In 1887, the British traveler and diplomat, Oliver Wardrop, crossed the fertile Alazani valley in search of adventure in the forested mountains above the small town of Lagodekhi in Eastern Georgia. Commenting on the view across the valley from his lodgings in Sighnaghi, Wardrop noted “the grand Caucasus mountains, rising like a wall from the plain, their glittering, snow-clad tops dividing the dark forests on their flanks from the deep blue of the summer sky …”
Approaching these “dark forests”, Wardrop and his group of fellow travelers narrowly avoided being stripped of their possessions by highwaymen from a marauding Caucasian tribe:
“…We perceived a Lesghian prowling about a little in advance of us. We halted, unslung our fire-arms and loaded, then extending for attack, as far as the nature of the country would allow, we went forward at a quick walking pace. We soon caught sight of three more Lesghians, but this was evidently the whole force for they contented themselves with looking at us from a distance, and seeing that the odds were in our favour, they galloped away into the depths of the forest, and left us to pursue our journey unmolested.”
The Lesghians robbers are long gone, but the thick forests around Lagodekhi that so enchanted Wardrop over a century ago are still a place of hunt, pursuit and encounter.
Today the area makes up Lagodekhi Protected Areas – the oldest protected area in the entire Caucasus region – which is located on the spot where Georgia borders both Azerbaijan and Dagestan in the Russian Federation. It is also one of the front-lines in the battle for biodiversity in the South Caucasus. One of the key objects in this battle is the protection and study of the Protected Areas’ population of East Caucasian Tur – a goat-like ungulate that lives between the deep forests that cover the mountain slopes here and the grassy meadows above the tree-line.
“The East Caucasian Tur is a key indicator species for Lagodekhi” says the Protected Areas’ director, Giorgi Sulamanidze. “Tur need quite a large range in which to flourish, and so they’re vulnerable to the intrusion of grazing livestock – and they’re also attractive to poachers. This means that if the population of Tur decreases, something has gone wrong and our protective measures aren’t working. On the other hand, if the population remains stable or increases, it means we’re doing something right.”
For the last two years, the job of monitoring Lagodekhi’s Tur population has been the job of bio-diversity NGO NACRES, who are researching the numbers and behavior of these majestic creatures with a view to enhancing long-term efforts to create them. The project is supported financially by the Caucasus Nature Fund (CNF), as well as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) through its Transboundary Joint Secretariat (TJS) project. A preliminary monitoring mission in 2017 revealed that large numbers of tur in Lagodekhi are spending the majority of their time in the forest, and rarely venturing out onto open pasture. With the green-light from donors, NACRES decided to investigate this behavior further, and the most appropriate method was deemed to be telemetry – capturing live Tur and fitting them with electronic collars in order to track their movements.
The only problem facing the team was the fact that such an operation had only been attempted a few times in the South Caucasus, and the team had no direct experience of capturing and handling live ungulates. The entire operation – from luring the tur to the capture location to the fitting of the collar – would be a series of careful experiments. Based on camera-trap images which showed that the animals favoured locations with naturally-occurring salt and other minerals, the team decided to try to lure the animals to a sulphur spring using salt-licks. The method of capture would be a drop-net, triggered remotely, which the team had practiced using on local livestock. The Tur, however, proved elusive, and frequently outwitted and evaded the team sent to capture them. Camera trap footage from a location in the Ninoskhevi camp showed that the Tur were frequenting this area, but by the time the monitoring team made it up there, the animals vanished into the forest without trace.
After nearly four months camped out in the forest – battling snow, sleet and temperatures that drained the batteries of the team’s monitoring equipment – there was a break-through:
“On March 12 we caught our first Tur – a male” recalls team leader, Bejan Lortkipanidze. “At first we thought that immobilizing the animal physically would be the safest, easiest and least stressful way to manage a wild animal, but very soon we noticed things started to go wrong. Because the animal was resisting handling to intensely, it caused its body temperature to shoot up, which could have ended in the body shutting down and the animal dying. We had to move quickly to immobilize the animal with a chemical tranquilizer, which put it into a very light sleep, before trying to cool its body down with cold water.”
“All sorts of things can go wrong when you tranquilize an animal in the wild” he continues. “Especially in a mountain forest with steep ravines, the animal can fall off a cliff and die, or injure itself trying to get away. Luckily we used a tranquilizer that wasn’t too strong and which also had a stimulant to reverse the effects of the drug. Once we’d collared the animal, we administered the stimulant and it quickly came round and it ran off back into the forest in good condition.”
This first captured Tur was named Khareba by the team – a Georgian word which means “glad tidings”, but is also a play on the word khari (“bull” or “male Tur”). Five days later the team captured a second Tur in a smoothly-run operation before returning to Tbilisi. The experience they gained in the field has proved invaluable, and has allowed them to make modifications – such as adjusting the length of the electronic collars. Although radio signal has been lost for one of the animals, the movements of the other are being tracked remotely, giving vital insight into this important population.
CNF is currently in talks with NACRES about extending the project, and Bejan believes that capturing female Tur should be a key priority once their summer gestation period is over. “Not only is the East Caucasian Tur categorized as ‘near-threatened’ in the IUCN’s Red List,” says Sulamanidze. “It’s also a culturally-important species in Georgia, mentioned in poetry and literature dating back centuries. The more we know about it, the more we can do to protect it…and really, in a sense, that means protecting a part of ourselves and our identity too.”