Vashlovani Protected Areas, Georgia
Vashlovani Protected Areas are situated in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia, at the further reaches of the Alazani River, and border Azerbaijan. Vashlovani is a Georgian word that means ‘Apple Orchard Valley’. Although there are few apples, the name is derived from the unique pistachio-dominated savannah landscape – from the sandstone escarpments the view of scattered, rounded pistachio tree crowns gives the impression of an apple garden.
The breathtaking expanse of rolling savannah, river plains, and the Greater Caucasus Mountains looming on the horizon provides a unique clash of colour and habitat. There is a visible transition from the arid areas as they blend with the lusher wetland and deciduous forest areas of the Alazani and Iora River basins. Steppes transform into shrubbery, deserts turn into light forests, and the Alazani riparian flats give way to steep ravines and gorges. This transition provides Vashlovani with a rich variety of fauna and flora and the most varied biodiversity in Georgia.
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Size and Location
The Vashlovani Protected Areas is a networked complex of six connected areas, and managed under several category designations. Although there is a history of human habitation in the region dating back thousands of years, the first area to be formally designated was the 10,142 hectare Vashlovani Strict Nature Reserve (which is IUCN Category I), in 1935.
In 2003, four new areas were added, firstly Vashlovani National Park (IUCN Category II), contiguous with Vashlovani Nature Reserve; and then four Natural Monuments (IUCN Category IV);
- Alazani Floodplain Forest Reserve
- Artsivis Kheoba (Eagle’s Canyon) Natural Monument
- Takhti-Tefa Natural Monument
- Khornabuji Fortress Natural Monument
The total area of the Vashlovani Protected Areas is 35,562 hectares.
Flora and Fauna
The links between culture, history and conservation go back centuries in Vashlovani. Conservation policies have been recorded dating back nearly 1,000 years. During the reign of Queen Tamar, in the 12th Century, the inhabitants of the town and fortress of Khornabuji requested funds and permission to re-route the local stream to secure the water resources of the castle. Perched on top of a steep karst outcrop, the fortress’ only weakness was its lack of water provisioning. Queen Tamar, in a letter to the castle lord, gave a grant and permission, but with the caveat that enough water should remain to support the local wildlife. Unfortunately, a lack of water in the fortress allowed Shah Abbas of Persia to ransack the castle and the surrounding area in 1614.
The worn and tree-laden castle ruins and battlements still adorn the mountain landscape, but now offer the visitor a chance to quietly and closely observe roosting raptors, especially the nests and rookeries of the Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus), globally threatened Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and rare Imperial Eagles (Aquila heliaca).
In the main area of Vashlovani, the most characteristic plant is a species of wild pistachio tree (Pistacia atlantica mutica) known locally as “sagsagaj”. The trees grow at natural intervals of 15-20 metres, and often encompass juniper trees in a unique relationship – the pistachio leaves can shield the juniper during the hot summer months, while in winter, the juniper helps stabilise the soil and provide protection from high winds. The sagsagaj is also a source of nuts, fuel and a scented sap, called Sakhmevelli, that is prized for use in Georgian church ceremonies.
There are 46 species of mammals in Vashlovani, including charismatic fauna such as the Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos), Wolf (Canis lupis), Jackal (Canis aureus), European Lynx (Lynx lynx), and Porcupines (Hystrix indicus). Hares (Lepus europaeus) and Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) make up the diet of the larger predators, although farmers nearby suffer regular losses of sheep and smaller livestock.
Vashlovani is recorded as the last remaining habitat for the Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena) – which has been extirpated elsewhere in Georgia. Efforts to camera trap individuals provided a real surprise in April 2004 – not a Hyena, but a young male Leopard (Panthera pardus). This was the first leopard recorded in Georgia in 50 years!
As recently as the 1960s, Goitered Gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) widely roamed the plains, grasslands and steppes of Vashlovani. However, due to hunting pressure and intensive livestock grazing outside the protected areas, the species has disappeared. A recovery program is underway, and according to Amiran Kodiashvili, a local naturalist and leader of the Friends Association of Vashlovani Protected Areas (FAVPA), the opportunities for re-introduction are very good. He is leading efforts to reintroduce this species in 2013.
He is also a leading ornithologist and operates a breeding centre for endangered Kholkani Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus colchicus), a sub-species of Common Pheasant that is nearly extinct int the region. True Kholkani pheasants do not have a neck ring like their global counterparts and are highly restricted in range. Amiran hopes to repopulate Vashlovani and other parts of Georgia, as well as provide income for local business in husbandry of the pheasants to reduce hunting pressure.
Vashlovani is one of the key sites prioritised in the Caucasus Ecoregional Conservation Plan, developed by regional experts and adopted by Government and conservation groups alike: https://www.iucn.org/about/union/secretariat/offices/europe/resources/publications/?uNewsID=10460 . The Georgian Protected Area Agency has designated many new protected areas in line with this plan, and is consolidating park governance and promoting best practices throughout the country to ensure that management can be improved and achieve global standards of effectiveness. Georgia has made significant progress, but there are still many challenges.
Vashlovani is a fragile, diverse landscape and is susceptible to a range of climate influences than can cause drought, fire, floods and have an impact on species distribution and survival. Fire is a key hazard that can potentially devastate the Protected Areas. The Areas are also completely surrounded by intense land-use for agriculture, pasture and for industry, in particular extractive industries focused on limestone for construction. Hunting and poaching continue to be a threat, although the parks are patrolled and managed for a range of issues, and local groups such as FAVPA provide a useful connection to the community and provide their own support to the Protected Areas.
Developing tourism is a priority, and the Georgian Parks Agency, the Protected Areas management authority and FAVPA have all invested in the required promotion, infrastructure and preparations. FAVPA are hoping to further develop tourism products and ensure that resources for training and maintenance are provided to the Park to minimise the impacts of increased visitor numbers, while maximising the visitor experience and opportunities for local businesses to tap into the tourism market.
Vashlovani is an inspiring place, and it is hoped that the support continued efforts of local, national and international supporters such as Amrian and FAVPA, the Georgian PA Agency, the Caucasus Nature Fund, and IUCN will ensure it continues to thrive and can protect the region’s incredible biodiversity.