There is a long tradition of nature conservation in the Caucasus. The first state nature reserve, the Lagodekhi Gorge in Georgia, was created in 1912. Since then, establishment of strict nature reserves became a key part of conservation activities in the region. Today, protected areas cover roughly 44,000 km², or eight percent of the region's total land area; 39,000 km² of this (7.3 percent) is in protected areas in IUCN categories I to IV. Several thousand square kilometers are also protected in hunting reserves, which offer some degree of protection and resource management.
Nonetheless, the integrity of many protected areas is under threat from increased poaching, illegal logging, and grazing. The reduced capacity and resources of government agencies make conservation priorities difficult to enforce. More remaining habitat in the Caucasus hotspot needs to be formally protected to ensure the long-term survival of the region's biodiversity. Much of the remaining land in the region is government owned, meaning that it could be protected relatively easily and quickly. As market economies gain strength in the region, land ownership will pass to private owners, and the opportunity to easily create new reserves will be lost.
Plans are being made for a trans-boundary protected area on the border between Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Trans-boundary projects are important conservation priorities in the region for connecting populations of wide-ranging species in the region's fragmented habitats, as well as for protecting threatened and endemic species of fish in the region's rivers and lakes.
The nation of Georgia has taken several important steps toward improved biodiversity conservation in recent years and plans to expand the 760-km² Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. The Georgia Parliament adopted a new protected areas system law based on IUCN recommendations, and the president pledged to protect 15 percent of the country's total forest area as Georgia's "Gift to the Earth." With support from the World Bank/GEF, three additional national parks have been created.
Elsewhere, Azerbaijan's Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources has been actively developing a protected areas system with the creation of new national parks and the expansion of existing protected areas. In 2004, two new national parks were gazzeted in the Turkish Caucasus covering a total area of 1,050 km². Russia has increased its investment in nature conservation in the northern Caucasus four-fold over the past few years, including the creation of new protected areas.
In addition, WWF has been working in the Caucasus since 1990 on nature conservation and environmental education projects. Conservation priority areas for WWF in the Caucasus include the East Caucasian floodplains, the southern Colchic montane forests, and the woodlands of southern Armenia. The Georgian Center for the Conservation of Wildlife is an important national organization working on biodiversity conservation.
In 2003, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund began a five-year $8.5 million investment in the Caucasus region to focus on conserving the hotspot's globally threatened and restricted-range species. CEPF is targeting its investments on a set of thematic and geographic priorities, the latter of which include a subset of Key Biodiversity Areas (among the 205 KBAs defined for the region by WWF-Caucasus in collaboration with the BirdLife partnership) and five different conservation corridors: Greater Caucasus, Caspian, West Lesser Caucasus, East Lesser Caucasus, and Hyrcan. This is one example of conservation plans that have been developed for the region based on wide stakeholder involvement, but these processes are still in crucial need of further financial and technical support.