Navigating Georgia’s complex political ecology in the Chachuna Managed Reserve

We’ve driven across rolling green hills for the past two hours and have yet to see a single person, a pattern that has continued for the last two days. I’m visiting the Chachuna Managed Reserve in Eastern Georgia, the project being managed by BirdLife Europe with their local partner – the Society for Nature Conservation (SABUKO). Though the landscape seems entirely empty of people, the reserve is a stronghold for many species; over 25 raptor species have been recorded here, as well as five species of owl.

The Chachuna Managed Reserve is a key habitat for many important raptor species, including the black vulture (nest seen to the right of this photo). Photo credit: Giorgi Ianqoshvili.

“The importance of these grasslands was confirmed last year,” Natia Javakhishvili, Director of SABUKO tells me. “We counted a flock of ten thousand little bustard on these grasslands. They’ve only recently started coming here – maybe in response to agricultural intensification in Azerbaijan”. Chachuna is also an important ecological corridor, providing connections with the better known Vashlovani Nature Reserve.

As we pass through the hills an imperial eagle soars overhead, whilst calandra larks and isabelline wheatears erupt from the roadside. But as far as humans are concerned this place is deserted; dramatic eroded hills (‘badlands’) sit on the grass steppe like sleeping lizards. A mountain ridge shapes the horizon that lies beyond the ribbon of green gallery forest that snakes along the Iori River.

The surreal Chachuna landscape is made up of dramatic valley ridges, contrasted with the sweeping bends of the Iori River. Photo credit: Giorgi Ianqoshvili.

Our perception of a place is often formed by our first encounter. Yet if you came to Chachuna during the summer months and saw the wide open, empty spaces, you’d have only half the story. That’s because these are winter pastures for some 140,000 sheep, together with goats and cattle, that are grazed here as part of a massive annual cycle of transhumance (pastoralism), when the pastures in Georgia’s Javakheti Highlands are covered in snow. We’ve timed our visit just as the last sheep have started their journey back to the mountains.

It is not just the seasonal desertion by people that challenges our assumptions, however. During our drive across the steppe I’ve noticed clusters of long-abandoned houses and barns, together with lines of electricity or telegraph poles, their wires long gone, are now convenient perches for the occasional eagle. Marinus Gebhardt, the project’s natural resources manager, explains “This infrastructure dates back over 30 years to the Soviet era when this whole area was developed for agriculture and sheep production for wool. It’s said that at that time there were more sheep in Georgia than people – over 3 million of them! When the soviet period ended the market for wool collapsed and the buildings were abandoned. It is only recently that flock sizes have risen again – increasing tenfold in the last decade. But now the sheep are farmed for their meat, in response to the demand from the Middle East, especially Iran and Iraq”.

One of the challenges at Chachuna is overgrazing; in large areas, only the unpalatable plant species such as Artemisia remain. Based on what Marinus had told me, I assumed that overgrazing during the Soviet era would have been even worse. Apparently not, as Marinus went on to explain: “During those times the pastoralists also had access to the vast Russian steppe grasslands for grazing during the winter. Now the flocks are confined to within Georgia for their transhumance, and winter pastures here are scarce”.

Overgrazing by sheep has allowed unpalatable species such as Artemisia to thrive in this degraded landscape.

The barns and telegraph poles are not the only legacy from Soviet times to be found at Chachuna. Of greater and more lasting significance on the area’s ecology is the dam and Dali reservoir on the Iori River. Built to provide water for irrigation, the associated farmland was never developed and the dam and its reservoir have sat idle since their completion. In absence of any maintenance, water now leaks under the dam and is released in a slow but steady flow from one of the dam’s gates. The impact on the ecology of the riverine gallery forest downstream hasn’t been properly studied, but is something that SABUKO will be examining as part of their restoration project, with a view to making recommendations on how to manage water releases from the dam.

A glance at a satellite image might lead you to believe that the Iori River and the Chachuna steppe are distinct ecosystems, whereas in fact they are intimately linked. Zurab Gurgenidze, project ecologist, explained some of the relationships that exist: “Typical steppe species are dependent on the river for the surface drinking water it provides, whilst raptor species such as imperial eagle, that roost and nest on trees in the riverine forest, feed on snakes and hares that they hunt from the steppe. You can’t conserve the steppe without also taking care of the river, and vice versa”.

A satellite image of the Iori River Valley. Photo credit: © Google Maps

Chachuna brings together so many of the issues that have challenged attempts to restore biodiversity and natural ecosystem processes to landscapes. We see how, over time, a complex interplay of economics, politics, global product markets and international conflict have shaped the environment. During the summer months Chachuna feels as wild and empty of people as any place I’ve visited. In that context the pastoralists and their livestock might be seen as part of a relatively wild, natural system; seasonally passing-through, using the natural resources – not cultivating or actively managing them – before vanishing again. Grazing pressure does, however, seem to be too high; evidenced by areas of bare ground, erosion gullies and the dominance of unpalatable species. Yet here again Marinus calls us to challenge our assumptions: “In many disturbed areas species like Artemisia will dominate regardless of grazing pressure – they are part of the natural ecology, and we don’t know what the new norm is with changes in rainfall due to climate change”. In their effort to restore Chachuna’s ecology SABUKO, will have to grapple with many complex issues such as this.

The day after visiting Chachuna we drive Westwards to see some of the pastoralists on their migration route. Arriving early enough to see black and Egyptian vultures squabble over a carcass, we watch the shepherds gather their scattered sheep into tight flocks, which are then led away by a pair of goats. As they embark on their journey, they form a tapered white arrow which points toward their destination in the distance.

Herded sheep, led by shepherds and their goats, begin their journey back into the mountains. Photo credit: David Thomas.

Visit here to find out more about the Georgia project.