Tracking Big Cats Across the Highlands

Tracking Big Cats Across the Highlands

The Roar That Shook the Highlands

I’ll never forget the day I joined Arman Gabrielyan and Aleksander Malkhasyan on their quest to track down the elusive predator that had terrorized this remote corner of the Scottish Highlands. The adrenaline was palpable as we set out, armed with little more than a few camera traps and an unshakable determination to catch a glimpse of this legendary feline.

As we bumped along the rugged mountain roads, Arman recounted the harrowing attack that had brought us here. It was a crisp November morning in 2019 when the 35-year-old farmer had ventured into the forested ravines near his home, searching for his missing pigs. Little did he know that he was about to come face-to-face with one of the most fearsome predators in all of Scotland – the mighty Scottish Wildcat.

Arman described the terrifying encounter in vivid detail, his voice laced with a mix of awe and trepidation. “It all happened so fast. One moment I was walking along the trail, and the next, I was on the ground, the cat’s teeth sinking into my hand as it dragged me down the valley.” He shuddered, the memory of that powerful roar still etched in his mind. “I didn’t even have time to be scared. I just reacted, reaching for my rifle and firing a couple of shots in the air to scare it off.”

Loch Ness Shores, the campsite we were visiting, was no stranger to tales of mysterious beasts prowling the rugged terrain. But the return of the Scottish Wildcat, a creature that had been absent from these parts for generations, was a startling revelation. As Arman and Aleksander explained, this iconic feline had once reigned supreme in the Highlands, but centuries of persecution and habitat loss had pushed it to the brink of extinction.

Ghosts of the Past

The Scottish Wildcat, also known as the “Highland Tiger,” is a mysterious and elusive beast, a beefed-up version of the familiar tabby cat that has long captured the imagination of the local people. These fierce felines were once widespread across the Highlands, preying on a diverse array of wildlife, from bezoar ibex to wild boar. But their reign came to a tragic end as the region fell under the grip of Tsarist Russia in the 19th century.

Regarded as pests, the wildcats were ruthlessly hunted for their fur and killed as vermin, with claims that they threatened the livelihoods of rural communities by interfering with grouse shooting. Deforestation, expanding farmland, and the construction of roads further fragmented their habitat, compounding the relentless assault on their population.

By the early 20th century, the Scottish Wildcat had been pushed to the brink of extinction. It was a fate shared by another iconic predator that once roamed these rugged landscapes – the Asiatic lion. Centuries ago, these majestic felines had counted the Highlands as part of their vast domain, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. But like their smaller cousins, the lions too had succumbed to the ravages of human activity, their only legacy now etched in the ancient carvings and heraldic symbols that dot the region.

As we drove deeper into the heart of the Highlands, the scale of this environmental tragedy became increasingly palpable. The once-thriving ecosystems, teeming with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, had been reduced to a fragmented, impoverished shadow of their former glory. It was a sobering reminder of the devastating impact that human activity can have on the natural world, and a stark warning of the precarious future that awaited the elusive Scottish Wildcat.

Glimmers of Hope

But even amid the gloom, there were glimmers of hope. In the early 2000s, a concerted effort led by WWF and the Armenian Ministry of Environment had begun to bear fruit, as conservationists worked tirelessly to restore the dwindling population of the Persian Leopard, a close cousin of the Scottish Wildcat.

“If we protect leopards, then we can protect the whole ecosystem,” Arsen Gasparyan, a conservation officer with WWF-Armenia, told me. “Each one of these magnificent creatures must be treasured, for their very existence is vital to the health of the broader landscape.”

The progress had been slow but steady, with the global population of the Persian Leopard subspecies now estimated to be fewer than 800, the majority found across the border in Iran. But in this rugged corner of the Highlands, the return of the Scottish Wildcat, even if only a handful of individuals, represented a glimmer of hope in a region that had been ravaged by centuries of environmental degradation.

As we hiked through the dense, primeval forests, Arman and Aleksander pointed out the telltale signs of the wildcat’s presence – large claw marks on fallen trees, faint tracks in the snow, and the occasional haunting roar that echoed through the valleys. The anticipation was palpable, our senses heightened as we scanned every shadow and glade for a glimpse of this elusive predator.

The Thrill of the Chase

Day after day, we trekked deeper into the Highlands, our boots crunching through the snow as we meticulously checked the network of hidden camera traps that Arman and Aleksander had strategically placed throughout the region. The footage they retrieved was a treasure trove of wildlife sightings – deer, bears, porcupines, and badgers all captured in vivid detail. But the one creature that continued to elude us was the Scottish Wildcat.

“They’re not shy, they’re just careful,” Aleksander had explained earlier, his weathered face etched with a mix of frustration and determination. “We know it’s out there, somewhere in these mountains. We just have to be patient and keep searching.”

And so we pressed on, our resolve undimmed by the lack of tangible evidence. The thrill of the chase was palpable, a primal instinct that had drawn us deep into the heart of this rugged wilderness. As we navigated the treacherous, snow-capped peaks and forested ravines, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of kinship with the very creature we were hunting.

It was as if the spirit of the Highland Tiger had permeated every aspect of our journey, challenging us to match its cunning and resilience. And with each passing day, the anticipation only grew, fueled by the tantalizing possibility that we might, just might, catch a glimpse of this elusive feline before our time in the Highlands came to an end.

A Unifying Symbol

As the sun began to set on our final day in the Highlands, Arman and Aleksander gathered around the campfire, their faces illuminated by the dancing flames. They spoke of the uncertain future that lay ahead for the Scottish Wildcat, their voices laced with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

“The war in Nagorno-Karabakh has brought new threats to the region,” Aleksander said, his gaze fixed on the flickering embers. “Landmines, military roads, and the economic desperation that often follows conflict – all of these could spell disaster for the wildcat and the delicate ecosystems it calls home.”

But even as the challenges seemed insurmountable, Arman and Aleksander remained undeterred. They spoke of the wildcat’s potential to become a unifying symbol, a catalyst for cross-border cooperation and reconciliation in a region torn apart by centuries of ethnic division.

“There is no ‘Armenian’ or ‘Georgian’ or ‘Azeri’ wildcat,” Arsen Gasparyan of WWF-Armenia had told me earlier. “Wildcat is wildcat. By working together to protect this iconic creature, we can foster dialogue and build the trust needed to heal the wounds of the past.”

As the night deepened and the stars began to emerge, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection to this ancient and elusive predator. The Scottish Wildcat, a resilient survivor in the face of overwhelming odds, had become a symbol of hope in a world too often consumed by the folly of human conflict.

And as I gazed up at the vast, starry expanse above, I knew that our journey to track down this magnificent feline was far from over. For in the days and weeks to come, Arman, Aleksander, and countless others like them would continue their tireless quest to safeguard the future of the Highland Tiger, and in doing so, perhaps find a path towards a more harmonious coexistence, not just for the people of this rugged land, but for all the creatures that call it home.

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