Since the start of the pandemic, various international conservation organisations, academics, NGOs and journalists reported on the impacts of Covid-19 on biodiversity conservation, on wildlife (including illegal trade), and on Protected Areas (PA). However, I haven’t found any analyses that focus specifically to the situation in the Caucasus. From the knowledge of Georgia’s Protected Areas I have gained over the last 20 years, I knew that some of the impacts – particularly compared to PAs on the African continent – will be different, and wanted to explore it more through interviews with people on the ground.
I have spoken to several people who work in the field of nature protection in Georgia: rangers, PAs staff, visitor centre managers in parks, and environmental NGOs, to get an overview of the current situation and plans for the future. Their views are private and don’t represent the official stand of the government’s Agency of Protected Areas (APA). I have also received some official feedback from APA that is included in the article.
This article summarizes their personal views on the positive and negative impacts of the coronavirus on nature and biodiversity protection in Georgia, and how that changed their work. We also discussed current and future management strategies for Protected Areas and the future of tourism in PAs in Georgia. However, in the interest to keep this article concise, I will focus only on the impact on nature, and write about PA tourism in the next article.
The negative impacts of Covid-19 mentioned in the reports and articles from other destinations, particularly in PAs on the African continent, include: increased threat to wildlife, increased poaching and illegal hunting, higher risk of illegal wildlife trade (and increased risk of corruption relating to this), threats to rangers’ safety. These impacts are caused by increased migration from cities back into the villages as well as from the huge loss of tourism revenues and the lack of tourists’ presence. Restrictions on international travel have already fuelled a jump in illegal hunting for bush meat as a fall in revenue forces government wildlife agencies and NGOs to scale back anti-poaching operations. Poachers have encroached on land they wouldn’t normally visit and killed rhinos in tourism hot spots now devoid of visitors and safari guides.
Are the negative impacts in Georgia similar?
- Illegal hunting, logging, poaching
Geof Giacomini, the CEO of the Caucasus Nature Fund that provides ‘vital financial support for nature conservation in the stunning wilderness areas of Armenia’, Azerbaijan and Georgia’ said that ‘we may expect more illegal logging and more poaching in PAs in Georgia if the health (and therefore economic) crisis continues beyond summer.’ Giorgi Bakuridze from Tusheti PA is more optimistic. He reckons that poaching and illegal hunting won’t happen because ‘the local people know why tourists come to our PAs and they don’t want to destroy that’.
According to the Agency of Protected Areas: ‘the rangers are still actively working and so far, due to quarantine, no special changes have been revealed in the direction of poaching.’ I am assuming this means there were no reported cases of poaching.
The threat of poaching or illegal hunting will also vary from PA to PA. For example, the rangers from Vashlovani PA have reported no illegal hunting activities during the coronavirus crisis, but there have been cases in the neighbouring Lagodekhi. One of the opinions I have heard is that the illegal hunting might be caused by some local residents who have been away for many years and recently come back to the area (due Covid). They do it because they are unaware of the current restrictions, or are used to the way hunting was carried out in the Soviet times where more activities were allowed to be carried out.
- Future impact on nature
The focus on domestic tourism as well as the recent push for Georgia as a safe destination for international tourists, combined with the predicted trend of travellers choosing more remote places and secluded holidays in nature, can have a negative impact on the PAs. If too many people storm the PAs in Georgia in the summer months, there might be too much pressure on the PAs and the damage to ecosystems will increase, says Geof Giacomini.
- Loss of income from tourism
This concerns both the Agency for Protected Areas (where the budget for the PAs comes from) and the local tourism service providers. This may have to force them to look at various alternative options to diversify the sources of funding. I will write more about it in the next article on tourism in PAs.
- Nature has a rest
‘I see more positives than negatives. Nature has a rest. People are more careful to nature and to each other’, said Nino Seturidze, Visitor Service Senior Specialistfrom Vashlovani PA. Vazha Cherkezishvili, a ranger and the head of the security department at Vashlovani PAs, used similar words: ‘When we think of the environment, Covid-19 has had a positive impact on Protected Areas. Sometimes having a lot of people visiting cause problems for national parks. Now there is no tourism allowed, nature had had a time-out and rested’.
- Improved people-nature relationship
In the article on opportunities from Covid, I mentioned ‘a new relationship with nature’ as one of the positive impacts of Covid in Georgia: to slow down, to care more, to be more active. According to Geof Giacomini from CNF, ‘Georgian people’s relationship with nature will change – we can expect a psychological shift into being much happier to be out in nature. Georgians will hopefully leave the cities and spend more time outdoors in the mountains and forests for recreational purposes’. The members of Associations of Friends of Protected Areas have been very active in promoting the value of nature, and Geof hopes this would help spread these values across to other Georgians.
This is also connected to the ongoing argument in Georgia about whether to pay for ecosystem services. CNF has been suggesting introducing the entrance fees to PAs (national parks in particular) or paying for using the natural resources, but this has always been opposed by the Georgian authorities. The issue is that many Georgians take nature for granted and damage it by littering, illegal logging, extraction – so perhaps putting a monetary value on it would make the people value nature more. This may well turn out to be another impact of Covid: ‘Coronavirus will help rethink the relationship with nature and to change the mindset into a more caring one’, said Geof.
- Better engagement with local communities
The fact that people living within or adjacent to PAs don’t have much work in tourism and have more time; that they are back in their places of origin, often after many years of working in Tbilisi; and that visitor managers at PAs also have less work – all unexpectedly caused by Covid-19 – also means that there has been more social interaction amongst members of the local community and between them and the PAs staff. Some of the PAs staff gave reached out to local communities to discuss the issues that bother the locals, not only tourism-related but in general. This may lay foundations for future community engagement with the local communities when tourism returns to the parks.
Nino Seturidze has used the time in quarantine to organise regular – and very popular – webinars for local school children via zoom. They are member of school ecoclubs that provide environmental education for children. She sends them tasks to conduct environmental research in their gardens and sends her photos of birds and animals. She has also invited various people to talk to the kids about nature conservation: the Georgian Rangers Association; the only female ranger from Algeti PA, or a professional bird watcher. ‘I did it because I didn’t want to stay at home and do nothing. Involving the kids from our PA has bee great and I also want to involve children from other ecoclubs across Georgia’, she said.
- Improved monitoring of PAs
Some of the PAs are using this quiet time to clear the backlog of work that there was never enough time to finish, such as drafting plans for new trails, improving signage and other tourism infrastructure. ‘Rangers in Tusheti now have more time to focus on observing biodiversity. They update the old data which improves the monitoring in our PA’, said Giorgi Bakuridze.
In Vashlovani, rangers work in groups that rotate once a week. One group goes into to the park for a week when the other group goes back home. The new regulation of no more than three people allowed in one car means that there is less of them patrolling, meaning that they have had to double their time on patrolling. This is one significant change to their jobs, but it isn’t negative. Rangers I spoke to say that apart from that, their daily work has not changed. They are still patrolling without any interruptions (and without threat to their safety, as it has been reported in PAs in Africa) and monitoring/documenting biodiversity data.
- Improvements in skills
In addition to conducting webinars for the locals or informally discussing the current crisis (and the ways to minimise the negative impacts) amongst themselves, the PA staff also use this quieter time to improve their skills via online training (guesthouse management, rural tourism, English lessons). After Covid, Giorgi Bakuridze plans to train the local school children in Tusheti to be tourist guides, so he is now participating in training-for-trainers course. Nana Kartvelishvili, Business Development and Tourism Specialist at Organic Farming and Rural Tourism Network ‘Elkana’ is providing free training for small businesses that Giorgi has also benefitted from. He wants to know more about guesthouse and tourism management to prepare better for the future.
- Focus on agriculture
The issue of migration back from cities to the countryside can be also seen as a positive impact. Many people who had left Dedoplistskarotown (adjacent to Vashlovani PA) have recently come back, started farming, gardening, planting trees. ‘People start to understand again that nature and agriculture is so important for Georgians and for our country’ Nino Seturidze told me. I hope that the government will focus more on agriculture now, we have so many great resources and don’t need to import so much food’.
Tamar Khakhishvili, Head of International Relations and Project Management Department at APA, also mentioned the potential of shifting towards increasing agriculture production. She emailed me: ‘Our country should make great emphasis on using its resources (funds from international organizations, budget programs aimed at supporting SMEs) for developing local production. Every Lari of domestic investment will count a lot. Herewith, it’s most important to target the sectors which contribute to substituting import. Georgia has a potential to produce a lot of products which is unfortunately still imported into the country (mostly agricultural products). Also, this does not require too long-term investments and it’s highly feasible to count on this.’
According to Giorgi Bakuridze from Tusheti PA, it is ‘a good thing that the local people now will think more about changing their habits, hopefully focussing more on agriculture – growing potatoes and farming sheep again – and diversify their incomes.’
Lessons learnt so far
Nana Kartvelishvili from Elkana hopes that Covid has given Georgians a chance to improve knowledge, energy efficiency and waste management; focus more on agriculture; and to care more about nature. Similarly, Nino Seturidze is also looking at positives: ‘It is not a tragedy for me personally. Yes, we have a break from tourists and this has had economic impacts. But we do need more involvement of local business and the local municipality in nature conservation’.
All of my interlocutors hope that post-Covid, there will be more interest and willingness to protect the natural environment in Georgia as the understanding of the benefits of conservation has grown during the pandemic. As nature is one of Georgia’s biggest assets, I sincerely hope so.