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