Floodplain forests contribute many free ecological services to our society: they help filter pollutants to prevent them from entering streams, improve water quality, are critical in controlling erosion, and help buffer rivers against catastrophic flooding. Floodplains are home to a diversity of wildlife.
SABUKO – a nature conservation organization, a local partner of BirdLife, has played a big role in the restoration and preservation of floodplain forest in Georgia as part the project ‘Restoring Gallery Forest and Grasslands in the Iori River Valley,’ aimed at revitalizing the ecosystem while enabling local pastoralists to manage the land sustainably.
They also work to preserve the biodiversity of the Chachuna Managed Reserve, which has faced a severe problem of degradation due to unregulated grazing. SABUKO has been studying the Chachuna Reserve since 2019.
5032 hectares of Chachuna is located in Dedoplistskaro municipality, on the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Due to its distinctive ecosystem, it is included in the list of emerald network areas established by the signatories of the Bern Convention on the Protection of Natural Habitats of Europe in 1989.
SABUKO and its partner organizations are actively working to preserve endangered rare species of wildlife existing on the ground.
SABUKO, in collaboration with Ilia State University, assessed the condition and health of the Iori River floodplain forest, the aim of which 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 upper and lower part of the reservoir differ from each other in floristic composition: the lower part of the reservoir is 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.
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 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 order to reduce grazing cases in the floodplain forest, SABUKO also assessed the potential location of the areas where sheep drink water. Based on the results of the study, SABUKO arranged more than 10 facilities for sheep to drink, wells and a 6-kilometer corridor, which will significantly help to reduce the impact of sheep grazing on floodplain forests and the River Iori.
“During the process, cooperation with local farmers was very important. We observed the shepherds for two years before we planned to arrange the corridor, studying their route and access roads to the Iori River,” Aleksandre Mikeladze, Project Manager, tells us. “In accordance with this, we built fences, the so-called corridors, that shepherds now use to access the water.
“We also developed the Chachuna Reserve Management Plan detailing patrolling and law enforcement, monitoring of core biodiversity values and threats, natural resource management, fire management, ecotourism and visitor education, and a public relations program. The completed project will be put up for public review by the Agency of Protected Areas and then the approval process will start.”
The SABUKO team is working with local farmers to raise awareness. They introduced rotational grazing and talked to them about the value of biodiversity and the importance of floodplain forest, which is a shelter for different species of animals.
GEORGIA TODAY wanted to find out more from SABUKO’s representatives and partners.
Vasil Metreveli, Forester, Ilia University: Floodplain forests are mainly located in the east of Georgia. Their resources are actively used by locals, which eventually results in their degradation. The Iori floodplain and surrounding area represents a very dry territory, for which this forest is a kind of oasis. The mode of flooding of floodplain forests is very important. There are several dams arranged on the Iori River, which slows the water flow. The Dali Reservoir posed a threat for Chachuna, so we conducted a study in collaboration with SABUKO. We saw that the area of green cover had reduced and, in terms of species, there were significant changes. We concluded that the lower part of the river should be flooded more often, as the process of desertification is underway there. The river bed is washed away, the water can no longer flood the territory, so vegetation is changed and replaced. To solve this problem, a gabion has been arranged on the spot, which will slow the water flow and the area will be flooded. Through such measures and gabions, the situation has been partially improved in terms of species restoration, however, even more work is necessary so as not to lose this oasis, which is so important for the whole region.”
Giorgi Guliashvili, a hydrologist, recently conducted a study where the positive results of gabion in the floodplain of the Iori River were revealed.
“The process of desertification in the Chachuna Reserve has been accelerated by the construction of the Dali Reservoir, which has slowed down the flow of water from the Iori River and virtually blocked it,“ Giorgi tells us.
“In the lower part of the river, on the Chachuna Reserve territory, the process of natural flooding and water supply was stopped, accordingly, the mentioned area was affected. Reservoir-induced water shortages were compounded by high evaporation, high temperatures in the face of climate change, which led to soil drying out. At the same time, the scarcity of water caused the groundwater level to drop. The floodplain forest plants could no longer get the moisture they needed.
“As such, the process of species change in the floodplain forest has begun. In the floodplain forest, which was constantly flooded, drought-loving plants emerged. So it was decided to arrange a gabion on the spot. If that worked, similar gabions would be arranged elsewhere.
“The results of the hydrological research which I’ve conducted have shown that the gabion arranged by SABUKO has significantly contributed to proper distribution of water in the area and it was already noticeable by the improved condition of the floodplain forest plants, which is a very good achievement and a positive effect.
“If this continues, of course the positive impact will increase and will cover an even bigger area. However, the problem we detected was still a shortage of water resources, despite the rainy year. However, despite this, positive changes are still observed.
“At the next stages of the project, we’re thinking of arranging additional gabions at several more areas to flood a bigger territory of the floodplain. This issue is being discussed with relevant agencies and stakeholders. In the long term, this will bring even more benefits to the health and condition of the Iori River floodplain, which is a home to many unique wildlife inhabitants and is vital to the local environment.
“In June, we’re planning to conduct another study on the ground, which will allow us to draw additional conclusions and assess the entire situation,” the hydrologist explains.
Zura Gurgenidze, Conservation Studies Manager at SABUKO: Chachuna is home to about 60 birds protected by the Bern Convention, including the Imperial Eagle. However, scarce information about Chachuna species is one of the reasons why SABUKO started research there.
We have 50 camera traps in Chachuna reserve, covering the floodplain forest and the ravines surrounding Chachuna. The photos taken with show that wild boar, jackal and jungle cats are very common there. SABUKO’s camera traps first spotted a lynx in Chachuna, which is critically endangered in Georgia. Near Chachuna, in Vashlovani, there is a fairly solid population of lynx, although it has never been observed in the Chachuna area.
Other animals and birds living in Chachuna include jungle cats, wolves, black francolins, and others on the red list. The disappearance of the Iori floodplain forest means that all the above-mentioned rare species will be left without shelter, habitat or food.
Therefore, in order to restore the Iori floodplain forest, SABUKO plans to flood the pre-studied and defined area using the Dali Reservoir, which has never performed its initial function.
Conservation of the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Georgia
Research on the Eastern Imperial Eagle is one of the priorities for SABUKO when exploring the biodiversity of Chachuna.
The Imperial eagle is considered a vulnerable species in the world, while in Georgia it is included on the red list. SABUKO was the first in Georgia to install a GPS navigation system for the imperial eagle. GPS transmitters are either attached to the young chicks before they learn to fly, or to adult individuals.
“We use GPS to monitor their migration route, and we can see what problems they may face. Unfortunately, among the individuals to which we attached the transmitters, 80% died due to power lines,” Zura Gurgenidze explains.
At the end of the Chachuna Biodiversity Survey, SABUKO hopes that detailed information on the species and their routes will play an important role in the development of the Chachuna Biodiversity Conservation Strategy.
The Importance of the Ecotourism Services Project to Biodiversity
SABUKO, within the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Program (SGP), is implementing a two-year project “Creating and Developing of Nature Conservation-Oriented Visitor Services in Chachuna Managed Reserve” with the aim of conserving ecosystems and endangered species.
A business plan for the development of the ecotourism of Chachuna Managed Reserve will be created and next implemented in cooperation with the administration of Chachuna MR and also involving local service providers.
Ecotourism infrastructure will be arranged on the ground, including a bungalow, campsite, vulture restaurant, and bird watching point. Online and print information materials will support to popularize the area. Informative boards and signs to ensure the safety and comfort of visitors will also be upgraded.
An MoU will be signed with tourism service providers to diversify ecotourism services, improve partnership and increase the number of visitors to the Chachuna Managed Reserve.
Various informative excursion programs will be developed, enabling the local administration to improve communication with visitors. In addition, maps of adventure-information trails will be updated and made available online and in print. The project also includes cooperation with locals and their periodic training in ecotourism business management. 20 locals involved in ecotourism are being trained during the year, including at least 10 women.
Policy for the Iori River Floodplain Forest
For two years, the SABUKO team has been trying to introduce a definition for the permissible amount of cattle grazing per hectare, in cooperation with state structures, by sharing research. Legislative changes have been made to define that permissible amount, which is very important for biodiversity conservation, and currently applies to state-owned pastures.
“Legislation regarding pastures was very general- there were no relevant normative acts,” Tinatin Arveladze, Policy Manager, explained. “The change was one of the first steps towards the sustainable development of pastures the state could make.”
“SABUKO contributed to this process even prior to introduction of the legislative regulation, as it developed a rotational grazing scheme. Adopting the legislative act was a big goal for SABUKO, and a result of a lot of enthusiasm, which was also met by the local municipality and the Agency for Protected Areas.
“But a legislative act alone is not enough, as protecting and restoring biodiversity is also a matter of each shepherds’ personal responsibility,” she said.
What Is Being Done for the Iori River Floodplain
Nata Sultanishvili, Head of Planning and Development Service at the Agency of Protected Areas, assesses collaboration with SABUKO as “very active and successful.”
“There was no management plan for or relevant studies of the sustainable management of pastures in the Chachuna Managed Reserve. Thanks to SABUKO, in a close collaboration with the Agency of Protected Areas, this was achieved and a plan was developed that defined the permissible amount of cattle per hectare in the area.
“There is a very good international and local practice that protected areas are managed with a Management Plan, where programs of various directions are determined and the relevant actions and steps are taken. The Chachuna Reserve didn’t have such a plan until now.
“The management of the Agency of Protected Areas and our rangers will be actively involved in this process to verify compliance.
“Measures have been taken to prevent cases of overgrazing, such as fencing off certain areas, and the organization works to protect the biodiversity existing on the ground. This serves the goal of strengthening the eco-tourism in the country, which is crucial for the economy,” Sultanishvili notes.
What’s Been Done for the Floodplain Forest
Natia Zurashvili, Representative of the Administration of Chachuna Reserve: “An important issue was water supply to floodplain plants, as the River Iori is the main source of water on the ground. SABUKO implemented a project that sees the level of water artificially raised using stones, meaning the floodplain plants were watered.
“Development of ecotourism services is also carried out on the spot through the efforts of SABUKO. Tourists can watch unique species of birds living here, such as the Eastern Imperial Eagle. Soon, the infrastructure will be further improved and more hiking trails will be added to the area,” noted Zurashvili.
There are eco clubs is in Dedoplistskaro for youth, and Natia shares with the students the materials developed by SABUKO: board game “Playing In Iori Floodplain”, the main goal of which is to slip into the role of a Georgian shepherd and to learn and think about steppe ecosystems and their conservation, a film entitled “Facing the Desert,” – the first documentary about the Chachuna Reserve that covers the ecological problems existing on the ground and possible ways to establish sustainable use of natural resources, etc.
Raising Awareness/Contributing to Building Harmonious Neighborly Relations
To raise awareness, alongside the multimedia materials, SABUKO hosted an exhibition of photographer Natela Grigalashvili with photos of the Chachuna Reserve. Under the Artists’ Residence Program, supported by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, the photographer worked for a year in the reserve to document the interaction between Man and nature.
SABUKO also presented footage of rare wildlife species living in the territory of the reserve, taken by its camera traps.
Similar exhibitions are planned for the future to raise awareness of the ecological problems existing on the ground, degradation and sustainable land management.
SABUKO is also contributing to building harmonious neighborly relations among the Georgian and Azerbaijani farmers living together on the ground, and it helps the Azerbaijani population overcome still existing language barriers. The SABUKO team constructed a bridge for a local Azerbaijani farmer, which allowed him to connect his land plots and introduce rotational grazing.
German expert Marinus Gebhardt, a Natural Resources Manager at SABUKO, highlights the importance of the Iori River Floodplain for the entire local environment and biodiversity.
“We installed over 50 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, who come to drink water, hide from extreme heat during summer, forage and survive.
“We periodically continue to raise the awareness of on-site rangers, who jointly patrol to reduce grazing cases in the floodplain forests,” he notes.
By taking such diverse and important steps, SABUKO is achieving significant progress on the ground and is also convincing the local population to take care of the Iori River floodplain forest for the sake of the environment they live in.