserve) that is the largest in the Caucasus and has 3,000 exemplars of 200-250 year old, 30-35 meters high, and up to 3 meters in diameter plane trees of endemic varieties abuts to the territory of the Reserve. The grove stretches along the riverbed for 15km in the form of a narrow strip (100-150m). It occupies about 120ha in Armenia. Narrow gorges and surrounding forests make this place one of the most beautiful corners of Armenia, untouched by civilization. The grove, like other plantations of the plane tree, was planted in Pagan times, when ‘plane’ trees were considered to be sacred and when priests were guessing the future by the sounds of ‘plane’ tree leafs.
In the lower zone of the Shikahogh Reserve, extensive thin forests of the Araks oak, thickets of the trap-tree with mixture of the nettle-tree, pomegranate, maple, etc.
The leaf-bearing forests are predominant in the Reserve. There are mainly oak and oak-hornbeam forests, which occupy almost the entire middle zone of the forest area from 1,000 to 2,200 meters. Particularly notable are Oat and Poa hornbeam groves. On the right bank of the Tsav River, in the Mtnadzor gorge, an oak forest (almost untouched by humans) has been preserved because of its inaccessibility. It easily qualifies for one of the most outstanding monuments of nature in the entire world.
2,200m to 2,400m above sea level mountainous oaks form scanty forests. Even higher up are sub-alpine meadows with high grass and multitude of blooming bluebells, orchids, Chikhachev’s rare cephalaria, etc. The meadows are exceptionally beautiful during the blooming of their “pearl”, the endemic hybrid tulip, which can have a gorgeous lemon yellow and/or dark pink or red coloring. This is the only tulip with a delicate lemon fragrance. Fragments of alpine meadows are in the highest areas of the mountain ranges.
The Reserve preserves cultural artifacts such as burial grounds of the Bronze Age, ancient fortresses, monasteries, bridges, and medieval churches.
The fauna in the Shikahogh Reserve is also distinctively diverse. Here, in ravines and in glades, covered with high grass, live brown bears, including a very rare Transcaucasian/Syrian variety of the brown bear (registered in the CIS Red Book), and the wild boar. The roe, wildcat, badger and fox are also found in the Reserve. In the forests and open barren slopes, one can usually find weasel, forest, and stone martens.
The lynx and Asian leopard can be found in the upper boundary of the Reserve, both are listed in the Red Book of IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 1st category), CIS, and Armenia. The leopard lives on mountains, in deep gorges, among bushes, and on steep mountain slopes. In the Reserve the Bezoar goat and the Armenian moufflon are also found, both are very rare and are registered in the Red Books of Armenia, CIS, and IUCN.
There are a great variety of birds living in the Reserve because of the diversity of biotopes. Black griffon and whitehead griffin inhabit the forests. The Caspian tetra Gallus, Caucasian heath-cock, and bearded vulture also live in this reserve and are included in the Armenian, CIS, and IUCN Red Books. These species are under the danger of complete extermination.
Caspian tetra Gallus inhabits the upper mountainous area with dissected relief and steep meadows. Usually, the tetra Gallus makes its nest on the northern slopes of mountains, where the snow stays for a long period. Usually, their nests are found hidden under rocks, stones or grass, while the pit of the nest is covered with dry grass, moss, and feathers.
The Caucasian heath-cock lives at the edge of forests, and in sub-alpine zone. The bearded vultures nest on inaccessible rocks, vertical cliffs and, unlike other birds, put nests separately from each other, with 10-15km between them.
People have intensively influenced natural ecosystems of the Shikahogh Reserve for many years. There was no large-scale forest logging in this area, but the grazing of agricultural animals on the sub-alpine meadows as well as the forestry sunshade has had immense effect on the vegetation. The negative influence of grazing animals was particularly intense from 1963 to 1975, when the Reserve was liquidated. It was also tense during the power crisis in the 1990s. In addition to all this, local forests have traditionally attracted people who like to hunt and relax in nature. The Government of Armenia and the Administration of the Syunik Province, with support of international donor organizations, currently undertake measures to improve the natural ecosystem of the Reserve.