Driving through Vashlovani Protected Areas, you could be forgiven for thinking you had been transported to another continent. Limestone canyons rise cathedral-like from arid scrubland, giant vultures soar over vast grassy steppe and, in one corner, ancient mud volcanos bubble languidly – the sun drying the sludge on the ground around them into a giant, natural mosaic.
The landscape of the Vashlovani Protected Areas is more reminiscent of Africa or the Middle East than Georgia, a country famous for its wooded valleys, rushing rivers and snow-capped mountain peaks. Still, here in South-Eastern Georgia’s Kakheti region, abutting the border with Azerbaijan, lies a fascinating anomaly – a desert in the land of mountains and waterfalls.
The parched landscapes of the Vashlovani Protected Areas lie at some of the lowest elevations in Georgia – just 70-80 meters above sea-level. Even in winter, daytime temperatures can hit 15 degrees Celsius, and snowfall is extremely rare. The area is not devoid of plant life, however. The name ‘Vashlovani’ derives from the Georgian for ‘apples’, although actually the name refers to the pistachio trees, which are widespread in the region and look similar to apple trees at first sight.
Vashlovani’s unique status was recognized as early as 1935, and has been supported by CNF since 2012, with a particular focus on promoting tourism and improving monitoring and patrolling. The latter has been particularly important in recent years, especially since the 2003 discovery of a single leopard in the area. The area around Vashlovani has historically supported a large population of leopards, an animal which has an emblematic status in Georgian folklore (the national epic poem by Shota Rustaveli Vephkhistkaosani, translates as ‘The Knight in the Leopard’s Skin’).
The animal was thought to have been poached to extinction in Georgia by the 1950s, but in 2003 zoologists responding to reported sightings found leopard paw-prints in Vashlovani. The animal itself – named Noah – was caught on camera in 2004, but the trail went cold in 2009 and it is unknown whether there are still leopards living in Vashlovani.
The same cameras that discovered Noah also picked up some poachers in the area. Protecting Vashlovani’s unique range of animal species – which includes black vultures, grey wolves, Eurasian lynxes, striped hyenas and wild boar – is a top priority for CNF and the Area’s management.
Over-grazing by the livestock that pass through the area on their seasonal journey to the highlands also poses a threat to the delicate natural balance in Vashlovani. Minimizing human impact in the area is a key concern for the Protected Areas Administration, but so is encouraging tourism and a variety of key facilities are being supported by CNF including refurbished tourist bungalows.
There are designated trails, picnic spots and even areas where it’s possible to light fires. Autumn is the perfect time to visit Vashlovani Protected Areas, with the best daytime temperatures and breath-taking displays of natural colour.