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How an alumni family is working to preserve the biological diversity of Armenia

A magnitude 6.9 earthquake rocked northwestern Armenia Dec. 7, 1988, destroying the small mountainous city of Spitak.  In a matter of minutes, 25,000 people were killed, 15,000 injured, and 517,000 left homeless. It was one of the worst earthquakes of the century. Sarkis Acopian ’51 was granted permission by the Soviet government to fly his private aircraft and survey the damage — a privilege rarely granted to foreigners at the time. What he experienced firsthand changed both his view of the country and his commitment to protecting its rich biodiversity.

Acopian went beyond making a significant contribution to earthquake relief, spearheading the founding in 1992 of the Acopian Center for the Environment, a research center and educational department at the American University of Armenia. Acopian — who also donated the funding for Lafayette’s Acopian Engineering Center — partnered with son, Jeff Acopian ’75, and Jeff’s wife, Helen. The organization researches and advocates against deforestation, contamination of drinking water, air pollution, and other environmental threats in Armenia. It also educates citizens, particularly youth, about environmental awareness and conservation.

Inspired by Roger Tory Peterson’s original 1934 edition of A Field Guide to the Birds, A Field Guide to Birds of Armenia was the Acopian Center’s first major project. Published in 1997, the groundbreaking catalogue of the nation’s 346 species of birds was researched by an international team of ornithologists and assembled in Easton, Pa.

“We now have an archive of fax communication from the project over 20 inches thick,” says Jeff. “As interesting as the field guide is, my dad thought that a book that details all of the stories and experiences among the post-Soviet team in Armenia, the U.S. team in Pennsylvania, and the Armenian, Russian, British and Scottish field ornithologists would be an even more captivating tale.”

The Acopian Center’s second major project was the establishment of an academic program that required all of the American University’s students to take a course addressing environmental issues.

“That was pretty forward thinking back in ’92, because that’s just now starting to happen here,” says Jeff.

Sarkis also funded the Acopian Center for Ornithology at Muhlenberg College, whose inaugural director, Daniel Klem Jr., helped research and co-author A Field Guide toBirds of Armenia. In addition, he funded the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the world’s first refuge for birds of prey, in Orwigsburg, Pa, which the family continues to support.

Born in Iran to Christian Armenian parents, Sarkis learned about the College through G.I.’s stationed there during World War II. During his time in college, he was called to serve in the U.S. Air Force and then later in the U.S. Army. After being honorably discharged two times and finally returning to Lafayette, he earned a mechanical engineering degree.Upon graduating, he founded Acopian Technical Company, a manufacturer of electronic power supplies in Easton, and built it into one of the leading companies of its kind in the world.

Son Jeff applied for early admission to Lafayette, following his brother Greg ’70. Greg’s son, Ezra ’03, and Jeff’s nephew Alex Karapetian ’04 carried on the tradition, and all now work at Acopian Technical Co. Karapetian, a government and law graduate who serves on Lafayette’s Alumni Council, became interested and involved in the conservation projects in Armenia.

“I knew environmental conservation was my uncle’s great passion,” he says. “My involvement with the center began when I learned just how much deforestation and depletion of natural resources was actually taking place in Armenia. Many Armenian citizens lack the knowledge about how to ‘go green.’ After discussing these frustrations and challenges facing the center with my uncle, I felt compelled to help.”

In addition to overseeing the center’s web site, Karapetian has organized a fundraising and awareness-raising gala, Cheers to Conservation, to be held in July at the W Hotel at Union Square in Manhattan. He and Jeff will be on hand to speak, as will Keith Bildstein, Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at Hawk Mountain and adviser to the Acopian Center in Armenia.

“There are two things that people who are unfamiliar with Armenia are always surprised to hear,” says Jeff. “They are surprised to hear that Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as the state religion (in 301 A.D.) and they are surprised to hear that given its size, Armenia is the most biologically diverse country outside of the Tropics.”

“We welcome and encourage everyone to come and learn about the center and how serious an issue this is,” adds Karapetian. “Armenia is in danger of losing much, if not all, of its unique biological diversity. We want to reverse that trend, conserve what’s left, and help it flourish.”

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