It’s early October and – apart from a light mist curling up the verdant foothills of the Adjara-Imereti Mountain Range – the skies above the Georgian Black Sea resort town of Kobuleti, are unseasonably clear. Chasing the last rays of summer sun and an off-season drop in prices, a handful of tourists from neighboring Russia and Armenia lead their children through the pine groves that separate the main road from the rocky beach. Despite the impending threat of a cold snap – which, in October, hangs over this town like the sword of Damocles – these visitors go about their usual holiday routine of lounging in cafes, walking the beach and perhaps braving a dip in the cooling sea. At some distance from this coastal strip of short-lease holiday apartments and beach shops, a group of foreign and local ecologists in wellington boots are jumping up and down in the middle of a peat bog. This unusual activity is not the latest global trend in ecotourism freshly arrived on the shores of Georgia’s Adjara region. Rather, it’s one of the lighter moments in a singularly important process for these wetlands – they’re effectively undergoing an audition for the universally-coveted status of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Later on, at a one-day conference held in the regional capital of Batumi, we learn that the scientific name for this method of evaluation is actually “the Bog Dance”. The conference brings together two international evaluators from the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) – the organization charged with conducting preliminary evaluations on behalf of UNESCO – and local partners from a host of organizations, including the Caucasus Nature Fund (CNF), which supported the conference together with the Transboundary Joint Secretariat (TJS) and Support Program for Protected Areas (SPPA). “One of the great privileges of being involved in a world heritage evaluation is that you actually get to see nature as close as possible” says Josephine Langley, one of the IUCN evaluators. “We’re getting very up close and personal with nature – very close to the waterfalls, to the forests. They’re even showing us how to bounce on a bog or mire to understand the process of water percolation” she says, referring to the origins of the now-notorious “Bog Dance”.
But there’s more than just bouncing peatlands to this complex natural system that is being nominated to stand alongside such natural wonders as Botswana’s Okavango Delta and the Grand Canyon National Park as a UNESCO natural world heritage site. When taken together, the forests and wetlands of Georgia’s western, coastal region – known since ancient times as Colchis – are representative of a unique natural environment of immense scientific value. Moreover, the best-preserved and best-protected examples of this global heritage are to be found in Georgia, especially in Mtirala and Kintrishi National Parks, both of which CNF supports with grants to help with running costs, equipment purchase and ranger salary top-ups. If the Georgian bid is successful, the Colchic Forests and Wetlands of Georgia would be the first natural site in the South Caucasus to make it into the UNESCO listing.
“What you’ll see if you go to these parks” says Prof. Dr. Hans Knapp, who contributed to the region’s nomination dossier, “is a broadleaf forest of immense diversity, together with a thick lower layer of evergreen shrubs, in an area of high precipitation and humidity, with an exceptional diversity of species … This is what’s so unique about the Colchic forest – thanks to human activity, other forests in similar climate zones have been changed into artificial structures – in North America over 400 years, in East Asia over 8,000 years and in Europe over several thousand years, and so on …. But the forests of Kintrishi and Mtirala are remnants of primeval forest – they’ve been regenerating according to entirely natural cycles ever since they first emerged.”
Tobias Garstecki, a German biologist who has also been working with the Georgian Agency of Protected Areas (APA) on producing the nomination dossier, explains the Colchic Triangle – a set of geographical conditions that have produced and preserved these humid forests and wetlands for millennia: “Basically the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountain ranges meet in Central Georgia, at the Likhi Ridge, effectively trapping moisture coming in from the Black Sea in the form of precipitation. This means that rainfall is abundant and evenly distributed throughout the year, with very few dry periods, allowing for this system of rainforests and wetlands to thrive.” Apart from migratory birds that feed in the region’s wetlands, and plant species like the endangered Colchic Box Tree (Buxus colchica), the gushing streams of the region’s Colchic forests are also home to the Caucasian salamander, known for its distinctive black and yellow coloring.
However, while the region’s importance in terms of biodiversity and ecotourism potential might be beyond doubt, it remains to be seen whether the World Heritage Committee at UNESCO will deem it worthy of inclusion in a list that include such world renowned locations as the Great Barrier Reef and the Serengeti. “As someone involved in this nomination, I believe that it meets all of UNESCO’s requirements” says Garstecki, “but I also know that it’s not an easy process. Although the two evaluators at the conference were polite and constructive, make no mistake, they will note any weaknesses that emerge from our discussions and report them … I also know that there will be a lot of critical discussion on the IUCN World Heritage panel, and certain individuals will be trying to keep the standard high by excluding certain applications.”
And yet, the bogs, mires and peatlands of the Colchis region might just have a trick up their sleeve when it comes to proving their global value. Prof. Dr. Hans Joosten from the University of Greifswald is a prominent expert on peatlands who has been studying the bogs and mires of Western Georgia since the early 1990s. After teaching IUCN’s evaluation team the “Bog Dance”, he gave a detailed presentation touching on the immense importance of the Colchis mires for global science. “Peatlands are living structures that rely on water, and so they’re always trying to keep themselves wet” he says. “This is a particular challenge when this moisture comes only from rain, as is the case with the peatlands of Colchis, and so peatlands around the world develop a range of self-regulating mechanisms to retain moisture. However, in the case of the Colchic wetlands – the so-called percolation bogs – the climate here is so optimal that the bogs like those at Ispani near Kobuleti use only two self-regulation mechanisms instead of several. One of these involves sphagnum species turning white to reflect sunlight and reduce evaporation and the other involves the entire mire shrinking in size to match the new water level – sort of like a chest rising and falling during breathing.”
The relative simplicity of this self-regulation system, and consequently its usefulness for scientific enquiry and modelling could potentially persuade evaluators on the UNESCO World Heritage panel that the Colchic Forests and Wetlands of Georgia are worthy of inclusion in this elite convention. “One of the ideas behind the convention is that it preserves areas of extreme scientific interest too” Garstecki adds. “Most of the carbon that is stored naturally is found not in forests, but in peatlands, and so obviously the way peatlands function determine the way carbon is stored or released, so sites like Ispani have the potential to be extremely important in contributing to the knowledge around carbon emissions and climate change mitigation.”
The day after the conference, the city of Batumi awakes to pouring rain, and along the coastal road through Kobuleti, tourists shelters in steamy cafes. The extreme regularity of this wet weather might be a challenge for Adjara’s off-peak tourists, but at the same time, it’s the very thing that allows the region’s streams to flow, salamanders to flourish and forests to go on regenerating themselves …. Not to mention providing optimal conditions for the next generation of scientists to be introduced to the Colchic Bog Dance.