September 5 2018 was a day like any other in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Just before noon, Vano Kupradze, the Head of the Protection Division at the National Park, responded to reports of a forest fire on the edge of the park near the town of Borjomi, allegedly caused by a bonfire that hadn’t been properly extinguished.
Forest fires are a frequent occurrence in Borjomi-Kharagauli – a thickly forested area that comprises up to 1% of the Georgia’s total territory. In August 2017, park rangers fought alongside firefighters and rescuers from across the country to contain a massive forest fire in the region, which raged for several days and threatened a number of villages. September saw further fires which affected up to half of the entire Borjomi region.
Giorgi Maisuradze, Senior Natural Resource Specialist at the park, was in a nearby village dealing with reports of illegal logging, when Vano called him to the site of the fire just outside Borjomi. “Vano was already there with firefighters waiting for me to bring up some more water to help put out the last of the fire, since the area was quite steep and hilly. It looked relatively contained, with only a few patches of grass and shrubs still smouldering, and it was only spread over 200 square meters or so.”
“There was a dry spruce tree there which had been burnt at the base” Giorgi recalls. “Suddenly, the tree starting to crack and was about to fall over. Everyone ran in different directions to get away from it, including Vano, but as the tree fell, it hit another tree and snapped, and the upper part fell in the direction that Vano just happened to be running.”
The Park’s newly-appointed director, Levan Sabanidze was at a meeting in Tbilisi when reports of the fire came through. “Giorgi had sent me several photos of the fire, and I could see it was mostly smouldering. Vano had called me to tell me not to worry and that it would be easy to put out, and that I wouldn’t need to come back to Borjomi. An hour later, I get another call saying Vano had been hit by a fallen tree and so I got straight into my car. On the way back, I got the terrible news that Vano hadn’t survived his injuries and had died on the way to the hospital. I couldn’t get my head around it – Vano was one of the longest-serving staff members at the Park and for the last two weeks I’d relied on him totally as I settled into my new job.
In his professional life, Vano Kupradze had put his life on the line nearly every day. He’d been given several awards over his 15 years of service to the Park by Georgia’s Agency of Protected Areas – mostly for his work in detaining poachers and illegal loggers. In 2012, another park ranger in Borjom-Kharagauli, Merab Arevadze, was killed by poachers. Despite efforts to improve rangers’ defensive capabilities, the job remains risky.
Earlier this year, WWF reported that over a hundred rangers had died on the job in Asia and Central Africa alone over the previous twelve months. The Thin Green Line, an international organization established to support rangers in their important and often dangerous work, reports that half of the 1000 rangers who have died globally in the line of duty over the last ten years, were killed by poachers.
Yet, as Vano Kupradze’s death shows, the risks facing rangers in their daily work are many, and often unpredictable, and facing these challenges requires a level of experience and local knowledge which takes years to acquire, and can’t be easily replaced: “It’s a constant battle”, says Giorgi Maisuradze. “When I started work [as a ranger] in the Kvabiskhevi district of the park, there were frequent cases of illegal logging, and it wasn’t until we started night shifts that we managed to get it under control. It’s the same with poachers – you have to be constantly vigilant across a large territory to make sure no one manages to find a way into the protected areas unnoticed … There are some patrol zones which cover 2,000 hectares, with some very difficult terrain. You have to know nearly every square meter of it.”
“I was born and grew up in the village of Kvabiskhevi, and I always loved nature, so I know that area well. Still, I can’t count the number of things Vano taught me over the years. That level of knowledge and experience is impossible to replace.”
In the South Caucasus, the Caucasus Nature Fund has been doing its part to support rangers and ensure that they are well-prepared and properly equipped to deal with the multiple threats they face in carrying out their vital work on the frontline of nature protection. In addition to purchasing vehicles for patrol and camera traps to improve monitoring, CNF pays rangers and other park staff a salary supplement, in order to guarantee a livelihood for knowledgeable local staff in the park system.
CNF also supports a life insurance policy for rangers in cooperation with the Agency of Protected Areas. Thanks to this policy, Vano Kupradze’s spouse received a payout of 10,000 Georgian Lari (€3,300) in addition to the 15,000 Lari (€4,900) provided by the Georgian government, which will be an important help to the young family he has left behind. Still, this amount is much smaller than the 100,000 Lari (€32,600) routinely paid to families of police and border guards who die in the line of duty.
CNF believes that the work carried out by rangers in defence of the unique biodiversity of the South Caucasus is just as important, and no less risky, than the work of other state security services, and will continue to advocate for salaries and equipment for rangers that match those for both police and border guards. In the meantime, has begun a campaign to raise additional funds to support Vano’s family.
Vano Kupradze was 42. He is survived by his wife, Natia, who also works in the administration of Borjom-Kharagauli National Park, and their 11 year old daughter Salome.