The country of Georgia is known as the heart of the Caucasus mountains, the highest mountain range of Europe. And as we cross the country, we indeed constantly see snow-capped mountains in at least one direction. But what makes Georgia so unique are not only the Greater and Lesser Caucasus, but the diversity across high- and lowlands. While the Black Sea coast is covered in humid subtropical rainforest, the southeast of the country on the border to Azerbaijan is so dry that much of it is covered by steppe. In this area lies the Chachuna Managed Reserve, a small but unique protected area. It covers the alluvial forests growing along the Iori river and steppe areas around it. Because the surroundings are covered in agricultural fields, pastures or steppe and hence free of trees, this alluvial river is an important migration corridor and nesting place for birds. The NGO SABUKO, an acronym for “Society for Nature Conservation” in Georgian, focuses its efforts on this special piece of land and has a holistic approach to protect its biodiversity.
Visiting Chachuna with SABUKO
We get the chance to accompany Nika, Giorgi, Zura and Diego on a field trip here to explore the reserve and learn more about their work here. We agree to meet them in a ranger station next to the river, where they stay during the field trip. We are surprised to learn that even though the ‘Azerbaijan shrub desert and steppe’, that Chachuna is part of, is easily accessible and an important winter pasture for livestock, the nearest town is 50km away and the road to the ranger station is not asphalted.
Winter pastures for thousands of sheep
We visit Chachuna in early December, just before thousands of sheep and other livestock arrive here from the mountains to graze during the winter. And this immediately demonstrates to us the most pressing issue for the steppe ecosystem: overgrazing. Even though we arrive before the sheep, there is already only little vegetation to graze on. These might be winter pastures, but most vegetation grows in spring after winter temperatures around 0°C and before a dry and hot summer. Giorgi, who focuses on pasture management, tells us that these steppes can supply 1 sheep per hectare, but densities often exceed 5 sheep per hectare. This has already led to ⅔ of pastures being degraded to some extent and is only getting worse. SABUKO and other organizations work to improve this situation with the farmers. They talk to the farmers, educate about ecological carrying capacities and work on a system of rotational grazing. They are also creating water holes across the pastures so that the shepherds don’t have to take their animals to the river for drinking.
This is crucial because the sheep damage the alluvial forest every time they enter. On one hand, they trample vegetation and compress the soft soil. On the other hand, they eat whatever they come across. To prevent this, the administration of the reserve and SABUKO erected a fence along the alluvial forest that keeps the livestock out.
Home to Imperial Eagles
The second part of SABUKO´s work in Chachuna is a project to monitor and grow the population of imperial eagles. Out of 17 pairs of imperial eagles that breed in Georgia, 10 breed in and around this alluvial forest. They are an endangered species on a global level and one of the flagship species for SABUKO, which is also the BirdLife partner organization in Georgia. They monitor the eagles’ nests and tag individuals with GPS loggers to record their migration routes.
For that, Nika, the ornithologist of the team, and Zura, the conservation officer, have to climb on high trees or electricity poles to reach the nests. Here, they examine juveniles, take blood samples of the birds to test them for diseases and pathogens as well as put the GPS loggers on them. Imperial eagles are an especially vulnerable species, because they are only sexually mature at the age of five and have small clutches. In fact, SABUKO has observed that many nests only have one offspring, a sign of malnutrition.
Imperial eagles are not the only raptors in this area, though. Wherever we cycle along trees, they are full of bird nests and raptors sit on top of them or circle over the open landscapes in search of prey. These plains are perfect hunting grounds for catching rodents, reptiles and, in case of the imperial eagles, even smaller raptors or young lambs. Vultures are also common here, feeding on carcasses of wildlife or livestock.
Important lifeline for wildlife
The last part of SABUKO’s work here is the monitoring of terrestrial wildlife with camera traps. Diego, the mammal specialist, and Zura tell us that they sighted several rare and surprising species here. While wild boar and red deer might seem boring for many, they are actually pretty rare in Georgia, but plentiful in Chachuna. Unfortunately, the wild boar population collapsed during the spread of the African swine fever in 2007, when hundreds of dead boars were scattered across the forest. The population was decimated from many hundred to a few dozen individuals, but it is slowly growing again.
We get to see how many different animals live in this forest on our second day, when the rangers of the station take us on an impromptu tour. They show us the oldest tree of the forest, a two-hundred year old poplar. While oaks are still young at 200 years, poplars grow very fast and normally don’t reach this age. This also explains that the tree is ca. 5m wide at the bottom and Hanna can easily fit inside the crack that a lightning created. Around the tree, we find signs of various species and the rangers tell us for how many animals this single tree provides habitat. We learn that porcupines are common when we find their spikes, but also find scat of the rare jungle cat, an elusive cat species that hides in thick vegetation.
There are plenty of predators in this region. Jackals are very common and noisy, wolves less easy to find and hear, lynx are only rarely captured on camera traps and only one Persian leopard has been recorded a few dozen kilometers from here in 2008. To capture the presence of these rare animals and estimate the density of more common species, SABUKO has installed around 50 camera traps along the river.
SABUKO puts Chachuna on the right path
When we arrived in Georgia in November, our minds were full of pictures of high mountains covered in snow. Before we first met SABUKO in Tbilisi, we didn’t even know Georgia has steppe areas and Chachuna would have definitely not been on our itinerary. But naturally we didn’t let the chance to accompany SABUKO on a field-trip pass by. The insights of Zura, Nika, Giorgi and Diego gave us a fascination and understanding of Chachuna and the challenges it faces. Being so present in the area, they know every corner of Chachuna like the palm of their hands. Combined with their passion for protecting its biodiversity and their efforts to involve locals and thus provide a sustainable future for everyone, we are confident that Chachuna’s biodiversity will be protected.