Shirvan National Park
We visited the Shirvan National Park in November, met with the parks deputy director Seymur Karimov and spotted dozens of gazelles peacefully grazing. “The gazelle is a very emblematic animal for the people of Azerbaijan,” explains Seymur, “and with the constant presence of rangers in the park, poaching of the gazelle was almost eliminated.” The last time they caught poachers directly targeting the gazelle was in 2016. The poachers were caught by the rangers and had to pay a high fine. This seems to have had a strong signal and since then there were no more incidents. However, the villagers in the surrounding areas own lots of livestock, sheep, goats and cows, to sustain their livelihood. They graze within the parks vicinity, compete with the gazelles for food and degradate the pristine flora. Stopping the villagers from entering the park with livestock has now become an important part of the rangers daily activity. There are four ranger stations within the park where the rangers are on the look-out and also sleep. At the moment they patrol in their own clothing, but hopefully in the future they will receive uniforms. Training is done on the job.
With the help of a local guide, we speak to one of the rangers at the station. He explains the situation has improved tremendously. Before when they caught poachers and brought them to the police station, the officers would simply accept a bribe and release them and their weapons. The rangers felt helpless, so some “accidentally” slightly bent the poachers' weapons to make them unprecise. It took some time for the villagers to understand that the gazelles were protected, but now it is widely accepted.
As the gazelles population in the Shirvan national park grew, the idea arose to resettle a few dozen individuals to other regions of their once natural distribution range. With the governments approval and funds generated by the WWF, 150 gazelles were introduced to five new protected areas. We met with Azerchin Muradov, deputy director of the Ilisu nature reserve and responsible for the surveillance of the resettled gazelles in the north-west of the country. The re-introductions started in 2010 but already now positive results can be seen. Azerchin shows us pictures of gazelles grazing close the shepherds with large flocks. It's indirectly an indication that there's almost no poaching and that domesticated animals and wildlife can co-exist. Threats to the gazelles are now caused by natural predators, such as wolves. In the Shirvan NP an estimated 30 individuals live. We even spotted their tracks!
Goitered gazelles (Gazella sulgutturosa) were once common from Georgia and Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, China and all the way to Mongolia. Nowadays their populations are drastically decreasing in most of the countries of their natural distribution range. But there is an exception: Azerbaijan. At the beginning of the 20th century 50'000 goitered gazelles roamed the steppe and semi desert landscape of the Georgian and Azerbaijani lowland. But merciless poaching paid its toll and in 1960 only 150 individuals remained. Authorities finally responded to this drama, declared the hunting of the gazelles illegal and declared their last refuge as a nature reserve, nowadays the Shirvan National Park. These efforts bore the hoped for results. The population recovered and poaching was basically eliminated. Today 6000 goitered gazelles inhabit the park, even though these animals have gone through a severe genetic bottleneck.
The Quest to Save the Goitered Gazelle
Until now, the story of the goitered gazelle is a success story. But lately the gazelle and nature protection has encountered a different kind of threat. In 2014, the government changed the Law on Grants drastically hindering, albeit making it almost impossible for foreign grants to be allocated to NGO's in Azerbaijan. All foreign funded NGO's feel their plug has been pulled. Without foreign money to finance nature protection projects, the work done in this field is coming to a standstill. And the budget which Azerbaijan, the rich oil exporting country, dedicates to nature protection is less than that for cleaning the city of Baku. So how will nature still be protected if there is no more money to finance it?
At the office of the Ilisu nature reserve, Azerchin explains that a ranger earns 150 Manat, roughly 75 Euro. Not enough to sustain a family and a poor incentive for rangers to risk their health for wildlife. The temptation for rangers to support poachers or poach themselves is apparent. Others might not actually go on patrol but tend to their own subsistence garden. Hard allegations, but ones we heard several times from our interview partners. If Azerbaijan really wants to protect its nature, it is time for the government to invest money and start by increasing wages, investing in equipment, training and fighting against corruption.
Even though the goitered gazelles future seems secured for the moment, there are many other fabulous species in this country which need protection. For example, thousands of wild birds such as the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax) end up in nets and pots each year. Bears and wolves, protected by law but regarded as pests are still widely hunted. And who wouldn't want a trophy kill like an Eastern Caucasian Tur? It is time for the Azerbaijans rich elite to spread its oil money and support the preservation of its natural heritage. Lets hope for the best!
We especially thank Elshad Askerov, director of WWF Azerbaijan, Seymur Karimov, deputy director Shirvan National Park and Azerchin Muradov, deputy director Ilisu nature reserve for their time and deep insights into nature protection in Azerbaijan. We wish you all the best for the future and keep up the great work!
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