By Joseph Alexander Smith
It’s practically impossible to take a bad photo of Javakheti in summer. Much of the frame will inevitably be filled by the bright cerulean sky, brushed with cotton clouds. Then comes a band of volcanic mountain peaks in various shades of brown-grey or muddy green, depending on perspective. Below the mountains are vast green plains tumbling across the sightline, streaked with bullet-grey lakes with wisps of orange-red vegetation – wetlands thick with bushy grasses and everywhere birds…….an abundance of birds. Waders pick at the stony shores of lakes, while elegant cranes stalk the edges of streams. The air is thick with birdsong – squawks, trills and the short, rhythmic phrases of countless bird dialects, soaring into the sky like an invisible Tower of Babel. Javakheti feels like a higher realm – a place where the border between land and sky is fuzzy and distant. It feels like bird paradise.
“The mountains are covered in snow in winter, and the lake freezes over” says Gagika Markosyan, a park ranger whose patch includes the shores of Lake Madatapa.
“The melted snow brings minerals down from the mountains which in turn supports large numbers of fish – crucian carp – which the pelicans love!”
Indeed, of all the birdlife here in Javakheti, it’s the pelicans who steal the show. There are two species of this fish-guzzling giant that call the region home: the Great White Pelican, which actually has a pinkish hue and a range that extends from Western Eurasia to Southern Africa, and the larger, more rare Dalmatian Pelican, the Western population of which breeds in only a few select locations in Europe and Western Asia – one of which is Javakheti. They prefer to nest on discrete islands far from the shore and are easily spooked into abandoning their eggs by fishing boats and other human disturbances. As a result of human encroachment, numbers of both species of pelican have declined rapidly over the last century or so, and the Dalmatian pelican is listed as ‘near threatened’ by the IUCN.
But things are looking up. Since the 2000s, conservationists at Lake Kerkini National Park in Greece have been building artificial islands and floating nesting platforms in order to increase the amount of space available to the pelicans for breeding. The birds have taken to these artificial structures as readily as they do to natural islands, and populations of both species are bouncing back. Now, the initiative is being replicated in Javakheti too.
“The Caucasus Nature Fund approached me and asked me to investigate whether it would be possible to improve breeding conditions for the pelicans that currently nest only on Kartsakhi Lake,” says ornithologist Zura Javakhishvili. “So, we brought Dr. Theodoros Nazaridis, the director of Kerkini Lake National Park to Georgia and conducted a field study of the region in order to provide some recommendations for Javakheti Protected Areas.”
Kartsakhi Lake is one of the largest bodies of water in Javakheti, but it also lies on the border between Georgia and Turkey. A handful of small islands is found on the Turkish side of the lake, and this is where the pelicans tend to breed. Once they’ve raised their young, however, the birds relocate to the shallower lakes on the Georgian side of the border, where feeding is much easier.
Although the pelican breeding sites on the Turkish side of the border are remote and relatively undisturbed, they’re not part of a protected area. For this reason, Javakhishvili and Nazaridis recommended the construction of artificial islands on the Georgian side of Kartsakhi lake, close to birdwatching infrastructure, both existing and planned.
Indeed, Javakheti’s ability to attract specialist groups of eco-tourists – in this case birdwatchers and photographers – will be key to ensuring a sustainable future for the pelican breeding sites in Georgia. Tourism brings the revenue needed to sustain conservation efforts, but an initial investment in infrastructure and marketing is always needed.
“We can take Lake Kerkini as the model”, says Javakhishvili. “Lake Kerkini has a global reputation among birdwatchers. If you type ‘pelican’ and ‘photo’ into a search engine, in all likelihood the images you’ll see with have been shot on Lake Kerkini. Javakheti has this potential too, and could be very interesting for photographers, but in order to become popular, an area needs to be organized….you need hides, artificial perching areas, platforms to increase number of pelicans and improve the likelihood of being able to take amazing photos.”
To this end, the Caucasus Nature Fund financed the construction of a wooden floating breeding platform for Kartsakhi lake, together with a smaller perching platform and an observation tower for birdwatchers and photographers. This new infrastructure was put into service just this summer.
Additionally, together with the EU/ENPARD regional development program, CNF co-financed the construction of two tourist cottages close to a birdwatcher’s hide
on Kartsakhi lake in an attempt to relieve the chronic lack of tourist accommodation in the region, although much remains to be done. “Currently, birdwatching groups that come to Javakheti tend to stay in Vardzia or Akhaltsikhe, since there are just no decent hotels in nearby towns”, says Javakhishvili, referring to more developed tourist locations as much as 100km from Javakheti’s lakes. “The groups that come are generally composed of older people, who expect more comfortable accommodation.”
Better offers in terms of accommodation would also enhance the economic impact of ecotourism on the rural communities that live alongside Javakheti’s lakes. In the shade of a covered picnic pavilion near Bugdasheni Lake, I meet park ranger Vakho Mkrtichyan – a native of the nearby village of Gorelovka. As we chat in the late-afternoon heat, duck calls rise from the reed beds on the edge of the lake, and two storks prowl a freshly-mowed field nearby, looking for frogs and insects. “If it weren’t for the corona virus pandemic,” he says, “there would be twice as many tourists this year as last year. I reckon about half of those who come here once end up returning, but there aren’t many options for accommodation apart from this campsite.”
Vakho shows me around the backstreets of Gorelovka, which was originally settled by an 18th century non-conformist religious sect from Russia – the Dukhobors – most of whom have since migrated. Their simple houses are low, sometimes roofed with turf. The outer walls are painted brilliant white, and the window shutters decorated with colourful floral designs. Although the Dukhobors tended to eschew luxuries in favour of a simple, ascetic existence, they did bring the Russian banya (sauna-bath) with them from their homeland, and a few of these buildings can still be found in the village. This exhilarating combination of stunning scenery, vibrant birdlife and unique cultural heritage means that Javakheti has the potential to be a world-class eco-tourism destination, serving a range of outdoor interests and visitor budgets. It will just take some hard work, good planning, and wise investments.
Back at Madatapa Lake, where I started my visit, Gagika takes me to see the pelicans up close. About 100m from the shore is a small, rocky island crowded with noisy, grooming birds. There are pelicans, storks, cranes, ruddy shelducks, velvet scoters, tufted ducks and red-necked grebes. Over the next half hour, I watch entranced as groups of Great White pelicans take flight, circling the lake in search of schools of fish. Once they spy their prey, they land on the shallow water in a sort of horse-shoe formation, circling the hapless shoal and hoovering up any fish that try to escape. When they’ve had their fill they make their way back to the small rocky island to preen themselves and digest their catch. It’s an honour to be so close to Javakheti’s most sought-after residents, and one I hope many more people will be able to enjoy after me.