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Rare sturgeon and complex Caucasus

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It’s Thursday at noon. An ice-cold, strong wind blows into my face. Behind me there are three mod­ern apart­ment build­ings tower­ing up in the sky. The facades are made of black glass. A woman in a fur coat and her 10-year-old son hurry from the build­ing to a taxi.

A little fur­ther on there is a small yel­low house sur­roun­ded by trees. That’s where we want to go. WWF Cau­cas­us, work­ing in three coun­tries of the Soth­ern Cau­cas­us – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Geor­gia, has its office here. We have an appoint­ment with the WWF Cau­cas­us Con­ser­va­tion Officer , Maka Bit­sadze. As we enter through the door, we see indi­vidu­al offices. A young woman approaches us and asks us how she can help us. I tell her our con­cern. Only a few minutes later the woman arrives, Maka Bit­sadze. She has combed back her blond hair and tied it togeth­er in a bun. The golden ear­rings match the rings and the neck­lace with a small cross. The fin­ger­nails are dec­or­ated in a sil­ver tone. We fol­low her past a large anim­ated aquar­i­um into a small con­fer­ence room. We are served black tea and two small cakes.

Now the inter­view can begin. Mobile phone with dic­ta­tion func­tion and note­book are ready. Maka is also pre­pared and imme­di­ately opens a well-designed book­let with the first ques­tion. The pro­tec­ted areas of Geor­gia can be seen.

She explains that there are 88 pro­tec­ted areas in Geor­gia, which togeth­er cov­er around 8.5% of the total area of the coun­try. Out of these pro­tec­ted areas there are 11 nation­al parks. Accord­ing to IUCN, the Inter­na­tion­al Uni­on for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature, there are dif­fer­ent cat­egor­ies of pro­tec­ted areas from very strictly pro­tec­ted (no human being is allowed to enter) to a pro­tec­ted land­scape where people can live and farm.

6 Cat­egor­ies of pro­tec­ted areas, ©IUCN

Maka adds joy­fully that “a few days ago our new pres­id­ent (Salome Zur­abishvili) signed a new law on the expan­sion of Kazbegi Nation­al Park”. Thus soon about 9% of the Geor­gi­an area will be protected.

The hot spot
The unique­ness of these pro­tec­ted areas is that they offer a cross-sec­tion of the diverse Geor­gi­an nature. Geor­gia is, so Maka tells us, „a rel­at­ively small coun­try, but has a high diversity of eco­sys­tems“. From a wet­land at the Black Sea, a semi-desert to moun­tain forests and high plat­eaus, everything is here. Geor­gia is also loc­ated in the Caucasi­an Biod­iversity Hot­spot. This means that there are many anim­al and plant spe­cies that can only be found here and nowhere else in the world! They are so called endem­ic spe­cies.

Bor­jomi Nation­al Park

Kolkheti Nation­al Park, ©Nation­al Parks of Georgia

Vashlovani Nation­al Park, ©WWF & Vajiko Kochiashvili

Lagodekhi Strict Nature Reserve, ©Agency of Pro­tec­ted Areas

Kolkheti Nation­al Park, ©Agency of Pro­tec­ted Areas

Endem­ic spe­cies Mer­ten­si­ella caucasica, ©Dav­id Tarkhnishvili


Des­ig­nate — Improve — Involve
The main pro­tec­ted areas related activ­it­ies of WWF in the region are to pro­mote, facil­it­ate  and sup­port the gov­ern­ment to des­ig­nate new pro­tec­ted areas, to improve their man­age­ment and to involve the loc­al pop­u­la­tion. Maka is cur­rently work­ing on the des­ig­na­tion of a new pro­tec­ted area on the Rioni River, which ori­gin­ates in the Cau­cas­us moun­tains and flows into the Black Sea. Here is the last spawn­ing ground of the stur­geon in Geor­gia and the East­ern Black Sea region.

Beluga (Huso-huso), ©A. Hartl


Rioni River of glob­al import­ance for stur­geon con­ser­va­tion
Stur­geons are so-called liv­ing fossils and at least as old as dino­saurs. They can live over 100 years and weigh over 1000kg. There are still 27 spe­cies in the world, 23 of which are already close to extinc­tion or severely endangered. That is the worst status of all groups of anim­al spe­cies on earth! Since the Rioni River is the only river on the Black Sea next to the Danube where one of the stur­geon spe­cies, the Huso Huso spawns nat­ur­ally, it is of course par­tic­u­larly import­ant. Maka emphas­izes: “The Rioni River is not only of nation­al or region­al import­ance, it is of glob­al import­ance for the pro­tec­tion of sturgeons.“

Rioni River, ©M.Bitsadze

Threatened by over­fish­ing and infra­struc­ture
But why are these fas­cin­at­ing fish threatened at all? There are two main reas­ons for that:

1) The con­struc­tion of infra­struc­ture i.a. of hydro­power plants at the rivers. Due to the dams the fish can’t swim up to their spawn­ing grounds any­more and there­fore can’t reproduce.

2) Over­fish­ing, among oth­ers also for the sale of the lux­ury product cavi­ar (a.k.a. stur­geon spawn)

The great wall
100km away from the estu­ary of the Rioni River into the Black Sea there is a more than 40 years old hydro­power plant. This pre­vents the stur­geon from migrat­ing fur­ther upstream. This is also a prob­lem at the Danube. You can watch a video (only in Ger­man) with Erika Dorn from the Nation­al Park Donauauen in Aus­tria here.

Vart­sikhe Dam, ©A. Guchmanidze

Poach­ing is a big top­ic“
Stur­geons are threatened world­wide, and there­fore are pro­tec­ted under nation­al and inter­na­tion­al laws and agree­ments. This includes an abso­lute ban on fish­ing. Unfor­tu­nately, some fish­er­men do not adhere to it and mutate into illeg­al poach­ers. With a sin­cere tone Maka out­lines that „poach­ing is a big top­ic“, espe­cially as the fish­ing ban is not prop­erly implemented.

Juven­ile belu­gas (Huso huso) at a road­side mar­ket north of Batumi, Geor­gia 2015 ©J. Freyhof

So a pro­tec­tion status on paper, as men­tioned before, does­n’t mean that the stur­geons are really pro­tec­ted. And even in a pro­tec­ted area, pro­tec­tion is still not guar­an­teed, which is why WWF, togeth­er with FFI, is put­ting loc­al care­takers in place as soon as the new pro­tec­ted area is avail­able. Let’s hope that the stur­geon will in future have a well pro­tec­ted spawn­ing area and have many happy and healthy children!

Train­ing for field inspect­ors on law enforce­ment and stur­geon iden­ti­fic­a­tion orgin­ized by WWF Cau­cas­us, ©WWF Georgia

New Meth­od­o­logy tested on the Rioni River
Maka was happy to share a story of a field tri­al on the Rioni River. WWF Cau­cas­us, in close cooper­a­tion with invited experts from the USA and Canada, tested a new integ­rated meth­od­o­logy of acous­tic tele­metry and high-resolution side-scan son­ar for fur­ther mon­it­or­ing of stur­geon abund­ance in the Rioni River and its adja­cent mar­ine area. You can watch a video about this pilot-sur­vey here.

Work­ing with Stur­geon Expert Mr. Archil-Guch­man­idze, ©WWWF Georgia

6 coun­tries – many work­shops
A second import­ant task with which Maka is entrus­ted with is the revi­sion of the Eco-region Con­ser­va­tion Plan for the Cau­cas­us from 2012. This plan aims to bundle efforts for the Cau­cas­us Biod­iversity Hot­spot. On the web­site of the WWF the first pre­par­a­tion of the region­al plan is based on the fol­low­ing insights: “The Cau­cas­us’ rich biod­iversity is being lost at an alarm­ing rate due to unsus­tain­able log­ging, over­graz­ing, and poach­ing, infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment, and pol­lu­tion. Long-term Eco­re­gion-based con­ser­va­tion strategies are required to halt the destruc­tion and guar­an­tee pro­tec­tion of this glob­ally import­ant centre of biod­iversity. The Eco­re­gion­al Con­ser­va­tion Plan (ECP) responds to that need.”

It’s kind of art“
How­ever, the revi­sion is not so easy because six coun­tries are involved in this pro­ject. Sev­er­al work­shops and meet­ings, both nation­al and region­al , have taken place. Around 150 experts from vari­ous sci­entif­ic and non-gov­ern­ment­al organ­isa­tions and Gov­ern­ments from Geor­gia, Tur­key, Azerbaijan, Iran, Armenia and Rus­sia are involved — in oth­er words, a pretty chal­len­ging  frame­work. Maka explains that work­ing in such a diverse envir­on­ment, also on the per­son­al level, is quite chal­len­ging. She says „it’s kind of art“ and a lot of dip­lomacy. One has to be care­ful not to put the whole pro­gress and longterm part­ner­ships under risk.

Cau­cas­us Eco­re­gion Map, ©WWF Georgia

Maka knows what she is talk­ing about, because she has already worked for 6 years in the Geor­gi­an Min­istry of Envir­on­ment. After that she needed a change of scene: “Six years are too long to work for the gov­ern­ment”. She laughs heart­ily. Defend­ing the pos­i­tion as a gov­ern­ment rep­res­ent­at­ive is noth­ing for such a long time.

I love what I do”
Now she is already 12 years with WWF Cau­cas­us: „I love what I do because I really under­stand the value of nature and know how import­ant it is for our future”. This is how she keeps her pas­sion for nature con­ser­va­tion. And right now her pas­sion flows mainly into the Cau­cas­us projects.

Region­al Work­shop organ­ized in Tbil­isi, Geor­gia, in Decem­ber 2018 with around 100 par­ti­cipants from gov­ern­ments, sci­entif­ic insti­tu­tions and non-gov­ern­ment­al organ­iz­a­tions, ©WWF Georgia

Geo­graph­ic­ally there are some dif­fer­ences, too. The Cau­cas­us Biod­iversity Hot­spot fully cov­ers Armenia, Azerbaijan and Geor­gia and only small por­tions of  Tur­key, Iran and Rus­sia. Maka high­lights that it is chal­len­ging to get the Gov­ern­ments on board, but when the area „is import­ant for biod­iversity and the con­ser­va­tion value is high […] you can’t ignore this.“ To make this doc­u­ment a man­dat­ory for all states, that’s a horse of anoth­er col­our — it is quite dif­fi­cult to push and not feas­ible,  explains Maka. In this point, Maka misses a char­ac­ter­ist­ic of her former gov­ern­ment­al job: the power to take a decision. Now she needs more lob­by­ing, advocacy, com­mu­nic­a­tion and creativity.

Fund­ing is really chal­len­ging“
Maka notes that fund­ing is chal­len­ging. The Cau­cas­us Eco­re­gion­al Con­ser­va­tion Plan includes a wide vari­ety of con­ser­va­tion actions and it is import­ant “to trans­late these inform­a­tion into an under­stand­able lan­guage for donors.“ She also gives two examples of good trans­bound­ary cooper­a­tion  between (i) Armenia and Geor­gia in Arpi and Javakheti pro­tec­ted areas with focus on mon­it­or­ing of bird spe­cies and (ii) Azerbaijan-Geor­gia in Zakatala and Lagode­jhi pro­tec­ted areas with focus on mon­it­or­ing of Red Deer (Cer­vus elaphus) and the East Caucasi­an Tur (Capra Cyc­lindri­c­ornis). This anim­al is an IUCN near threatened spe­cies with max­im­um 38,000 mature anim­als left — with a decreas­ing tend­ency. Link to IUCN Red List. So now the revised Eco­re­gion­al  Con­ser­va­tion Plan for the Cau­cas­us could serve as “a guid­ance for donors […] for invest­ment and fund­ing” for nature con­ser­va­tion in the Cau­cas­us Biod­iversity Hotspot.

Capra cyl­indri­c­ornis in Lagodekhi Pro­tec­ted Area, ©Giorgi Sulamanidze

Tra­di­tion­al use of the land
Loc­al people are involved in estab­lish­ing new pro­tec­ted areas e.g. dur­ing the plan­ning pro­cess and draft­ing a man­age­ment plan. Maka states that this is a very import­ant com­pon­ent as „you come across their interests“ and they are poten­tial users of nat­ur­al resources and they depend on these resources to some extent. The loc­al people have to be edu­cated that the „cre­ation of a new pro­tec­ted area does not mean that you for­bid use of all nat­ur­al resources“. For instance, a nation­al park has a zone of tra­di­tion­al use
and loc­al people can use nat­ur­al resources from this area in a sus­tain­able way e.g. via fish­ing, prac­tising agri­cul­ture or forestry.  

Planned pro­tec­ted areas
For all who are trav­el­ling to Geor­gia and ask­ing them­selves why there are huge areas marked on online maps as „planned nation­al parks“, Maka also explains that there are plans as well as ongo­ing pro­jects on estab­lish­ing new pro­tec­ted areas. The Nation­al Parks in Racha and Erush­eti regions can be inaug­ur­ated in about half a year and a feas­ib­il­ity-study for estab­lish­ing the Samegrelo Nation­al Park is fin­ished and hope­fully its cre­ation will start soon; also, there are plans for estab­lish­ing a new   pro­tec­ted area in Svaneti  (which we def­in­itely sup­port, as we saw the amaz­ing nature there).

Nenskra River close to the vil­lage Chuberi, Svaneti Area

No capa­cit­ies – no lim­its
As each pro­tec­ted area has a man­age­ment plan I wanted to know if there are also lim­its for the num­ber of tour­ists. Maka ascer­tains that „the num­ber of tour­ists is increas­ing in Geor­gia“. WWF is sup­port­ing the gov­ern­ment and the Agency of Pro­tec­ted Aras to estab­lish tour­ism man­age­ment plans. Just some weeks ago they even had a dis­cus­sion at the envir­on­ment­al min­istry point­ing out that these man­age­ment plans don’t have inform­a­tion about capa­cit­ies of the par­tic­u­lar pro­tec­ted areas. The tour­ism man­age­ment plans were more focused on brand­ing, says Maka. How­ever, „they are plan­ning to apply this as well“.

We are mes­mer­ized by Maka‘s stor­ies and until now didn’t even think of tast­ing the small cakes offered in the begin­ning of the inter­view. We are tak­ing a last pic­ture of all three of us in front of the small yel­low build­ing. With this great out­look Maka says good­bye to us. The wind got stronger in the mean­while and is haul­ing out­side. We are not anti­cip­at­ing the walk back along the huge build­ings with the three huge anonym­ous glass walls. How­ever, the know­ledge that there are people in this world fight­ing for the last stur­geons, a well-man­aged Biod­iversity Hot­spot lets the yel­low build­ing shine beside the pom­pous black tri­logy of eco­nom­ic growth. 

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