By Elliot Newton (6min read)
I am about to do something I have never done before!… Write a blog about a trip I have just taken, this is not an effort to enter the realms of travel journalism but more of an attempt for me to internally process the past seven days, which saw me explore some of the most beautiful and varied national parks I have ever seen, meet some truly inspirational conservationists in a world where East meets West, in the country of Georgia. A place where we in the UK could perhaps learn a thing or two about the potential that our National Parks could unleash – and who knows it may even inspire you to embark on a trip yourself!
Like most journeys in Georgia, they start in the capital Tblisi, where I met my travelling companion Omar Saif, an old school friend who coincidentally did the same Conservation Science Masters as me at Imperial College, (though in a different year). Omar is soon to start his PhD at Edinburgh University researching the role of trust in conservation in Nepal!
Tblisi is a city with a fascinating history; its favourable geographic location in the heart of the Caucasus acts as the gateway between Europe and Asia, which has led to it having a rather unsettled past. It’s been occupied on more occasions than one would like from the Romans, Persians, Iranians and Russians, indeed Russia to this day occupies about 20% of Georgia.
When you enter the city you’re immediately struck by the diversity of buildings ranging from gleaming new glassy architectural constructions to medieval castles, though the main thing that drew my attention as I walked its shaded streets under their canopy of plane trees, was the ever-present sound of swifts.
Back home in London I thought we were having a good year, when it came to our acrobatic hirundines, though this was the first sign of one of my ‘shifting baselines’, walking around Kingston upon Thames I have seen about 50 or so swifts this year which I was pretty pleased about. However, Tblisi was on a whole other level, every time I look to the sky hundreds of these aerodynamic birds were performing their incredible manoeuvres with their tight G force inducing turns, I believe such spectacles were once common place across London’s skies but no more.
Our first point of call was to have breakfast with the amazing Tamara Pataridze who formally worked for the Georgian Agency of Protected Areas as the deputy head of the Agency and Forest Policy Service and now works for the NGO, ‘Caucasus Nature Fund’ as their consultancy programme manager. Our chair at Citizen Zoo, Pamela had previously introduced me to Tamara, who Pamela had met while lecturing on Cambridge Universities Conservation Leaders MSc programme. We instantly delved into captivating conversation, which touched on the array of challenges which Georgian conservation faces, with many reoccurring themes that are familiar throughout the sector irrespective of where you are; from funding difficulties, managing human-wildlife conflict to finding ways to address the disconnect with nature and the general population. What became instantly clear was the wealth of natural heritage that Georgia had to offer, and although we were only going to get a glimpse of this in our seven-day adventure, Tamara gave us some great suggestions and started to put us in contact with a number of conservationists who work in the areas which we planned to visit.
On leaving the swift filled skies of Tblisi we headed North East to our first park, Lagodekhi. Quite appropriately as our first stop, this was Georgia’s first protected area, declared in 1912 and covers an impressive 25,000 hectares with an altitude range from 400 to 3,500m which we were soon to discover the hard way! The area sits on the border with both Azerbaijan and Russia, and is home to a diverse array of habitats, starting with its beech and hornbeam dominated virgin forests, which transforms with altitude into the subalpine zone supporting a variety of maple species. The tree line reaches approximately 2,300m which roles into alpine meadows covered in wildflowers and at around 2,700m the seemingly lifeless rocky landscape takes hold.
As we drove up to Lagodekhi we were greeted by the parks director Giorgi, who kindly said we could sleep in their information centre while we planned our hike for the next day. This gave us a great opportunity to become more familiar with its wildlife, most notably the charismatic mammals including brown bears, wolvers, chamois and the endemic East Caucasian Tur. These mysterious and elusive large mountain dwelling animals are adorned with fantastic horns, and can be seen grazing at the higher altitudes as they migrate back and forth into the mountains of Azerbaijan, little did we know in a couple of days’ time we would be meeting one of the conservationists who is helping to pioneer their monitoring programme.
At daybreak, we began our 48km trek, recommended to take three days, though due to our rather limited time constraints we gave ourselves a day and a half to complete the journey. As we started this rather goliath trail, I found myself immersed in a world that I found strangely familiar though on a much grander scale than I had experienced before. We were serenaded by the call of chaffinch, blackbird, song thrush and wren all birds common to me, though their numbers were in much greater abundance than what I was formally used to and every time we stopped for water we could spot the delicate moving’s a tree creepers and hear the piercing cackle of the great spotted woodpecker. I found it rather strange to be in an environment which I somewhat recognised, though it just felt that the drum of life was beating so much louder, and this feeling was only amplified when remembering I was sharing a landscape with that of the wild boar, bear and wolf.
As we climbed these feelings continued, bursting through the tree line of silver birch, we were surrounded by the vibrant colours of wildflowers my poor botanical knowledge only allowed me to recognise a handful of species, and the same was true for the clouds of butterflies which wafted of the warm air. The shear abundance was phenomenal, orange tips, speckled woods, marbled whites and ringlets were just some the species which I could identify but many more floated past as I squinted through the gaze of the beating sun. As we stumbled up the ever-increasing slopes a layer of dragonflies hovered a meter or so above my head always in my peripheral vision.
On reaching the upper elevations we felt truly on the edge of the Eurasian Steppe, we walked on this plateau and continued to come across bodies of water, some of which teamed with frog life, only which I can imagine was a scarce of endemic amphibian species due to the remoteness of their chosen home.
Our decent the next day was both rapid and cumbersome, as with gravity on our side and our heavy packs we clumsily descended back through the virgin forest as we prepared for the next stop in our adventure; Bojormi National Park.
Borjomi lies in the mountainous heart of central Georgia in what is known as the lesser Caucasus’s. It is over 85,000 hectare in size which makes it the largest pristine forest in Europe! Again, it is abundant in wildlife, well known for its healthy brown bear population. Tamara had very kindly put us in touch with Levan Tabunidze the former director of the park, who now works as the Programme Director for the NGO NACRES, (Noahs Arc Centre for the Recovery of Endangered Species) which promotes the conservation and restoration of habitats across Georgia. We met Levan and his colleague Zviadi Khutsishvili for dinner as the sun began to set over the small town Borjomi nestled in middle of the park surrounded by forested mountains with the fast flowing Mtkvari River flowing through its centre.
This was another truly enthralling evening in which we learnt so much about the range of projects that were currently ongoing within the park, from trailing grazing regimes, volunteer led forest fire notification service, training the rangers to use the SMART mobile application to monitor their activities and what I found most interesting the programme directed towards Red Deer. Unlike in the UK, red deer are a rare sight. Understandably in harder times when the local community had little food to eat, they had to resort to the hunting of deer to survive, this resulted in a population crash which nearly saw their local extinction. However, after significant conservation efforts the populations are now recovering, it was interesting to see them talk with such passion about the deer, sightings of which seemed of much greater interest than that of brown bear which were commonplace. Zviadi, a man who looked like he was born to be in the mountains told us he had spent the previous winter in Lagodehki, where he had been tracking and attaching telemetry collars to the endemic Caucasian Tur. As this had never been done before, initially they were unable to use tranquiliser as they were unsure of the correct dosage which must have been a challenge! This project is now providing an essential insight into the lives of these mysterious mammals.
Levan went on to say that he had visited the Peak District National Park in the UK, and though he enjoyed his time there he was surprised that such a landscape had been designated a National Park, lacking the true wilderness that he had expected to experience. A notion that I imagine many visitors to our country hold when they visit any of our 15 national parks, with our primarily farming dominated surroundings. A point which I think as a country we should take very seriously.
As the evening ended, we got on to the topic of what inspired us to do what we do, and Zviadi told us his story. As a child, he had a chronic lung condition, with continuous visits to the doctor nothing seemed to be working, as a last resort Zviadi’s parents sent him to live with his uncle in the mountains. The fresh air and lifestyle apparently had a wondrous effect, which cured his respiratory illness and he could pursue a normal way of life. He now felt indebted to the natural world, and in his work, does what he can to conserve it, as a thank you. An amazing story which exemplifies the amazing impact nature can have to personal wellbeing, something we are only starting to grasp.
We woke again early the next morning to start our next foray into the wilderness, as we trekked, we were treated to views of endless forest alive with wood ant, red squirrel and pine marten as well as all sorts of bird life. Great Spotted and Black Woodpecker (a species unfamiliar to me) flew through the canopy as we gained height. A highlight was stumbling across a fresh bear dropping, which significantly raised alertness levels, despite this I felt compelled to open it to look inside. As I opened this moisty brown mass, I could see countless fine hairs indicating what it had been munching on over the past few days though the stench was rather overwhelming. As we slept out that evening the clouds came in though golden eagles soared through wooded valleys, their call adding to sense of wildness that surrounded us. Though the landscape was different from that of Lagodehki it again seemed somewhat familiar, though more abundant with life and energy with what I was accustomed to the UK.
On our way down the weather came in, as we marched through the clouds the silhouettes of birds flew around our heads, their calls strengthened by the misty air around us. The drizzle increased our appetite to head east again back to the southern Azerbaijan border to our next destination – the semi dessert environment of Vashlovani. This felt worlds away from what had already experienced in this remarkable country.
Vashlovani is rich in endemic, rare and vulnerable species, with 135 species of bird alone. In our short time, we saw hundreds of swallows making their nests among the cliffs, bright yellow golden oriole almost seemed as if they were in every tree, electric bee eaters lit up the sky and Eurasian black vultures circled high above. The area also supports 30 species of reptile and 46 species of mammal. The mammal story is an interesting one in Vashlovani, in the 60s, herds of Goitered Gazelles roamed the area however uncontrolled hunting led to their local extinction. Though all is not lost, recently reintroductions using Azerbajian populations have started to successfully bring back these animals. This will hopefully lead to increased sightings of leopard which have been occasionally spotted in recent years.