A fragile balance between a living landscape or a future desert

The Georgian steppe spanning the area between the Iori and Alazani rivers hosts a unique mixture of Palearctic, Indomalayan and Afrotropical fauna, including jackals, wolves and vultures. It was once home to the elusive Caucasian leopard. The steppe has been used for millennia as winter pastures by semi-nomadic pastoralists with tens of thousands of sheep, but a combination of climate change and the increased number of grazing livestock is causing the degradation of this fragile habitat. The project will build on the progress made by the completed ELP-funded Iori River project. It will scale up grassland restoration and continue working with the pastoralist community to recover and to reconnect wildlife corridors from Kakheti to Vashlovani.

Kakheti Steppes

The area between the Iori and Alazani rivers in South East Georgia is dominated by the steppe, an ecosystem with significant biological and cultural value. These natural grasslands have been used for millennia as winter pastures by transhumance pastoralists, nomads who moved with their livestock inline with the seasons, often with tens of thousands of sheep. The area also contains habitats such as endemic light arid woodland, riparian forests, clay and loam cliffs and gullies.

The region forms a crossroad of Palearctic, Indomalayan and Afrotropical fauna and contains a species pool that is unique in Europe: brown bear, jackal, wolf, striped hyena, lynx, Indian porcupine, vultures and eagles. The Goitered Gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) is among the most threatened genus that has recently being reintroduced in Vashlovani. This semi-arid area is also one of the four “islands” in the region where the endangered Caucasian leopard survived into the 21st-century.

The landscape was designated a UNESCO biosphere in June 2022 in recognition of its importance for nature.

Project context and opportunity

Habitats in this area have been degraded by unsustainable grazing practices, poor management of protected areas and poaching, and lost to conversion to arable farms and permanent crops. In Georgia, the traditional use of steppes as winter pasture makes them vulnerable to unsustainable livestock grazing pressure and despite their high biodiversity value, few natural steppes are legally protected.

This project will build on the positive achievements of the completed ELP project in Georgia, through further grassland, woodland and river system restoration, expanding sustainable rotational grazing, community engagement and targeted species conservation activities.

Conserving and restoring the grassland, as well as reducing poaching pressure, will provide an opportunity for herbivore populations to recover. In the longer term this will encourage natural recolonisation of the plateau by the charismatic Caucasian leopard.

What the project will do

The project’s aims will be achieved through working alongside semi-nomadic shepherds and the agency for protected areas to reconnect habitats and wildlife corridors essential for the elusive Caucasian leopard over 100,000 ha of the landscape.

This includes:

  • 25,000 hectares (20,000 protected areas and 5,000 private areas) of steppe in the Iori Valley are sustainably grazed, resulting in recovery of grassland biodiversity and restoration of soil carbon stocks.
  • Legislation and policies are developed and effectively implemented, leading to improved populations and habitats of focal species.
  • The causes of the local extinction of the Caucasian leopard are addressed (socio-economic and ecological factors) to enable the return of the apex predator.
  • The Iori floodplain forest is restored and hosts high diversity of plant and animal species, vegetation types, and ecological processes.
  • The future of ecologically sustainable rangeland management in Georgia is supported through successful knowledge transfer and increased financial sustainability.

Project Partners

BirdLife Europe
SABUKO
The Caucasus Nature Fund (CNF)
Ilia State University
REC Caucasus

Quick Facts

Project lead:

BirdLife Europe / Sabuko

Project location:

Kakheti region, Georgia

Country:

Georgia

Landscape size:

100,000 ha

Key habitats:

Steppe (grassland), endemic light arid woodland, riparian forest, cliffs, gullies

Focal species:

Caucasian leopard, goitered gazelle, grey wolf, Eurasian lynx, jungle cat, European hare, stripped hyena, Eurasian griffon vulture, cinereous vulture, Egyptian vulture, Eastern imperial eagle, black francolin

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