In the chaos and economic collapse of post-Soviet Georgia, the country’s natural riches were seen by many as a resource to be plundered, rather than to be preserved. The last decade, however, has seen intensified efforts to protect the country’s unique ecosystems and biodiversity in a way that is both effective and sustainable.
Standing on the front line of nature-protection in Georgia is an army of rangers that act as the eyes, ears, hands and feet of Georgia’s Agency for Protected Areas across its network of parks and reserves. Apart from patrolling the parks and assisting visitors, in many places rangers are also charged with collecting visual and other data in order to monitor species protection.
Rezo Kimadze, 63, is the longest-serving ranger at Borjomi-Kharagauli national park, the oldest of Georgia’s ten national parks and also the largest —85,083 ha—comprising a little over 1% of the total territory of Georgia. Rezo and his family live in Borjomi, an attractive town nestled in a steep, forested gorge which is famous world-wide for its mineral water springs. The town and its breathtaking scenery was so popular with the Romanovs that they built several summer palaces in the vicinity in the 19th century. Rezo has been working in the Park for 28 years, making him the longest-serving ranger, and has seen its fortunes change over time.
“I’ve loved nature since birth”, says Rezo, surveying the view of Borjomi Gorge from the National Park’s headquarters. “My father loved nature and my family was the same. The same view is always changing here. You can look at the same view every day, but it’s like seeing it for the first time. I love the colours nature creates, especially in Autumn.”
The mixed forests around Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, with their rare endemic species of chestnut, oak and yew, provide stunning displays of colour this time of year, combining pine green and lime with dashes of orange and vermillion.
The Park is also home to a variety of fauna, including grey wolves, brown bears, wild boar and roe deer. “I often see deer locking antlers during mating season” says Rezo. “When you watch them, you feel on edge … they butt each other so hard you think they’ll smash their heads!” Apart from roe deer, Borjomi- Kharagauli National Park is also home to a small population of about 90 Caucasian red deer—one of the most endangered species in the South Caucasus.
Local poverty and a lack of funding for park infrastructure were huge challenges in the early days. “It was tough in the 1990s when we started this national park. Back then it was a very difficult situation” says Rezo. “Everyone had a gun and everyone went hunting, they cut down trees for firewood. We didn’t even have regular salaries. Still, we survived and we saved this park. There were so few deer back then; now there are plenty.”
One of the ways National Parks foster sustainability is by involving local communities in tourism development, bring mutual benefits to both the park and small local businesses, who provide hotel and tour services to visitors. CNF also provides salary top-ups to rangers in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, which helps to retain experienced and motivated staff like Rezo.
“People didn’t listen before and didn’t understand why we had to protect nature” says Rezo. “Now they understand that there are many things in the forest they can benefit from. We explained to people why it’s necessary, both in schools and among the local population. Many people were against this park, but now they are more aware. They realize they can’t destroy what we have now, because otherwise it will be lost forever.”