Included in the toll of the recent fighting between the Republic of Georgia and Russia are damages from forest fires in one of Europe’s largest national parks and the communities and natural areas surrounding it.
Forest fires broke out in and around Georgia’s Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, part of the Caucasus biodiversity hotspot
, during the hostilities sparked by a dispute over the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia. Borjomi is 150 kilometers from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and 70 kilometers west of the city of Gori.
Worldwide, the burning and razing of tropical forests accounts for at least 20 per cent of all carbon emissions, a major contributor to global warming across the planet.
Fires inside the national park were relatively small and have been contained, conservation personnel in the area report. More substantial fires, however, were reported in the natural areas surrounding the park, increasing the pressure on the park’s ecosystem and damaging the livelihoods of residents who depend on the natural areas for income and resources.
“The staff of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park has been devotedly acting in the area – they have effectively stopped fire in several small sites of fire on the territory of the National Park and reserve,” said Nugzar Zazanashvili, who heads the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) coordination team for the Caucasus at the WWF Caucasus Program in Tbilisi.
He said the damage in and around the park was limited to about 10 hectares, but further to the east, forests situated between the town of Tsagveri and Daba Village, at the bank of Gujarula River, have had at least 300 hectares damaged by fire as of Aug. 22.
“All this has been happening during critical time and conditions, inaccessible relief and in absence of appropriate equipment,” Zazanashvili said.
The fire-fighting effort is critical: In Georgia and across the hotspot, biodiversity has already been lost at an alarming rate. Many of the lands have been transformed by human activities. In total, 73 percent of the original vegetation has been lost, affecting both people and nature.
Levan Tabunidze, chief of the Administration Division for Borjomi-Kharagauli protected areas (National Park, Strict Nature Reserve, and Nedzvi Sanctuary), reported that economic damage from the conflict would also be felt in the effective cancellation of tourism season in the park, and likely across the country.
The 86,000-hectare Borjomi-Kharagauli is home to the globally threatened Caucasian red deer and the relic and endemic Caucasian salamander, as well as brown bears, lynx and wolves. It is the largest coniferous forest in the Lesser Caucasus region, and the largest oriental white spruce forest in the world.
Since 2003, CEPF has invested $8.5 million to enable nongovernmental organizations and other private sector partners to help conserve the natural resources of the Caucasus Hotspot, which includes Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park and other key biodiversity areas in Georgia.
CEPF, Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund, WWF and the German government have also helped create a Caucasus Protected Areas Fund to provide long-term financial support for priority protected areas in the Armenian, Azerbaijan, and Georgian parts of the hotspot.
The hotspot spans 500,000 square kilometers of mountains in Eurasia between the Black and Caspian seas, including Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and small portions of Russia, Iran and Turkey. Its forests, high mountains, wetlands, steppes and semi-deserts contain more than twice the plant and animal diversity found in adjacent regions of Europe and Asia.