Lagodekhi National Park
The Lagodekhi protected areas in eastern Georgia was established in 1912, the first protected area in the Caucasus! It spans from a forested valley up to the high mountains and the remote areas of Daghestan, Russia. Not far to the East is Azerbaijan and the Zagatala State Reserve. A superb refuge for endemic and endangered animals such as the East Caucasian Tur (Capra cylindricornis) – a mountain goat similar to the Alpine Ibex. The males carry impressive horns, a prize trophy for hunters, and can weigh up to 80kg, lots of meat for the hungry villager. It is to no surprise that this species has been heavily hunted, especially in the 90's after the fall of the Soviet Union. Poverty, lack of law enforcement and corrupt officials exacerbated the problem and not even the national park was a safe heaven for these animals. Thea Shalvashvili, who has worked in the National Parks Administration for 15 years, has witnessed how park officials turned a blind eye or even poached Tur themselves. But seven years ago things started to change when the park received a new director, Giorgi Sulamanidze.
In the beginning, Giorgi was faced with numerous obstacles: a low budget, park rangers who he couldn't necessarily trust, a village that saw no benefit to their livelihoods from the national park, and hence widespread timber and wildlife poaching. "Difficult times in which I had to let many rangers go, who I had caught poaching red handed," Giorgi says. It was important to gain the villagers trust and make them understand the value of the national park, for conservation but also for their own livelihoods. Complex, since the rangers he was letting go, where men living in the village. His approach combined the development of ecotourism, controlled logging done by rangers and villagers together and selection of rangers who were willing and able to stop poachers. In village gatherings he showed the inhabitants, some of which poachers, alternate forms of income and stressed the importance of the national park.
A successful approach: seven years ago there were only two guesthouses in the village, now there are 21 and new restaurants and shops have opened. Each year approx. 60'000 tourists visit the park and most villagers understand that tourists come to see wildlife and pristine nature. Illegal logging has basically stopped as well. Villagers need wood to heat their houses in the winter, so a strict logging ban would only cause tensions. Instead each year a certain amount of timber is extracted from the buffer zone of the park. Rangers mark the trees which can be cut and monitor the logging. The villagers can then buy the wood, legally. And most importantly, Giorgi now has a reliable team who is ever more successfully combating poaching.
However, not everyone in the village has been on Giorgi's side. Three years ago Giorgi was driving his car when he heard an usual sound coming from the back. He turned around and saw a bomb placed on the back seat. Fortunately the bomb didn't explode and could be dismantled, but it was a clear warning. Authorities never found out who placed the bomb, or didn't want to find out. Working in nature protection can be dangerous in Georgia, a fact that Giorgi knows all too well. In 2012 Ranger Merab Arevadze was shot killed by poachers in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. The circumstances of his death were never really identified.
The Caucasus are the wildest mountains in Europe, not always easily accessible and home to many wild animals. Wolves, Brown Bears, Chamois, Red Deer and East Caucasian Turs roam the hills and forests of these mountains. Several protected areas are scattered across the landscape, serving as a refuge for wildlife and a place for ecotourism to develop. Unfortunately, poaching is still widely occurring and threatening the long-term survival of this magnificent wildlife. We traveled to the Lagodekhi National Park where we met with rangers, park staff and the park director. Their stories are both bloodcurdling and inspirational as danger and success intertwine in this fight to save a part of Georgia's wildlife.
The Fight against Poaching in Europe's last Wild Mountain Range - the Caucasus
So what about the rangers in Lagodekhi? We meet Gorgi Lasadze, at 68 the oldest ranger in Lagodekhi who looks back at 23 years of work experience. He wears a robust jacket with ranger written in Georgian and matching trousers. When on patrol he is equipped with a radio, gun and is on horseback. Foreign grants, the WWF and the Caucasian Nature Fund (CNF) enabled the purchase of equipment for the rangers and camera traps for monitoring. Some of these camera traps are well hidden along the trails and automatically send a MMS photograph. Poachers are caught on camera and rangers can respond directly. Gorgi remembers being called to duty one afternoon after two men with guns where caught on camera. Together with three other rangers he headed off to catch the poachers. But what the camera didn't photograph, were the four men who had entered the park a couple of hours earlier. The rangers successfully captured the two first men, but were surprised to see four more men higher up in the hills. They decided to split and go after them. But what the rangers didn't anticipate was the men's superior position on the mountain slopes and willingness to use force. Suddenly the rangers felt rocks tumbling down the hills all around them. When one large rock hit a rangers head, they realized the situation was getting too dangerous and out of their control. The only possibility was to retreat. This time the four poachers got away. But over the last years many poachers have been caught. It's a clear sign that the rangers' work is successful.
The Lagodekhi National Park is truly a wonderful place and exemplary for good park management, efficient law enforcement and successful community involvement. Our visit to the Lagodekhi National Park was truly inspiring. We were lucky to meet with Giorgi Sulamanidze, Director, Thea Shalvashvili, Administration, Sandro Loladze, Tourism, and Gorgi Lasadze, Ranger. All very dedicated individuals and we are grateful that they shared their stories with us. Thank you very much and best of luck for the future!
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