Sunday, June 7, 2009

Paragliding and hiking in Caucasus mountains, on land of re-introduced bison

From Pyatigorsk, June 7th 2009.

How could i come so close to Caucasus region and not discover their snowy summits at the border with Georgia and sandy coasts on the Black Sea? Adapting my travel plans, i have decided to follow the footsteps of Russian poets Pouchkine and Lermontov, who have both been exiled in this region during past tsarist time and pulled their inspiration from oriental traditions and romantic landscapes.
After presenting in more details the bison bonasus species and associated risks, i shall describe my experience in Caucasus mountains, going from alpinism to paragliding.

Among the most important ecological challenges that stand in front of the Caucasian Nature Preserve is protection and restoration of one of the few bison populations living in natural conditions. Although pure bison species became extinct in the 1920s, some hybrid species have survived in captivity, including those that inherited some of the characteristics of the pure mountain bison. These animals belonging to the so-called Belovezh-Caucasus line, have composed the backbone of the modern bison population of the Caucasus Nature Reserve. After 50 years of selection work these animals have occupied the empty environmental niche that used to belong to the mountain bison. The Caucasus Nature Reserve is the only remaining habitat of the mountain bison, in other places it has been almost completely exterminated by poachers.

In 2000, the total population was 714, not all of these are mature individuals. The population decreased by >20% between 1990 and 2000, and has continued to decline since 2000. All subpopulations have fewqer than 250 individuals.

Bison bonasus's distribution

Optimal habitats for the European bison are deciduous and mixed forests, but the range should include about 20% of grassland habitats (meadows) (Pucek et al. 2004, K. Perzanowski pers. comm. 2006).
In the Caucasus region, European bison prefer foothill forests; in summer, they feed on alpine meadows (Kazmin and Smirnov 1992, Kazmin et al. 1992).

Habitat degradation and fragmentation due to agricultural activity, forest logging, and unlimited hunting and poaching were the primary reasons for the decrease and extinction of European bison populations.
Conflict and political instability continues to be a threat to the species in the Caucasus, where reintroduced free-living herds have suffered very severe losses (leading to extinctions) in recent years (Pucek et al. 2004). Other current threats include lack of appropriate habitat, fragmentation of populations (and concomitant loss of genetic diversity), inbreeding depression, disease, hybridisation, and poaching. There is little space for a large herbivore such as the European bison in Europe’s contemporary ecosystems, especially in the west. The most significant limit for the enlargement of European bison populations is human population density; forestry and agricultural activity is not a limiting factor.

1. Continue captive breeding, following a coordinated programme that focuses on maintaining genetic variability. Hybridisation between existing breeding lines (Lowland and Lowland-Caucasian) should be avoided, as should hybridization between European bison and American bison Bison bison.
2. Establish a Gene Resource Bank (semen collection in the first phase) to serve as a safeguard against loss of important genetic diversity.
3. Continue reintroductions and benign introductions, into forests and other ecosystems (including large tracts of land where human activities are abandoned, such as former farmland or military training grounds). A target of 3,000 free ranging animals of each genetic line is recommended as a management goal. It will be necessary to link isolated subpopulations (e.g., by creating habitat corridors) and restore metapopulation function to enable the population to be self-sustaining in the long term.
4. Regulate bison populations by culling, when necessary, to prevent populations exceeding the carrying capacity of remaining habitat.
5. Manage habitat appropriately, for example by creating watering places, and cultivated meadows or feeding glades for use by other ungulates.
6. Implement and enforce stricter regulations to control poaching.
7. Continue producing the European Bison Pedigree Book, and expand its scope.
8. Establish an International Bison Breeding Centre, to coordinate reintroductions, monitoring of captive and free-ranging herds, and genetic management of particular herds.
9. To promote protection of the species, upgrade it to Appendix II (strictly protected fauna species) of the Bern Convention.
Further details, as well as recommended research activities, can be found in Pucek et al. 2004.

It all started with a friendship between a French traveller and an Austrian student in political sciences, and their backpacks.

On the way up, between attractive flowers and threatening gletchers:

Powerful gletchers

Our comfortable base camp in the middle of a pine forest:

This pine surrounded by snow has been described by Lermontov in a short poem, making the parallel with the palm under the sun:

Loin, perdu dans le Nord, un sapin solitaire
Scintille sur une hauteur,
Se balance et sommeille, et la neige legere
Lui fait un manteau de splendeur.

Dans un desert aride et vaste, il voit sans cesse
Au pays du soleil levant
Un palmier triste et beau qui sur un roc se dresse
Tout seul sous les rayons ardents.

Michel Lermontov, 1841

Second time in a few weeks i practice alpinism in Russian mountains, after my first experience in Altai range early May.

Should we trust this brige?

Sunset on Ullu-Tau summit, above 4,000m.

Lermontov again, reaching the paroxysm of romantism and poetic evocation in his poem Le Rocher, gives soul and spirit to rocks and clouds sharing moments together in the night:

Un nuage dore s'abrite pour la nuit
Contre un rocher geant, sur sa vaste poitrine,
Et s'envole tres loin des que l'aurore a lui,
Puis, jouant dans l'azur, avec gaiete chemine.
Mais une trace humide est demeuree au creux
Du vieux rocher geant. Desormais solitaire,
Plonge dans sa pensee, il reste malheureux
Et verse lentement quelques larmes ameres.

Michel Lermontov, 1841

The mountain zone of the region is famous for rich biodiversity, and specifically in term of vascular plants with 967 species (more than the Altai with 297 and the Urals with 621). Here are a few examples on my hiking path.

The city of Pyatigorsk, which inspired Lermontov for his book "a hero from our time", is surrounded by small mountains that are ideal to practice paragliding. There are a few experts in the city and i had the chance to get to know one of them, Roman, who took me with him for my first flight. Supported by paraglides made by French company Ozone, it was a wonderful and adrenalin-full experience i will never forget. Here are some pictures before i can post a video that will give you a better feeling.

Entrance of the club, at Yutsa mountain near Paytigorsk

Pyatigorsk from the sky

Paragliding colleagues

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