By Joseph Alexander Smith
As poaching appears to escalate in Georgia, DW looks at what is being done against illegal hunting at the heart of the Caucasus. Deep-seated traditions are at play - and international conservation donors have a stake.
Lagodekhi is a pristine wilderness of dense, moist forests on Georgia's border with Azerbaijan and Russia's Dagestan region. The area boasts a breathtaking diversity of plant and animal life in its stunning, virgin forests of beech and hornbeam, and several endangered species find refuge in this remote natural haven. But even here, the threat of poaching is ever-present.
Returning to work one day in March after a business trip to Tbilisi, Giorgi Sulamanidze - Director of Lagodekhi Protected Areas Administration - climbed into the driver's seat of the pickup truck he uses to patrol the park. But this time, Sulamanidze heard something suspicious.
"I noticed a strange noise coming from the back while I was driving," he says. "So I stopped the car, had a look in the back and discovered a hand grenade. Someone had written on it with something sharp: WARNING. GO AWAY."
War on poaching
Sulamanidze is on the frontline of Georgia's war on poaching, which pits the staff and rangers of Georgia's protected areas against illegal hunters. "I guess this was a warning from those people who don't like our work," Giorgi tells DW. "Over the last few years, Lagodekhi Protected Areas has been one of the most successful in Georgia in terms of actively combating poaching."
Hunters have long been attracted to these forests for their rich pickings of black grouse and snowcock, as well as chamois goat-antelopes, East Caucasian tur and Caucasian red deer.
Poachers hunt for sport, not for food - there is a strong tradition of hospitality in Georgia, and in some rural parts of the country it is considered an honor to offer to take a guest hunting.
However, over the last decade, international donor groups such as German Development Bank KfW, the United Nations Development Program and the WWF have been supporting the Georgian government's attempts to stamp out poaching.
Patrol vehicles and equipment such as binoculars and camera traps have been purchased for staff in the protected areas, helping them to detect poaching activity more effectively.
However, rather than disappearing, rangers say poachers are instead becoming increasingly aggressive.
In 2012, in another of Georgia's protected areas, head ranger Merab Arevidze was shot dead while in pursuit of suspected poachers. Out of six suspects arrested in connection with the killing, only one was charged with the murder. His sentence was cut to five years on appeal, and he received a presidential pardon after just two years.
Park rangers and other staff on the frontline in Georgia's war on poaching complain that while international donor support has enhanced their capacity to detect and detain poachers, the response of law enforcement agencies is often inadequate.
When prosecuting poachers, judges have the option of confiscating the poacher's weapon, says Levan Tabunidze, director of Borjomi-Kharagauli national park where the shooting took place. In practice, however, Tabunidze says that this measure is rarely applied.
Back in Lagodekhi, Sulamanidze tells DW that the current system of fines is not effective. "For killing a tur, the fine is 50,000 lari [19,500 euros or $22,000\," Sulamanidze says. "Most of these poachers are simple people - smallholders - and for them, this amount is unimaginably large."
In fact, Sulamanidze says, rather than acting as a deterrent, these out-of-scale fines actually encourage poachers to behave more aggressively, to avoid being caught.
To prove his point, Sulamanidze shows an image recently picked up by one of his camera traps. It shows a camouflaged figure - his face concealed by a mask - walking through the forest with an automatic assault weapon.
Increase in poaching?
International donors are concerned that their investment in Georgia's protected areas - which amounts to tens of millions of dollars over the past 15 years - is not being met with a firm commitment to law enforcement by the Georgian government.
Figures from Georgia's Agency of Protected Areas show a 50 percent increase in reported incidents of poaching between 2011 and 2013 - although it's not clear whether this figure represents an increase in poaching, or an increased rate of detection due to the new technology deployed by rangers.
Nonetheless, Nugzar Zazanishvili - director of conservation at the Georgian office of the WWF - believes that poaching is on the rise. "This is very hard sign for us, because we invested - not only financially, but also technically - a lot in the protected areas of Georgia," he says.
Zazanishvili tells DW how earlier in the year, a gazelle was found shot dead in one of Georgia's protected areas. The animal was part of a reintroduction scheme that brought gazelles from Azerbaijan's Shirvan National Park to replace a population that, as Zazanishvili relates, had been wiped out in Georgia due to poaching.
For its part, the Georgian government claims that the problem of poaching is not systematic.
Apart from the threat to wildlife, donors are also concerned that increased poaching activity will drive tourists away from the protected areas.
The government is keen to see the development of a sustainable nature tourism industry based around the protected areas - but Zazanishvili is skeptical: "If the tourist knows that armed people are walking around in the protected areas, who will go there?"
After a recent cabinet reshuffle that has brought in the third environment minister in as many years, the Georgian government must work to convince international donors that it is a reliable partner in the war on poaching.