Home Conservation Field Reports Caucasus – Asia Meets Europe

Caucasus – Asia Meets Europe

Caucasus – Asia Meets Europe

As he straddles the boundaries of Russia and Azerbaijan through the Caucasus, where Asiatic and European flora and fauna converge, M.K. Ranjitsinh sights majestic mammals native to the region and birds in the Shirwan National Park. Recounting his travels along the picturesque Black Sea coast, he traces the history of the region and underscores the magic of these impressive mountain ranges.

Straddling the boundaries of Russia and Azerbaijan, the Caucasus is the only mountain range in the world, which holds two species of ibex, the Kuban tur of Russia (seen here) and the Daghestan tur of Azerbaijan. Photo: M.K. Ranjitsinh

The Caucasus – more so the pristine western part under Russia – are amongst the most picturesque mountain ranges I have seen. Not very high but covered with vast expanses of lush forests, vales, dales and meadows carpeted with wild flowers and grass, interspersed with rhododendrons, it is a meeting point for Asiatic and European fauna and flora. It is the easternmost extremity of the range of the chamois, and of the European bison. Straddling the boundaries of Russia and Azerbaijan, it is the only mountain range in the world, which holds two species of ibex, the Kuban tur of Russia and the Daghestan tur of Azerbaijan. It is also home to the brown bear, red deer, lynx and leopard.

A visit in May and June of 2018 to both parts of the range in both countries provided yet another example – if ever one needed it – of the fragility of our mountain biomes and fauna and how constant vigilance and conservation efforts have to be exercised to retain them. Both Russia and Azerbaijan were under the same regime and regimen until a quarter century ago. Today, the Daghestan tur of Azerbaijan does not tolerate human presence even at 1,000 m. and the mountains show evidence of overuse and erosion; while the Kuban tur in Russia and the chamois allowed me to approach within 100 m.

Seen here under rocky overhangs, East Caucasian or the Daghestan tur does not tolerate human presence even at 1,000 m. in its mountain habitat. Photo: M.K. Ranjitsinh

SEARCHING FOR THE TUR

We drove from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, to the Shahdag National Park and Reserve. Shah means king and dag means mountain, the same as in Iran, which once exercised hegemony over this region. We went up the Girdiman river, traversing an incredibly rough path and river bed in an old and tough Russian Gaz 69 military vehicle. We camped, bivouacked, tracked and rode on horseback for a week, until we reached just below the Babadag mountain, at 3,629 m. the highest in the region. Baba means grandfather and dag of course, a mountain. Each day we were hampered by mist and rain and on some nights rain water entered my tent and soaked my sleeping bag.

We never saw the brown bear Ursus arctos, only their fresh droppings, nor the Caucasian chamois Rupicapra rupicapra caucasica and the Caspian red deer Cervus elaphus maral. With some effort, however, I was able to see and photograph, from a considerable distance – the main objective of my visit – 40 to 50 specimens of the East Caucasian or Daghestan tur Capra cylindricornis (Blyth, 1841). The tubular, side-spreading, semi-circular, downward and backward turning horns are similar to those of the bharal or blue sheep, and their shape is responsible for the Latin name cylindricornis.

The tur population in the reserve, a few years ago, was between 500 to 700 animals. Each year 35 to 40 Daghestan tur males were allowed to be shot on licence in the reserve, mostly foreign hunters paying fancy prices for a unique trophy. Now their numbers have plummeted to between 200 to 250. Disease, I was told, was the cause of decline. Considering the excessive wariness of this tur, poaching seemed to be the more plausible reason.

We watched a group of tur nannies, kids and immature males play the game of cock-of-the-rock so common amongst wild goats. One individual would clamber atop a steep pinnacle or a prominent rock and defend its occupation of it with lowered horns, as others tried to dislodge it to occupy the elevated prominence themselves. The acrobatics, antics and the surefootedness involved makes it a fascinating tableau to watch. One herd got underneath a rocky overhang in a cave, and raising themselves and balancing on their hindlegs, licked the underside of the overhang, obviously for the mineral extracts available.

As we watched an all-male group silhouetted on the skyline, a Caspian Snowcock Tetraogallus caspius also appeared and strutted past them. Their local name is Tetra or mountain hen, which is perhaps the origin of the scientific name of all snowcocks.

The black face, white patch below the eye, chestnut collar and black chest give the male Black Francolin, introduced to the Caucasus, its distinctive appearance. Photo: M.K. Ranjitsinh

BIRDING ALONG THE COAST

It was indeed surprising that I saw relatively little birdlife in the entire Caucasus, especially birds of prey.

This was, however, not the case with the Shirwan National Park south of Baku, along the Caspian coast. Established in 2003 and covering 54,375 ha., this park encompasses one of the last pristine semi-deserts of Azerbaijan, covered with artemisia and saltwort. The park is said to hold 6,000-8,000 goitered gazelle Gazella subgutturosa and 200 wolves Canis lupus, which I think are exaggerated estimates. I was able to watch and photograph the elegant, long-necked goitered gazelle with its characteristic lump on the throat, which gives it its name, sparring, frolicking and streaking past our speeding vehicle. The park is home to the easternmost and nominate subspecies of the Black Francolin Francolinus francolinus, a slightly-larger bird than ours, with an upturned tail. The Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax and the Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata are winter visitors and the Arab sheikhs also come to Azerbaijan to hunt houbara with their falcons.

In the middle of the park is the Flamingo Lake, visited by flamingos, Whooper Swans and many waterfowl. After many years, I saw here a Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris.

The bison found in the Caucasus today are the progeny of a selective interbreeding programme undertaken after the last specimens in the wild became extinct in 1927. Photo: M.K. Ranjitsinh

Shir in Turkish is lion and shirwan means the land of the lion. A ruling dynasty of monarchs of the region called themselves Shirwan, and interestingly, a village established in the Gir forest of Gujarat, another land of the lion, where a Nawab of Junagadh settled his African slaves and gave them land and independence in the late 19th century, is also called Shirwan.

From Azerbaijan I moved to Russia and Sochi, the ‘Russian Riviera’, along the picturesque Black Sea coast, to Krasnodar, headquarters of the once incomparable horsemen, the Cossacks, favourites of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, and then to the Caucasus State Biodiversity Zapovednik (Reserve). Once a hunting reserve of the Czars of Russia, the Reserve was established in 1924 and extends over 2,635 sq. km., mainly to protect the Caucasian race of the European bison or wisent Bison bonasus. Locally called the ‘zubr’, there are only five known photographs of the Caucasian wisent, which went extinct in the wild, when poachers killed the last two in 1927.  The two surviving in captivity were then interbred with the American bison and then with the European bison from Europe and a selective interbreeding went on till specimens most closely related to the DNA of the indigenous race were produced and reintroduced into the Caucasus. I was told that  now there are some 800 bison, 1,000 maral, 1,200 chamois, 3,000 Kuban tur Capra caucasica, and 600 to 800 brown bears.

A pair of male goitered gazelle spar in the vast expanse of the Caucasus picturesque mountain range, where European and Asiatic flora and fauna converge. Photo: M.K. Ranjitsinh

The snow leopard has not colonised the Caucasus. The indigenous leopard went extinct and so two male and one female leopard were brought from Iran about three years ago and reintroduced. The female died last year from unknown causes, but the males are believed to still exist, though their radio collars are now dead. Plans to bring in more leopards here are in the offing.

I was a guest of the dynamic Sergey Shepelov, the Director of the Reserve, and his Deputy Director Nicholas Yeskin. I was extremely well looked after with traditional Russian courtesy by them and the park personnel deputed to guide and help me in the Reserve, scientists Christina and John.

Riding horseback from one campsite to another for five days and then climbing relatively-easy slopes, we were again hampered by periodic showers and mist. But it was a most rewarding and memorable outing nonetheless.

During the years of flux that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was poaching in the Reserve, which was effectively controlled in subsequent years. As Director Shepelov told me, a park cannot afford glasnost and perestroika! He is right. In a Protected Area at least, anywhere in the world, conservation interests of that PA must take precedence over individual rights and liberties.

Caucasian chamois have longer horns and a lighter pelage than their European counterparts, but both share an affinity for rocky habitats. Photo: M.K. Ranjitsinh

Interestingly, while the tur and chamois are quite confiding and the bison almost so, the maral deer and brown bear are still very wary. Is it because the quality of meat and its size makes the deer the most attractive animal for a poacher? As for the bears, I was told the Russians cannot let go an opportunity of taking a pot shot at a bear if they see one, reminiscent of the reaction to dingoes in the Australian ‘outback’ – and bears do venture out of the reserve!

I had mainly come to the western Caucasus to see five large mammals – Kuban tur, brown bear, bison, chamois and maral. From our first campsite at Yatyrgvarta, I saw the tur and maral while sipping tea in our tents on the first morning, a bear with two cubs and a chamois as well, within an hour of leaving camp. Two male tur allowed me to photograph them from within 60 m. and decamped only when the wind changed direction, from me to them.

The tur were congregating around an artificial salt-lick on a hilltop, once as many as 24 individuals were together. Whilst the alpha male sat close to the lick, one leg outstretched in a predominant occupation of the lick, the sub-adult males and others kept a distance, testing their group hierarchy by jousting, rising on their hind legs and coming down with lowered horns upon the waiting horns of the jousting partner.

The maral were in moult, with the stags growing new antlers and hiding mostly in cover, as is the wont of many a deer species.

The bison came close to one of our camps, which was at the edge of a lush meadow with a stream running in between. Scattered over the meadow were their oval-shaped wallowing troughs in which the bulls urinate, roll and wallow to scent their bodies with their pheromones.

The chamois appeared to have longer horns but a lighter pelage than their European counterparts. But their affinity to their rocky habitats is common to both sub species. I saw six brown bears in four days, but never close enough for a good photograph. They appear to be smaller than their Himalayan counterparts and of course, much smaller than the Kamchatkan animal, the largest brown bear in Eurasia.

Brown bears in Caucasus appear to be smaller than their Himalayan and Kamchatkan cousins, especially the latter, which are the largest brown bears in Eurasia. Photo: M.K. Ranjitsinh

For a mountain lover seeking a hike in an off-beat terrain, the western Caucasus offers one of the best opportunities. Relatively easily accessible and not precipitous, offering grand vistas of forests, flowers, mountains and montane mammals, one hopes it does not get ruined by tourism, as some parts of the Himalayas have been.

Author: M.K. Ranjitsinh, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIX No. 2, February 2019.

 
 
 

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