Our horses heaved and snorted as they pulled us up the steep, narrow ridge, deep in the forests of Lagodekhi. Their shoes occasionally struck protruding ridges of crumbling slate, leaving an eerie ring in the air. In other places, their hooves would churn the light soil and decaying leaves underfoot into an orange-brown mush. The route we’re on is usually taken as a descent, as the steep incline of this mountain trail offers a quick way down from the mountains. For us, however, it’s the quickest way up to the wooden shelter 2,650 metres above sea level where I’ll be spending the next few days embedded with a monitoring team, looking for one of Lagodekhi’s most famous yet elusive residents – the East Caucasian Tur.
NACRES, a Georgian NGO working on biodiversity has been carrying out a mission – financed by the Caucasus Nature Fund – to monitor numbers of this goat-like species in the mountains of Lagodekhi National Park. The team had selected a monitoring period in the slim window of time between the mountain snow thaw and the arrival of the first tourists – the perfect period to observe these rugged yet elegant mountain ungulates feeding on the spring grass without the threat of too much poor weather. Late spring also marks the arrival of newborns, who also make their first appearance at these family dinners on the mountain slopes.
The East Caucasian Tur, also known as the Daghestan Tur, occurs only in the Eastern part of the Greater Caucasus mountain range. Tur live mostly in rugged mountain habitats, far away from human disturbance at around 3,000 metres above sea-level. In the wild, their main predators are lynx and wolves, but poaching (the animals are prized for their long, ridged horns) has drastically reduced the range and numbers of this species which the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) now considers ‘Near Threatened’.
The climb was exhausting – half of it spent on foot guiding the horses over narrow sections of path – but above tree-level we were compensated with spectacular views of the Alazani valley from Georgia into Azerbaijan. A few hours before sundown, we arrived at the tourist shelter – a simple wooden structure painted bright yellow in order to be visible even in heavy fog. In the cool of evening, the Tur emerge from their wooded hide-outs in order to feed on the steep, grassy mountainsides. The NACRES team got straight to work, splitting into three groups about a kilometer apart in order to scan the mountainsides for Tur. One team member would first cast a glance over likely feeding places with binoculars before honing in on the Tur with a telescope in order to get a better idea of age and numbers.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before groups of Tur appeared on the mountainsides. Although I failed to master the skill of spotting their movements with binoculars, the telescope offered a clear view of these majestic creatures as they grazed on near vertical slopes before making dramatic and acrobatic descents back to the forest below. Just before the sun set, a wave of mist blew up from the ravine below and engulfed the plain around the shelter, bringing our first day of observation to a close.
The next day it was a 6am start and a huntsman’s breakfast – slices of sausages, cheese and cucumber cut with a penknife and served on pieces of yesterday’s bread. The early morning was still cold, but undeterred, the Tur came out to make an impressive showing for their morning feed. Each monitoring group managed to count between 10-20 animals during the morning watch. And while it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions from one monitoring trip, it seems that Lagodekhi Protected Areas’ increased protection capacity – made possible in large part by CNF funding – is making a real difference on the ground to numbers of a key indicator species.
By mid-day the mountain sun was already shining intensely. Next to the snow drifts, last year’s dead grass had formed into uneven patterns under the weight of the winter snows. In places, pink-white shoots of dockweed were pushing through the wet soil, their leaves crisping as they unfolded in the sun. After a short midday nap, it was time to get back out again to observe the Turs during their evening feed. One especially intrepid member of the monitoring team, Nika, managed to get close enough to take pictures of the animals – proudly scrolling through the photos that evening as the rest of the team huddled around the camera to take a look.
That evening’s observation was cut short by light rain, which during the night developed into a savage storm. Deafening thunder, constant flashes of lightening, a wind that shook the shelter almost from its foundations and a leaking roof all served to remind us how extreme weather conditions can be in the mountains. We emerged from our sleeping bags the next morning to find some of our equipment and food supplies soaked through.
After further successful observation in the morning, we decided that the weather had been good enough to us and enough data and images had been collected. Loading up the one horse we had left (the others had been led back down to Lagodekhi the previous morning, since we would be able to go downhill on foot) we set off down the mountain trail. Once we got down to the tree line, it was obvious the storm had done serious damage in parts of the forests, with whole trees fallen across parts of the narrow path.
The storm had also left the ground fairly soggy, meaning our walk back down the steep ridge was more of a slide – I emerged in the yard of Lagodekhi Protected Area’s visitor’s centre a mud-splattered mess, but nonetheless, a happy one. It was impressive to see the conditions that the NACRES monitoring team endure for days on end in order to collect the data CNF needs. It was also amazing to be able to see Tur in their natural habitat in such impressive numbers. Sometimes, sitting at a desk in CNF’s Tbilisi office, it’s difficult to remember what you’re working for – as it’s all too easy to get bogged down in paperwork, contracts, meetings and Skype calls. And yet, peering through a telescope at a mountainside in Lagodekhi, it couldn’t be clearer that CNF’s work is making a real difference to biodiversity on the ground here in Georgia.