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.