The article was originally posted on Georgia Today.
Considering the importance of preserving and protecting natural resources, the role and contribution of organizations that work tirelessly in this direction becomes even more valuable.
One such organization operating locally, known for its dedicated work promoting conservation of wildlife in Georgia and encouraging the sustainable use of natural resources, is SABUKO, the Society for Nature Conservation and Birdlife Partner in Georgia. SABUKO aims to protect wild birds and their habitats, and to raise awareness about the value of nature and the importance of protecting it.
To prevent the conflict between humans and nature, SABUKO has chosen a way of cooperation and works with local communities, finding the best results come through direct contact and joint efforts.
One of the most distinguished and important projects being implemented by SABUKO is ‘Restoring Gallery Forest and Grasslands in the Iori River Valley.’
The Iori River, and the gallery forest which stretches along the valley, are integral parts of south-east Georgia’s steppe ecosystem. The gallery forest which runs along the Iori riverbed acts as a wildlife corridor, providing breeding sites and core habitat for many species. Yet, the steppe areas have been subjected to over-stocking with livestock, causing overgrazing, erosion, and competition with native herbivores. Despite this degradation, the landscape is relatively intact, and connectivity to other areas in the Caucasus biodiversity hotspot offers an opportunity for restoration.
The landscape restoration project launched by SABUKO aims to revitalize this steppe-riverine ecosystem while enabling local pastoralists to manage land sustainably in the long-term.
The project has been implemented since January 1, 2019 with the support of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in cooperation with SABUKO, Birdlife International and Protected Areas under the Endangered Landscapes Program.
There is also the biodiversity of Chachuna Managed Reserve, which has faced a severe problem of degradation due to unregulated grazing. Despite this degradation, the landscape is relatively intact, and there is an opportunity for restoration, which is currently being used by SABUKO and its partner organizations.
The project aims to promote and conserve the restoration of forests and surrounding areas of the Iori River floodplain through the introduction of rotational grazing, improving the living standards of the locals. Importantly, SABUKO aims to achieve all this through working in partnership with local shepherds.
The organization not only gives them recommendations on how to preserve natural resources on the spot, but also helps them in various directions, shares knowledge and experience with locals and does its best to improve their living conditions. In particular, the following activities were carried out on the ground:
Study of the Iori Floodplains
SABUKO, in collaboration with Ilia State University, assessed the condition and health of the Iori River floodplain forest.
The aim of the study was to describe and assess the condition of the Iori River floodplain forests, to determine their natural boundaries, to compare them with the present boundaries, and to determine the reasons for the changes. Also, to find out whether the Dali Reservoir specifically reduced the area of floodplain forests in the Chachuna Reserve, whether it had an impact on the changes in the floristic composition on the ground, etc.
In addition, a hydrological report of the Iori River and flood modeling was developed. The forest assessment concludes that the upper and lower part of the reservoir differ from each other in floristic composition: the lower part of the reservoir are less characterized by floodplain forest species than the upper part due to the reservoir and hydrological regime. A written and oral agreement with the relevant authorities on the periodic release of the Dali Reservoir has already been reached. In addition, the recommendations made in the report are reflected in the EU Water Initiative Plus under the Alazani-Iori River Basin Management Plan.
The research area (2232.9 ha) covers the Iori River and Chachuna Managed Reserve gallery forests and adjacent areas. These gallery forests are located in Kakheti, near the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan, in south-east Georgia. Grazing is the biggest challenge for such Tugay type gallery forests. The Dali Reservoir has transformed the ecosystem since the 1980s, though the impact needs a more thorough study.
The study results show that the forest cover (area covered with trees and bushes) has generally reduced in the research area, yet there is a tendency of growth over the last decade. Chachuna’s forest cover increased over the last two decades, although it is still less than in 1978. This may mean that the Dali reservoir has not had a direct and significant impact in terms of forest areas over the past 30-year cycle, as it was put into operation in 1992 (Benjankar et, all., 2016). In terms of floristic composition, there are quite big differences in the upper and lower parts of the reservoir. It may depend upon flooding regime and intensity, which would have been changed once the Dali reservoir became operational.
Further research in this direction is required, SABUKO says, ideally on grazing intensity and quality in both parts of the reservoir in the gallery forests, as grazing has a direct impact on the change of floristic composition.
“This will enable us to exclude grazing as a factor and to observe the direct impact of the dam over time,” SABUKO experts concluded.
Helping local farmers and pastoralists
The issue of food safety is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure the safety of the environment and to avoid economic losses caused by possible diseases, SABUKO provided local farmers with veterinary medicines and regular training on ecology and rotational grazing, which helps to introduce and further implement the principles of sustainable land management. Farmers also have the opportunity to participate in workshops on degradation, erosion, land management, biodiversity, etc.
In order to reduce grazing cases in the floodplain forest, SABUKO assessed the potential location of the areas where sheep drink water. Based on the results of the study, SABUKO has arranged 8 facilities for sheep to drink water, wells and a 2.5-kilometer corridor, which will significantly help to reduce the impact of sheep grazing on floodplain forests and the River Iori.
Raising Awareness about Rotational Gazing & Sustainable Land Management
SABUKO made a short animated film about rotational grazing in Georgian and Azerbaijani. The main purpose of the animation is to provide the audience with information on degradation and sustainable land management and raise awareness about rotational grazing.
The organization reviewed existing pasture regulations and legislation and developed a report. In addition, SABUKO, together with other stakeholders, is actively working on the development of a Georgian policy document on pasture management.
SABUKO, in cooperation with the Export Development Association, assessed the potential of sheep and lamb products in the EU and Gulf countries. The report provides information on the following products: milk and dairy products, mutton and meat products, live sheep and sheep wool. The study also includes information on sales channels, technical regulations and standards in the local market, EU and GCC countries.
In order to raise awareness about conservation and degradation, SABUKO developed a board game
“Playing in the Iori floodplain”, which introduces players to the River Iori floodplain forest, biodiversity, principles of sustainable grazing, etc. In addition, the board game will help players master the information about the steppe ecosystem and their maintenance.
As part of a collaboration with local media, SABUKO has developed articles, photos, videos and multimedia materials to raise awareness about the Chachuna Reserve in both Georgian and English. Active sharing of materials takes place through social media and other platforms.
SABUKO continues to study and monitor animal species in the Chachuna Reserve and surrounding areas using camera traps. To do this, about 25 camera traps have already been installed in the Chachuna Reserve and its surrounding areas.
Aleksandre Mikeladze, Project Manager, says one of the main problems on the ground is degradation, which dates back to Soviet times.
“Too many sheep gather there, even though, there is not much water. Due to the high number of sheep and lack of grass, along with food shortage, sheep encroach into the forest. We should do our best to preserve the wildlife. Farmers often complain that sheep enter the forest on their own, as when they are taking sheep down to the river for watering, they scatter, and because they have to walk many kilometers from the farm to the river, they are hungry and enter the forest on their own to graze. Farmers say they do not have enough shepherds to look after the sheep to prevent them entering the forest while going to the river for water. Our priority is to promote the restoration of the floodplain forest and to arrange a funnel type fenced corridor to reduce the number of sheep entering the forest, while also providing access to the watering points.
“The main problem is that resources are used unsustainably. In order for the grass to grow, the area needs to be rested for some time from grazing. We presented a rotational grazing scheme to the Agency of Protected Areas, which put this point in the contract for the farmers. Some farmers are skeptical about Rotational grazing, but when we planned and implemented it with one, others also became interested.
“We decided to interview the farmers and help solve the problem that matched the project goals. One of the main problems turned out to be limited access to water. SABUKO arranged watering points near farms, which sparked hope among the farmers.
“We’ll be working on creating a policy document on pastures in parallel with interviewing farmers, getting acquainted with their opinions and needs, that will be considered while developing the policy document.
“Not only do we monitor the conservation of natural resources, but we also help local shepherds. We provide farmers with vet medicines, share our experience and knowledge. We cooperate with Ilia State University, aiming to involve the young generation in this important work. We use innovative approaches, such as exploring sheep movement routes by GPS, etc.
“Rotational grazing turned out to be fruitful, as, afterwards, better grass grows in the area. This turned out to be a very happy moment for SABUKO. The project will continue for another 2 years, during which even more useful work will be done to improve the living standards of the locals and to preserve the existing natural resources and ecosystem,” Mikeladze says.
“The legislation regarding pastures is very general, there are no relevant normative acts,” says Tinatin Arveladze, Policy Manager.
“Under these conditions, SABUKO developed a rotational grazing scheme. For example, when a plot of land was leased, they were instructed to follow SABUKO’s rotational grazing scheme as enshrined in the lease agreement by the Agency of Protected Areas. SABUKO actively cooperates with pasture tenants issued by the Agency of Protected Areas to implement a rotational grazing scheme or meet other requirements set out in the contract.
“We obtained important information from the shepherds, it turned out that they only made deals orally. There were no defined obligations. Shepherds have no interest in pursuing sustainable grazing principles because they only stay on the ground for 1-2 years and then leave. We also shared this issue with the Agriculture Committee.
“We are also involved in the research carried out by Parliament, because we aim to share the interests and needs of farmers with the government. Our strength is that we work on the ground and are well aware of the situation. We also conducted a socio-economic survey among the locals and made relevant conclusions,” Arveladze notes.
“Earlier this year, SABUKO attended a public hearing on the Dali Reservoir. At the meeting, we highlighted the importance of the reservoir in flooding the floodplain forest and presented key research findings on the health of the Iori River floodplain forest, highlighting the difference in floodplain composition in the upper and lower parts of the reservoir. During the public hearing, the licensee and representatives of the Ministry agreed on the periodic release of the reservoir. SABUKO reached an agreement with Georgian Amelioration on the periodic release of the Dali Reservoir. However, the study found that a barrier is needed for effective flooding. SABUKO conducted a “Chachuna GE0000003” – Impact Assessment, which includes identifying and assessing the potential impacts on the emerald site species and habitats that the site is designed to protect. In the current quarter, documentation was submitted to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia for further proceedings. In addition, we developed a barrage management plan that includes activity monitoring and determines the effectiveness of mitigation measures taken.
“We are going to release water from the reservoir, ” Arveladze says. “We have prepared an appropriate assessment document and are waiting for permission. SABUKO uses this data for advocacy. These needs have been identified by scientific research. Natural flooding will occur as it did before the existence of the Dali Reservoir on the ground. Accordingly, the water will be released in stages. This reservoir contributed to desertification, replacing floodplain forest species with species characteristic of an arid space.
“The state policy regarding the reservoir should be related to conservation and should not only serve irrigation purposes. We have to take care of this in the future as well. The reservoir must first serve a conservation purpose.
“In the future, we want to regulate the principles of sustainable grazing through lease agreements.”
“We started the Chachuna Biodiversity Survey in the winter of 2019, at which time we had no tangible data,” says Khatia Basilashvili, Biodiversity Conservation Manager. “We installed 25 camera traps and actively check the data, and now fully understand which species of animals live there. It has been proven that the Iori floodplain in Chachuna is very important, as it is the only shelter for wild species, because they come there to drink water, hide from extreme heat during summer, forage and survive
“We have found wolf families there, and want to determine if they really live there or just follow the sheep.
“We also photographed a lynx that is on the verge of extinction. There is a prospect that lynx will breed here and even more interesting wildlife representatives will live together in the Iori floodplain, such as, gray wolf, European hare, golden jackal, fox, wild boar, black francolin, jungle cat, chukar partridge, porcupine, etc. The population of birds of prey is very diverse in Chachuna.
“During these two years, we got very close to local rangers, farmers and border police guards. Cases of poaching have decreased, which can also be considered our contribution. We have created a quiet and harmonious environment there, which makes us proud.”
Marinus Gebhardt, Natural Resources Manager, highlights the positive impacts of the rotational grazing scheme developed by SABUKO on the local environment. He also points out the importance of successful cooperation with local shepherds and farmers and raising awareness on the benefits of rotational grazing among them.
“As a result of direct and active cooperation with SABUKO, the locals are gradually developing the skills of rotational grazing, which is quite beneficial for the environment. As such, the growth of grass in the areas of grazing is notable, and the negative impact on the environment is reducing, which makes us very happy. Sometimes it’s difficult to change behavior the locals had had over years, but it’s still achievable and we can see the progress clearly. Sharing experience and gaining their trust is quite important. Over time, our team is expected to have more tangible results in this direction. Our main advantage is that we work with them directly on the ground, which helps us to communicate with more people and involve them in the process of receiving profit without harming nature.”
In the upcoming two years, SABUKO is expected to bring even more benefits to both wildlife species and the local population through its dedicated work and innovative approaches, supporting economic activities and preserving Georgia’s unique natural resources at the same time.