Threats to the environment in the Caucasus

Status and threats to the environment in the region

Humans have inhabited the Caucasus since the history books began. Such a long occupation has meant that almost all ecological systems in the region have been impacted. The plains, foothills, and sub-alpine belts have suffered the most, with as little as 2-3% of the original habitat state remaining.

Inaccessible places fare better
Inaccessible gorges and remote high-altitude areas have been least affected. The beech and dark coniferous forests of the middle and upper mountain belts, although not intact, are nevertheless in comparably good shape.

Lower areas have fared worse
However,  the Colkhic (Caucasus) oak forests, the mixed broadleaf forests in the lowlands, and the unique tall herbaceous communities with their high endemism have almost been eliminated.

For the region as a whole, about 25% (around 100,000km²) remains in reasonable condition, although only about 10-12% of the original vegetation, including forests, can be considered pristine.

Social and economic impacts
The situation in the Caucasus deteriorated significantly after the social and economic crisis that began in 1992.

Due to lack of energy resources, the population now consumes 200-300% more firewood than it did in the 1980s, and illegal logging and export has increased exponentially. (What you can do about illegal logging...)

Threatened by grazing
More than 30% of the pastureland of the region suffers from varying levels of erosion, and overgrazing, mainly by sheep, in the sub-alpine and alpine summer ranges of the Central Caucasus and in the winter ranges of the steppes and semi deserts of the northeastern Caucasus has increased nearly threefold.

As a result, secondary plant communities now occupy 80% of the grassland area in the sub-alpine belt. The alpine belt itself is slightly better preserved due to the fact that the top layer of soil is more compact and densely entangled with grass roots.

Poaching of endangered species
Poaching is a serious problem that increased significantly during the 1990s. As a result, species found in the Caucasus such as the leopard, brown bear, wolf, Caucasian red deer, and tur have been heavily impacted.

Leopard and Tur
The leopard is now down to no more than a couple of dozen individuals in the entire region. The 2 tur species have been drastically reduced because of a combination of poaching (they are hunted for their horns and meat) and habitat loss in pasturelands. Today, they are only about 3,500 East Caucasian turs and 6 -10 000 West Caucasian turs still in existence.

Caucasian chamois, red deer & hyaena
Caucasian chamois number fewer than 25 individuals in the northern part of the Lesser Caucasus Range (Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park area), while around 4,000 to 4,500 chamois are found in the Greater Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia).

The number of red deer decreased from 800 to 100 and bezoar goat are threatened with extinction in some parts of the region. Goitered gazelles number about 5,000, but nearly all these animals are located in the Shirvan strict nature reserve in Azerbaijan, from where the animals are unable to disperse to a wider territory. The stripped hyaena is also on the verge of extinction.

Impacts across almost all species

  • Lynx, otter, wild cat, fox and jackal are killed for their fur.
  • The rarest falcons are captured and sold abroad.
  • Reptiles and amphibian like the Mediterranean tortoise, Trans-Caucasian agama, the Asia Minor newt, the crested newt, and the Caucasian salamander have been collected for decades, both for laboratory use and for the pet trade,
  • Vipers have long been exploited for their venom.
  • The populations of endemic amphibians like the Caucasian parsley frog and the Caucasian toad have also declined significantly.

Other important animals impacted by habitat destruction include the very unusual long-clawed mole-vole, the only representative of an endemic genus in the rodent family, and the unicolor birch mice which occur in sub-alpine and alpine landscapes constantly endangered by grazing and mowing.

80 species from the region on the Red List
As a result of the combined impacts of habitat destruction and modification and poaching, about 80 animal species from the Caucasus have now been placed on the IUCN Red List of endangered species.

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