The mountainous Caucasus region extending over the territory of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia as well as the small parts of Iran, Russia and Turkey is among the most biologically diverse regions in the world hosting extraordinarily high number of plant and animal species. The high species diversity is conditioned primarily by location of the region at the crossroad between the Black and Caspian Seas where species originating from Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa overlap with endemic species (species that exclusively live in the Caucasus and cannot be found anywhere else in the world), and by complexity of geology and climate that contributed to the emergence of a wide range of biotopes. The fact that the Caucasus region represents a significant global biodiversity hotspot is well known to most biologists and nature conservationists. This, however, does not apply to the local people, many of whom lead traditional rural way of life. Their cognizance of natural wealth hidden in the region they live in and the significance of this wealth for the quality of everyday life is still very poor. Due to the lack of awareness, the locals contribute, usually unconsciously, to the disruption of the Caucasian nature. The most obvious manifestations of such a disruption are extensive grazing associated with deforestation visible in many places and pollution of water courses by different kinds of waste (from the plastic bottles to used syringes). Thus, along with the wonderful untouched nature, the wealth of the Caucasian biodiversity is being gradually vanished.
The awareness of need to increase both knowledge of the Caucasian biodiversity among the local people and level of biodiversity conservation motivated us, zoologists from Department of Ecology, to build a network of specialists willing to collaborate in biodiversity research, local communities education, and training the experts from the region. We brought off to translate this motivation into an international project called V4 & Eastern Partnership cooperation in Biodiversity Conservation for Human Wellbeing supported recently by Visegrad Fund. In mid-September 2018, a team of zoologists and biologists from scientific institutions of V4 countries, Azerbaijan and Georgia led by three members of Department of Ecology, met in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, from where, it set out on the first Caucasus expedition, this time to the Kutaisi region in the west of Georgia and the Lankaran region in the south of Azerbaijan.
During the two-week lasting stay in the Caucasus, we organized several workshops at the local educational institutions (universities and schools) attended by various people from researchers through members of non-governmental organizations and teachers to pupils. Some people came to our workshops just for the sake of curiosity as they have never seen zoologists from the Visegrad countries before. We talked together over the Caucasian biodiversity, its importance for human society and, last but not least, the threats to biodiversity resulting from human activities and ways how to eliminate these threats. The most interesting and inspiring were meetings with the local people right in the field during our biodiversity research. At first, they glared uncomprehendingly at us. It is no wonder, having a lap mesh, tweezers, tubes and other equipments needed for biodiversity research, we all looked quite odd. However, the subsequent debates about our activities, explaining importance of biodiversity and its protection needs brought us closer to this people. Many of them did not hesitate to try to sample fauna from under the stones from the leaves, or the bottom of brooks. Nearly every day of the field research, we could see the great hospitality and kindness of the Caucasus people inviting us home for tea and other tasty homemade food products.
The first expedition to the Caucasus was not just about science and education, it had also a social dimension. We came upon nice, friendly people unspoiled by commercialism and became more familiar with their culture and traditions. Our international project will continue in 2019 when two more expeditions to the Caucasus are intended. Let’s hope our efforts to raise the awareness of people living in the Caucasus about biodiversity and its protection will be taken on board.
text by Michal Rendoš, Peter Manko & Jozef Oboňa
photo by Matej Žiak