Mid-June and I’m back in Caucasus nature—this time in Azerbaijan—to check on our first steps to support the development of the national parks in this country.
This is the first in a series of reports on my three-day trip in Azerbaijan.
Shirvan National Park and the Goitered Gazelle
Shirvan National Park covers nearly 60,000 hectares of semi-desert landscape stretching inland from the Caspian sea coast. Only a 90 minute drive from Baku, Shirvan has the potential to become a significant tourism destination for those looking to escape the extravagance of Baku, and CNF is in the second year of a project that aims to help modernize and improve the park’s tourism infrastructure. Wolfgang Moessinger, Germany’s deputy Ambassador to Azerbaijan, is with me today for a look at Germany’s investment in the Caucasus nature.
Five minutes into the park we see our first gazelle. On my previous visit, the first gazelle we spotted was the only one we saw, so I remain skeptical. But park director Seymur Kerimov, who is acting as our guide, is confident we will see more, and sure enough, as we drive on, we do. Late in the afternoon, now deep in the park, is our most spectacular sighting of a group of more than 30 animals, including a dozen mainly baby gazelles that sprint alongside us before crossing in front of our cars on their way back to the main group. Seymur says they can keep up their amazing pace for over an hour.
The species that has put on this impressive show is the goitered gazelle (gazella subgutturosa), listed as vulnerable in the IUCN red list and as endangered in the national red list of Azerbaijan. Estimated at over 40,000 in the mid-1920s, by the 1960s the gazelle population in Azerbaijan declined catastrophically to fewer than 200 through a combination of poaching and habitat loss. Its surviving populations were isolated mainly in two protected areas, with the largest—but still dangerously low—number in Shirvan.
Then, in 2003, a turnaround began. Shirvan was expanded, its status was modernized to that of a national park and protection practices were dramatically improved. The gazelle population today is visibly recovering, and we can attest to a healthy and abundant number of young gazelles. The official population estimate is now more than 5,000, and Seymur thinks there are more.
But even at these numbers the threat to the goitered gazelle remains. To eliminate it, the species needs to recover some if its former range so that its population can increase further. So efforts are underway to re-introduce the gazelle elsewhere in Azerbaijan and into Eastern Georgia, taking a few every year from Shirvan. With some time and continued effort, the survival of this unique and beautiful mammal can be assured—and Shirvan remains key to a successful conservation story in the making.
In addition to its gazelle treasure, Shirvan is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Swallows circle around us and marsh harriers hunt in the distance as we enjoy our picnic atop the flamingo lake center—a crumbling bit of park infrastructure in need of a makeover. Deputy Ambassador Moessinger and I discuss with Seymur his vision for Shirvan’s future, which includes eco-tourism and local community benefits, but only in ways that help consolidate the conservation gains of recent years.
As our group heads back to Baku, I am gratified that Shirvan is the first park in Azerbaijan to have received CNF funding. We will continue our work to support Seymur’s efforts. Read part 2 →
David Morrison is Executive Director of the Caucasus Nature Fund.