Conservation Pieces...

If I may, I would like to make a start on what (again) I hope will be a regular feature; as you will know from my "About Me" page, as well as being a photographer, I am a biodiversity conservationist and one of the objectives of this website is to merge my photographic endeavours with my professional life. So, indulge me if you would, while I take some time to tell you a little about some of the conservation work I have been involved with. 

Addressing Human-Wildlife Conflict in a Protected Area

Vashlovani is a semi-arid area in the South-east corner of Georgia, separated from neighbouring Azerbaijan by the fast and wide Alazani river. The area was designated as a protected area, while Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union, primarily for the impressive open-woodland of juniper and pistachio.

  The squat and widely-spaced pistachio trees of Vashlovani that give the area its name; Vashlovani means Apple Orchard which is what these woodlands appear to be from a distance. The fruits are inedible for humans but provide a seasonal feast for resident bears and boars

The squat and widely-spaced pistachio trees of Vashlovani that give the area its name; Vashlovani means Apple Orchard which is what these woodlands appear to be from a distance. The fruits are inedible for humans but provide a seasonal feast for resident bears and boars

To the north of the relatively flat arid-zone are the looming peaks and ridges of the Greater Caucasus; the homeland of the Tush, key protagonists of this story (more about them later). The landscape of the PA is varied and highly seasonal but is typified by vast open pastures and compact steep-sided gorges and sharp ridges.

  The rolling hills of Vashlovani overshadowed by the beautiful mountains of the Great Caucasus to the north

The rolling hills of Vashlovani overshadowed by the beautiful mountains of the Great Caucasus to the north

  Dominating the landscape in the centre of the PA are the "Alesilebi"; a complex network of steep-sided gorges topped by sharp ridges of sandstone "pseudokarst"; these gorges provide excellent cover for elusive creatures such as wolves and bears as well as excellent nesting sites for various species of vulture

Dominating the landscape in the centre of the PA are the "Alesilebi"; a complex network of steep-sided gorges topped by sharp ridges of sandstone "pseudokarst"; these gorges provide excellent cover for elusive creatures such as wolves and bears as well as excellent nesting sites for various species of vulture

As I have alluded to, the PA is home to an impressive and diverse array of wildlife that includes brown bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus), jackal (Canis aureus), wild cat (Felis sylvestris) and lynx (Lynx lynx). Generally they all live in relatively low numbers as the semi-arid landscape isn't vastly productive but they are, nonetheless, present in healthy populations. 

  One of the resident predators of the PA; the wolves of Vashlovani are relatively small due, in part, to the low-resource nature of the area. This is also reflected in pack size with the typical group consisting of only a breeding pair and the young of the year

One of the resident predators of the PA; the wolves of Vashlovani are relatively small due, in part, to the low-resource nature of the area. This is also reflected in pack size with the typical group consisting of only a breeding pair and the young of the year

Sharing the landscape with these carnivores (at least for about 6 months of the year) are a fairly large number of sheep.

  The flocks that descend on Vashlovani each winter are typically quite small, usually numbering only 100 or so, but there are many flocks and the total number of sheep in the PA each winter can number up to 40,000

The flocks that descend on Vashlovani each winter are typically quite small, usually numbering only 100 or so, but there are many flocks and the total number of sheep in the PA each winter can number up to 40,000

The sheep belong to a community of traditional sheep-breeders, the Tush, who come from the high-altitude pastures of the Great Caucasus.  They are a transhumant community, moving from their mountain homes at the end of each summer to make the long trek to the their winter pastures in Vashlovani. even though this way of life has been maintained for centuries by the Tush, a century of Soviet collectivisation in the 1900s, coupled with more recent pressures to modernise, their transhumant way of life is dwindling.

  A lone Tush shepherd moves his flock across the Vashlovani pastures; he will spend all day with the sheep on the plains with only them and his dogs for company

A lone Tush shepherd moves his flock across the Vashlovani pastures; he will spend all day with the sheep on the plains with only them and his dogs for company

As one may imagine, the mix of hungry carnivores and ruminating sheep is not necessarily a happy one and there can be problems arising between the sheep farmers and the resident wildlife. In particular, the wolves of the area can become dependent on the seasonal influx of sheep as much of their natural prey, specifically gazelle and boar have become increasingly scarce over the past decades. The gazelle was hunted to extinction, in Georgia, in the mid-20th century, while wild boar numbers have suffered from both hunting and disease.

Of course, the Tush sheep farmers have ways of protecting their flocks and primary amongst these are the Livestock Guarding Dogs, specially bred for endurance and size. 

  The formidable form of a Caucasian sheepdog (Caucasi Nagazi) bred to be strong enough to fend off wolves and fit enough to endure the long transhumance between pastures

The formidable form of a Caucasian sheepdog (Caucasi Nagazi) bred to be strong enough to fend off wolves and fit enough to endure the long transhumance between pastures

On the whole, the dogs do a good job of keeping the wolves away from the sheep but, over the past decades, some of the skills for raising good dogs has been lost and wolves still take sheep. The more this happens, the less tolerant the sheep farmers become and their response to the wolves can be a little extreme.

  A radio-collared wolf; most-likely killed by an errant pack of livestock guarding dogs

A radio-collared wolf; most-likely killed by an errant pack of livestock guarding dogs

For conservationists, this comes to a head when wolves get killed; either at the hand of the farmers themselves or by over-zealous and ill-disciplined dogs. During my time running the Caucasus programme for Fauna & Flora International one of our key projects had us working with the Tush farmers to improve protection measures and increase tolerance towards wolves. Beginning with a comprehensive survey of the community and the landscape, to determine the nature of the wildlife conflict, we designed several intitiatives and worked actively with the Tush to implement, monitor and improve mitigation methods.  

  Interviewing Tush sheep farmers, the project team get to grips with human-wildlife conflict in Vashlovani

Interviewing Tush sheep farmers, the project team get to grips with human-wildlife conflict in Vashlovani

  So that we can get both sides of the story, we also fitted several of the resident wolves with radio-colloars, allowing us to follow their movements and determine just how dependent on the winter sheep flocks they had become

So that we can get both sides of the story, we also fitted several of the resident wolves with radio-colloars, allowing us to follow their movements and determine just how dependent on the winter sheep flocks they had become

  Here the team check a recently installed electric fence; one of the initiatives we trialled to improve livestock protection in the area

Here the team check a recently installed electric fence; one of the initiatives we trialled to improve livestock protection in the area

The project has run for several years and regular monitoring has suggested that the measures we have implemented have helped keep the number of sheep lost to wolves down. In combination with targeted communication initiatives, this has led to an increase in tolerance within the Tush community for wolves.

The longer-term view sees the natural prey populations restored and, to this end, several agencies in the area, including FFI, WWF and the government's Agency for Protected Areas are attempting to restore the goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) to the Vashlovani pastures.

  The goitered gazelle is returning to the Vashlovani protected areas thanks to the work of agencies such as FFI, WWF and NACRES

The goitered gazelle is returning to the Vashlovani protected areas thanks to the work of agencies such as FFI, WWF and NACRES

Once common in the area, this diminutive gazelle was driven to local extinction by unregulated hunting on the 1950's. Once they are reintroduced, and their numbers stabilised, the wolf can return to hunting them and further reduce pressure on sheep farmers. The success of such projects is vital if this incredible ecosystem is to survive, intact and so we look to the future in the hope of seeing the wolf running through the landscape in pursuit of its quarry.