Calling Nature’s Caretakers…

In Focus, August 2006

By Ben Jolliffe

Vardges Gharakhanyan is a man who gets things done.

As curator of the Arpi Sanctuary in Armenia, he enlisted the help of the local bishop to bring an end to the illegal tree felling, cattle grazing, and smuggling of endemic plants that were devastating this area of semi-desert and mountain steppe.

“We have been able to protect species such as the lesser kestrel, the Armenian mouflon, and a number of remarkable bats,” Gharakhanyan said.

Born and bred here, Gharakhanyan finds inspiration in the area’s many caves, plunging canyons, and open juniper woodlands. But sometimes, like the many other conservationists working in remote areas across the Caucasus biodiversity hotspot, even he needs the help of others to continue.

Support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) has now enabled BirdLife International, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO), to provide that assistance by expanding its 1,500-person “caretaker network” from Western Europe to include four countries in the Caucasus Hotspot.

Working through NGOs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, BirdLife has recruited 31 local conservation heroes as caretakers at targeted sites – known as Important Bird Areas or IBAs – critical for the conservation of globally threatened or unique bird species.

Establishing the network forms an important part of CEPF’s strategic direction of strengthening mechanisms to conserve the biodiversity of the Caucasus Hotspot with emphasis on species, site, and corridor outcomes.

Targeting Outcomes for Species, Sites, and Corridors

Some of the caretakers, like Gharakhanyan, are professionals with many years of experience in local government, NGOs, or other civil society organizations. Others, like Mustafa Sari, a shepherd in the uplands of Turkey’s eastern Rize province, are new to organized conservation.

Yet all of them bring intimate knowledge of the area, and, just as important, good relations with the people who live there. Sari’s familiarity with the region’s local species has made him invaluable as a guide to birders from all over Europe who are coming to the area in growing numbers, helping to boost the local economy.

Caretakers’ responsibilities include monitoring bird populations, identifying actual or potential threats, liaising with local authorities and communities, promoting environmental awareness through flagship species, and, as they gain experience, developing site action plans and carrying out site conservation actions.

From October 2005 until April 2006, national coordinators at BirdLife’s partner NGOs received comprehensive training in all these tasks that they are now passing on to the caretakers themselves.

To encourage sustainability, the project also includes a small grants component that will support specific conservation actions at the sites. Once caretakers have established what their particular needs are, the coordinators will help them apply for grants.

“It’s a very useful training exercise,” said BirdLife’s European funding development manager, Umberto Gallo-Orsi, who is managing the overall project. “Caretakers will be in a better position to apply for funds themselves in the future.”

As a scientific researcher for almost 25 years at Azerbaijan’s Gyzylagach State Reserve, Alim Talibov has already been carrying out many of the tasks required of a caretaker in his daily activities.

But he has now developed a wider informal network of colleagues, rangers, and schoolchildren to monitor the 80,000-hectare reserve, a seriously threatened area of lagoons and semi-desert on the coast of the Caspian Sea.

“Local people will now come to me if they see anything unusual,” Talibov said.

Scaling up the Network

In other areas, such as Georgia’s mountainous Samtskhe-Javakheti region, the network is helping to catalyze relationships between new and existing organizations to extend its impact even further.

The Georgian Center for the Conservation of Wildlife (GCCW), a BirdLife affiliate, selected Giorgi Janashvili as caretaker here partly because of his many years of experience as a senior outreach officer in the region with sustainable development NGO Cooperative Housing Foundation, also known as CHF International.

In 2002, Janashvili set up a new conservation NGO called Orbi, named after the Georgian word for the Eurasian vulture (Gyps fulvus). By working through contacts and colleagues with GCCW, CHF International, and Orbi, he is able to extend his caretaker network over as many as 10 IBAs.

“We have an extraordinary diversity of habitats here, from mountainous volcanic regions more than 3,000 meters above sea level, to mixed forest, subalpine meadow, wetlands, and semi-arid [areas],” Janashvili said. “But not many people live here so we need to enlist everyone we can.”

Janashvili’s exposure to the caretaker network is also helping him to continue building Orbi’s local capacity and strengthen its impact.

National Cooperation

BirdLife is also helping the selected NGOs in each country to build up their existing capacity.

In Georgia, Zurab Javakhishvili used to focus primarily on field work. But after receiving training from BirdLife under this project, he was appointed the IBA coordinator at GCCW. He is now managing the caretakers at the local level as well as fundraising and liaising with his regional counterparts.

Furthermore, BirdLife’s international expertise has enabled the organization to leverage more than $500,000 for the network from international sources, essential when there is so little funding available at the national level and so many different IBAs to oversee.

“Our caretaker network is almost as diverse as the habitats we cover – policemen, teachers, hunters, restaurant owners, shepherds. It’s remarkable,” Gallo-Orsi said.

“But seeing how they work together and learn from each other as they help to conserve so many globally threatened species is more remarkable still, particularly in areas where historically there has been so much mistrust and conflict.”

For more information, contact:

, IBA Coordinator, Armenian Society for the Protection of Birds

, IBA Coordinator, Doğa Derneği Turkey

, European Funding Development Manager, BirdLife International

, IBA Coordinator, Azerbaijan Ornithological Society

, IBA Coordinator, Georgian Center for the Conservation of Wildlife