Nature and environment

Flora

Tusheti is one of the regions with high biodiversity and one of the most significant protected areas of the entire Caucasus. Its natural landscape mainly encompasses forests (generally coniferous) and montane meadow habitats, subalpine scrubs, and subalpine and alpine grasslands, alpine screes and rocks. The region is characterized by a diverse vertical structure with elevations from 1,500 to 4,492 m a.s.l.. We may find sheer drops, rocky cliffs, and mountain massifs rugged by deep river valleys of the Tusheti, Pirikiti, and Chanchakhovani (Khisos) Alazani. The Kakheti side of the main ridge before Abano Pass is typical with its prevailing broadleaf forests composed predominantly of the Caucasian Hornbeam (Carpinus caucasicus) and Oriental Beech (Fagus orientalis). The Babaneuri Nature Reserve is home to the rare Caucasian Elm (Zelkova carpinifolia).

Higher in Tusheti the forests are mainly coniferous with predominating pine (mainly the Caucasian Pine - Pinus kochiana). The lowest parts are locally home to floodplain forests with alder and willow trees (e.g. along the Pirikiti Alazani between Omalo and Shenako). These areas are characteristic of tamarisk (Myricaria bracteata). In contrast to neighboring Khevsureti and Pshavi, the settlement structure in Tusheti is still predetermined by its farming activities with prevailing pastures and some dispersed fields (e.g. in Lower Omalo). Grazing has significantly influenced the landscape character. Many forests were felled down in the past and erosion had a great impact on soil. The processes of deforestation and soil erosion began to cease in the 50's of the 20th century when the inhabitants resettled in lowlands and sheep breeding largely diminished. When the repopulation of the area began in the 70's and 80's of the 20th century, the erosion processes reappeared, currently representing one of the main environmental threats to the region, particularly in Gometsari Valley.

We may find a large number of endemic species in the local flora (up to a quarter of all plants are endemic to Georgia or Caucasus), such as the Tushetian Dog-rose (Rosa tushetica). Hay meadows of Lower Omalo and extensive pastures in Ghele Pass, traditionally managed by shepherds and farmers, abound with plant diversity particularly when flowering from June to September. Worth mentioning are the Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica) or in other places the rare Red-Flowered Viper's Grass (Echium rusicum); abundant are various species of orchids - the Bug Orchid (Orchis coriophora), Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha), and others. The second part of summer is marked with blooming gentians, in particular, the Cross Gentian (Gentiana cruciata). Among the occurring rare species we may mention the eye-catching tall Caucasian Lilly (Lilium monadelphum) with its yellow flowers that can be seen, for example, along the path leading down from Ghele to the Pirikiti Alazani river. Strolling in the vicinity of Lake Oreti, at high elevations of Tsovata Valley, or in other places of northern slopes (typically at 2,400 - 3,000m a.s.l.) we will be astounded by impressive fields of rhododendrons (Rhododendron caucasicum). For the production of Tusheti tea (herbal infusion), the local people harvest the Horse Mint(Mentha longifolia, in Georgian pitna) or thyme (Thymus sp. div., e. g. Thymus collinus or Thymus caucasicus, in Georgian begkondara, in Tusheti dialect shortly called kondara).

The local forests are dominated by the Caucasian Pine (Pinus kochiana, syn. Pinus sylvestris),var. hamata), which together with rowan (Sorbus caucasigena, syn. Sorbus aucuparia) in some parts still forms the original virgin forests. Such pine forests gradually merge into mixed forests and birch stands at higher altitudes (typically 1,700-2400m a.s.l.). Three tree species listed in the Red List of Georgia occur here - the Radde's Birch (Betula raddeana), Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra).

Fauna

Among fauna noteworthy is the Bezoar Goat (Capra aegagrus, see the photo) which is an unwritten symbol of the Tusheti National Park and may occasionally be observed from the viewpoint on site called Kue below Omalo. Nevertheless, due to the incrementing traffic these very shy animals may very rarely be spotted (they are capable of recognizing any movement at a distance of several kilometres). Their natural habitats are steep forested slopes. A more widely occurring but still rare species is the Eastern Tur or East Caucasian Tur (Capra cylindricornis) living in the highest elevations; among large carnivores we should mention the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos), Gray Wolf (Canis lupus), or the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx). Being hunted by poachers, these predators are rather shy and avoid contact with humans; we may rarely find bear tracks by a river. Rare bird species include the Caucasian Black Grouse (Tetrao mlokosiewiczi) and above all the Caucasian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caucasicus). Both of these Caucasian endemics are very rarely seen despite their characteristic mating calls. Although the latter is strictly protected, its trophy is still considered a proof of excellent hunting skills. In summer it often shares its home with the Eastern Tur at high elevations of about 3,000m a.s.l. while in winter it migrates to lower parts in river valleys. Flying over the Tusheti valleys we may more often observe birds of prey, mainly the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) or the Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus), which usually feed on dead or weakened sheep.
Source: Tusheti NP facebook
Source: Tusheti NP facebook

Nature conservation and ecology

Nature conservation is guaranteed through three types of protected areas - Tusheti National Park (76,004 ha), Tusheti Nature Reserve (10,881 ha), and Tusheti Protected Landscape (31,517 ha). As various organizations are responsible for management of individual areas, the actual administration process is complicated. The National Park and the Nature Reserve are under control of the Agency of Protected Areas, i.e. an agency of the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture based in Tbilisi, while the Protected Landscape is managed by the Akhmeta Municipality.

The each day higher number of visitors manifests itself in the growing amount of waste with prevailing plastic (PET, plastic bags and another packaging) coming from guest houses and shops selling goods packaged in such materials. Owing to this increasing number of both domestic and foreign tourists we may see dumping sites as simple landfills appearing close to villages or even on slopes above rivers. This waste severely pollutes the soil and the mountainous environment, disregarding the durability of certain waste (plastic, glass). In 2017, the region purchased the first two vehicles for waste collection. Nevertheless, no real system of waste collection or installation of waste containers in villages has been introduced yet. In fact, the vehicles provide the only existing (and expensive) way of waste collection as there is no space for its management in the region (whether proper landfills or incineration facilities).

The most severe environmental issues involve intensive sheep grazing in a number of areas (which directly links to vast erosion of mountain slopes) and fast development in tourism. Between 2008 and 2019, the number of tourists rose from 2 thousand to 16 thousand, which is a threshold of sustainability in the given territory (see the chart below). This results in an increased number of accommodation facilities (total 50 guest houses as of 2016), higher motorized traffic levels, and issues with water resources and waste management. There is a plan for certain regulation measures, among others introduction of an entry fee for visitors (implemented in 2018), which should be used for infrastructure development and nature conservation in Tusheti. The traffic is still limited or self-regulated by the actual condition of the access road to Tusheti. In 2016, however, the authorities promised investment in order to improve the condition of the road to Omalo, and there are negotiations currently being held as to construction of a new access road connecting Pankisi Valley and Gometsari, which might lead to a further unsustainable influx of tourism and severe negative impacts on fragile subalpine and alpine habitats and endangered species.

Despite being a mountain region with numerous watercourses, in some parts, the water resources in Tusheti are on the verge of insufficiency. This is mainly true in Upper and Lower Omalo, which are more distant from any water resources. The water has to be acquired from the surrounding hillsides and, with respect to the incrementing tourism, its lack already brings along consequences. The basic sewerage system built between 2012 and 2013 is already seen as insufficient facing the rising number of tourists. The growing visit rates force the guest houses and hotels to install washing machines and build bathrooms and restrooms, thus producing large volumes of wastewater.

The each day higher number of visitors manifests itself in the growing amount of waste with prevailing plastic (PET, plastic bags and another packaging) coming from guest houses and shops selling goods packaged in such materials. Owing to this increasing number of both domestic and foreign tourists we may see dumping sites as simple landfills appearing close to villages or even on slopes above rivers. This waste severely pollutes the soil and the mountainous environment, disregarding the durability of certain waste (plastic, glass). In 2017, the region purchased the first two vehicles for waste collection. Nevertheless, no real system of waste collection or installation of waste containers in villages has been introduced yet. In fact, the vehicles provide the only existing (and expensive) way of waste collection as there is no space for its management in the region (whether proper landfills or incineration facilities).