Georgia is very interesting from the ecological point of view. Located between the forests of northern Eurasia and the tropical deserts of Iraq and Iran , and incorporating Europe 's highest mountains and a subtropical coastline, it has a high level of biodiversity and is a route for many migratory bird species. It is characterised by its complex interaction of West Asian, East European and purely local communities. There's a wide variety of plant communities, with examples of almost all the main habitat types found in Europe and some of those in Asia; many are highly valuable in terms of biodiversity, including sub-alpine coniferous forests, meadows, wetlands, peat bogs and lakes; coniferous and beech forests; oak woodlands; caves and mountain gorges; unique Colchic forests with evergreen undergrowth; Mediterranean and sub-Mediterranean communities; steppe grasslands; arid light woodlands; as well as riparian shrub and forest vegetation along rivers such as Alazani and Mtkvari.

Forests cover 2.7 million hectares (38.6% of Georgia 's area) where from only 59,500ha are artificially planted; about 6% of the natural forests are virgin and 40% have avoided serious human impact.

The Colchic (or Euxine) district covers most of western Georgia, between the Black Sea, the Meskhetian mountains, the Surami Ridge and the High Caucasus; the climate is mild and humid, rarely freezes and precipitation is a meter or more; the characteristic landscape is subtropical forest with well-developed evergreen under-wood consisting of many Tertiary relicts (such as Laurocerasus qfficinalis, Ilex aquifolium and Rhododendron ponticum).

Georgia can be split into two main bio-geographic regions: firstly the Colchic and Caucasian districts, forest landscapes with plenty of autochthonous animals and plants, and others related to middle and eastern European species; and secondly the Caucasian upland region (Smaller Caucasus) and the Mtkvari district, with species related in some places to Anatolia and the Middle East, and in others to the arid and semi-arid Turanian region, beyond the Caspian. Mixed zones, notably the Borjomi Gorge and the Trialeti Ridge, as well as the southern slopes of the High Caucasus in eastern Georgia are spread between these two main regions.

The Caucasus district lies in the north at 2,000m and higher, with a severe climate and annual precipitation over a meter. It harbours some of the most diverse and distinctive temperate coniferous and deciduous forests in Eurasia, ranging with altitude from sub-alpine beech woods, dark coniferous forests and crook-stem woods to sub-alpine, alpine and subnival plant communities and, above these, bare nival (i.e. dominated by snow) landscapes. Its borders are fluid, with many Colchic elements in the west, and Turanian elements in the east; on the northern slopes there are many Eastern European and boreal species.

The plateaus of the Caucasian upland region (Smaller Caucasus) are largely treeless grasslands, sub -alpine meadows or mountain steppes, as well as forest and semi-arid steppes. There is a severe continental climate, with annual precipitation between 400 and 800mm. The Mtkvari district covers much of Kartli and Kakheti, and is largely arid and semi-arid steppe, with xerophytic Turanian (or Armeno-Iranian) species predominating, and forested only along the banks of the Mtkvari. There's a warm continental climate, rarely dropping below -5 ° C, and under 400mm of precipitation per annum.

The 'mixed' zones, at the borders of these main zones, are the most biologically fascinating regions of Georgia . There are three main mixed zones: Firstly the northern slopes of Trialeti Ridge, from the northwest side of Tbilisi to Borjomi Gorge, mostly relatively dry deciduous mountain forests with a temperate climate and 400-800mm annual precipitation; the fauna and flora are mostly Caucasian, with some Turanian and Colchic elements, and no great diversity; Secondly, the forests of eastern Georgia, which are relatively similar to the Trialeti forests but with more Turanian elements; the climate is subtropical/mild with 400-600mm annual precipitation; Thirdly, the smallest but most interesting is Borjomi Gorge, combining a well-balanced range of elements from all over Georgia (although Turanian elements are scarce); there's a mild temperate climate, with 800-1,200mm precipitation per annum. The canyon marks the division between the humid west and the arid east, and Mediterranean and Turanian fauna.

Endemic species comprise about 9% of Georgia 's flora, a surprisingly high proportion for so small country. The highest proportion (for instance 87% of western Georgian scree flora) is in certain mountainous areas, which were turned into islands as a result of sea level increase about 15 million years ago, in the Miocene epoch; since then the surrounding areas have dried out and gone their own way biologically, while the humid subtropical forests of the mountains have survived largely unchanged, and many species over there now have their closest relatives in Anatolia and Europe. Indeed the only relative of the frog Pelodytes caucasicus is P. punctatus in northern Spain and France, while the nearest relative of the Caucasian salamander (Mertensiella caucasica) and M. luschani (in Greece and southwest Turkey) is the gold-striped salamander (Chioglossa lusitanica) in Portugal and northwest of Spain. The population dynamics of the Caucasian salamander and rock lizards are particularly fascinating to scientists, with a lot of more or less distinct species living together, some hybridizing and some not. Some of the lizards also live in all-female colonies, reproducing by parthenogenesis (asexually). There's a lot of interesting micro-evolutionary research to be done here, but the potential is almost unknown to foreign scientists. The most interesting areas are the Meskheti ridge (from Batumi to Borjomi), Lagodekhi (in northern Kakheti), and also the lower Colchic forests.


Fauna

As for fauna, there are at least 100 species of mammals, at least 330 species of birds (253 nesting), about 50 reptiles and 13 amphibians, around 160 fish and thousands of invertebrates (including 150 homoptera and eight lepidoptera). Twenty-one species of mammals, 33 birds, and ten reptiles and amphibians are listed as rare, threatened or endangered; these include the goitered or Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturossa) and Caucasian leopard (Panthera pardus Ciscaucasia) which are extinct in Georgia, though still found in Azerbaijan. The striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) was thought to have had the same fate, but now appears that a few individuals still remain in the arid steppes of southeastern Georgia . Large mammals, such as red deer , bear, wolf, boar, lynx, jackal, ibex, chamois, wild goats and wild sheep (moufflon) are found almost exclusively in the High Caucasus. However, populations of many species have been halved in recent years, largely due to increased poaching; wildlife has fled from the conflicts in the Northern Caucasus (notably Chechnya ) and from the south in Azerbaijan , and then been shot in Georgia (partly by hunters from Russia ).

There are four species of wild goat: a Dagestanian goat (Capra cylindricornis), tur or Caucasian goat (Capra caucasica), bezoar or pasang (Capra aegragus), and chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), and all suffer from hunting. The bezoar has been reduced in number since the 19th century, and maximum a hundred individuals have been left on the northeastern slopes of the High Caucasus. The Dagestanian goat, endemic to the Eastern Caucasus, is endangered, with its population falling from about 5,000 in 1985 to 2,800 in 1994; the Caucasian goat, endemic to the Western Caucasus, is listed as vulnerable but its population has also been halved from around 5,000 in 1985. The chamois is endangered, its population having fallen from around 6,000 in 1985 to barely a thousand in 1993; however many more of them could be found in the Carpathians.

The red deer (Cervus elaphus maral) is also endangered as a result of increased hunting; numbers fell from 2,500 in 1985 to 880 in eastern Georgia in 1994, and an estimated total of 1,500 in the whole of Georgia . Likewise the lynx (Felis lynx orientalis) has reduced in number from over 500 in 1990 to just 160 presently. The wolf is also endangered and the bear vulnerable. In fact the main hazard for hikers in the mountains is the Caucasian wolfhound, which is used to guard sheep. Bear gall as well as skins and deer horns are smuggled to Turkey . Tougher legislation is under consideration and the bounty system on predators has been abolished, while re-introduction programmes are still underway for wolves and other large animals.

Mid-sized mammals in the mountains include the badger (Meles meles), pine marten (Martes manes), stone marten (M.foina), wild cat (Felis silvestris) and fox (Vulpes vulpes), hare (Lepus europaeus) and weasel (Mustela nivalis) which fills the niche of the marmot, scavenging in campsites here . Other endangered species include the jungle cat (Felis chaus) whose range stretches from here to Indochina , the European otter (Lutra lutra), the Caucasian mink (Mustella lutreola caucasica) and golden jackal (Canis aureus). The Persian squirrel, Sciurus anomalus, is suffering from an invasion of the European squirrel S. vulgaris.

Twelve species of small mammals are endangered or vulnerable, largely due to over-grazing or agricultural expansion; these include the red-backed vole Clethrionomys glareolus ponticus, the TransCaucasian golden hamster Mesocricetus brandti, the pygmy or grey hamster Cricetulus migratorius, the shrew Sorex volnuchini, the birch mice Sicista caucasica, S. kluchkorica, S. kazbegica., the Prometheus vole Prometheomys shaposhnikowi, most of which have been split up into isolated groups. Many of these are endemic to Caucasus: the TransCaucasian golden hamster, the black-chested hamster M. raddei, the shrews Sorex volnuchini, S. raddei, S. caucasica, the water shrew Neomys schetkownikowi, birch mice Sicista caucasica, S. kluchorica, S. kazbegica, S. armenica, the Prometheus vole, the Caucasian mole Talpa caucasica, Terricola daghestanicus, T. nasarovi, the yellow-breasted mouse Apodemus fulvipectus, as well as A. ponticus, and hybrids with Mus musculus.

There are about 50 species of reptiles in Georgia (the total keeps changing as lizards are reclassified), 25% of which are endemic to the Caucasus . The dominant lizard species are Lacerta praticola, while L. rudis, L. derjugini, L. parvula, L. mixta, L. valentini, L. unisexualis, L. clarcorum, L. valentini and L. mixta may or may not be separate species. Much the same applies to the Vipera (Pelias) kaznakovi complex. Threatened species of reptiles include Schneider's skink Eumeces schneideri, the lidless skink Ablepharus pannonicus, the leopard snake (perhaps the most beautiful in Europe) Elaphe situla, and E. hohenackeri, the dwarf snake Eirenis collaris, the boigine snake Malpolon monspesulanus, the racerunner Eremias arguta, the turtle Clemmys (Mauremis) caspica caspica, the snake-eyed lizard Ophisops elegans (the commonest lizard in the Anatolian steppes), the javelin sand boa Eryxjaculus, the garter snake Matrix megalocephala, the Caucasian viper Vipera kaznakovi, the TransCaucasian long-nosed or sand viper V. ammodytes transcaucasiana, the Levantine viper V. lebetina obtusa (the giurza, up to 1.8m in length), V. dinnicki, and Lacerta dahli.

There are four species of amphibians in Georgia: Caudata (the Caucasian salamander Mertensiella caucasica, the banded newt Triturus vittatus ophrytkus, the smooth newt T. vulgaris lantzi, and the southern crested newt T. cristatus karelini) and nine species of Anura (the frogs and toads Pelobates syriacus syriacus, P. caucasicus, Bufo viridis viridis, B. verrucosissimus, Hyta arborea shelkownikowi, H. savignyi, Rana macrocnemis, R. camerani, and R. ridibunda). A quarter of these are endemic to the Caucasus (Mertensiella caucasica, Pelodytes caucasicus, Bufo verrucosissimus, and hybrids of Rana macrocnemis and Hyla arborea). The Caucasian salamander is in fact found only in Caucasian upland region (Smaller Caucasus), not the High Caucasus. Pelobates syriacus, Mertensiella caucasica, and probably Hyla savignyi are threatened, and Pelodytes caucasicus, Bufo verrucosissimus and Rana macrocnemis are diminishing.

A quarter of fish species are also endemic in Georgia ; the sturgeon Accipenser nudiventris is probably extinct in Georgia , while A. guldenstadti and A. sturio are endangered. Eastern European fish have been introduced into the lakes of the Javakheti plateau, virtually wiping out local fish species; the Crucian carp Carassius carassius is also harming new populations.

Georgia acts as a 'funnel' for birds migrating from their breeding grounds in Siberia and northern Europe to their winter homes, so it's hardly surprising that very few (only 0.08%) are endemic to the Caucasus, and even these are subspecies rather than distinct species. Twenty species are endangered: the lammergeier or bearded vulture Gypaetus barbatus, the black vulture Aegypiusmonachus, the griffon vulture Gyps fulvus, the Egyptian vulture Neophron percnopterus, the peregrine Falco peregrinus, the lanner falcon F. biarmicus, the short-toed eagle Circaetus gallicus, the marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus, the Imperial eagle Aquila heliaca and lesser-spotted eagle A. pomarina (the Georgian populations of both are under 85 pairs), the golden eagle A. chrysaetos, the booted eagle Hieraaetus pennatus, the Caucasian snowcock Tetmogallus caucasicus, the black francolin Francolinus francolinus, the grey partridge Perdix perdix, the black stork Ciconia nigra, the spoonbill Platalea leucordia, the crane Grus grus, the demoiselle crane Anthropoides virgo and the glossy ibis Plegadis falcinellus, as well, probably, as some woodpeckers and passerines. Certainly the Syrian woodpecker Dendrocopus syriacus is vulnerable as, amazingly, is the pheasant Phasianus colchicus; having taken over the world it suffers on its land of origin from loss of forests and increased hunting.

There are many raptors which nest in the mountains but can often be seen hunting in the semi-desert of David-Gareja ; other mountain species include the Caspian snowcock Tetraogallus caspius (from the Eastern Caucasus to Iran ), the Caucasian snowcock T. caucasicus (more to the west), and the Caucasian black grouse Lyrurus mlokosiewiczi (typically Caucasian, and probably relict species). There's an isolated population of the alpine finch or great rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla, which otherwise lives in Central Asia ; the scarlet grosbeak C. erythrinus breeds from Sweden to Japan and passes through to winter between Iran and China . An endemic subspecies of the rock partridge Alectoris graeca (which is kept as a domestic fowl in Armenia ) can be seen near the snowline.

Other species found in the High Caucasus include Kruper's nuthatch Sitta kruperii, the white-winged or Guldenstat's redstart Phoenicurus erythrogaster, Radde's accentor Prunella ocularis, the red-fronted serin Serinus pusillus, the grey-necked bunting Emberizia buchanani and rock bunting E. da, the alpine accentor Prunella collaris, the redwing Turdus iliacus (only in winter) and a subspecies of jay Garrulus glandarius krynicki.

In the deserts you may find the trumpeter bullfinch Rhodopechys sanguinea, the rufous bush robin (or tugai nightingale) Cercotrichas galactotes, the chukar Alectoris chukar, and great bustard Otis tarda and little bustard O. tetrax in winter .

Perhaps the most important bird habitats are the wetlands of the Black Sea coast and the Javakheti plateau, where migratory birds such as white spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, red-breasted geese Rufibrenta ruficollis, red-necked grebe Podiceps grisigena, white pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus, Dalmatian pelican P. crispus, squacco heron Ardeola ralloides, great white egret Ardea alba, little egret E. garzetta, white stork Ciconia ciconia, black stork C. nigra, glossy ibis Plegadis falcinellus, ruddy shelduck Tadorna ferruginea, ferruginous duck Aythya nyroca, and other ducks, herons, geese and cormorants can be seen.


Fauna of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park

Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is well known for its rich and diverse fauna, peculiar for the Colchis and Caucasian bio-geographic area. The fauna of the forest and sub-alpine zone of the western Caucasus is well represented in the National Park. Especially birds are easy to encounter and to observe during a hike in the National Park. For instance, the endemic Caucasian black grouse (Lyrurus / Tetrao mlocosiewiczi) can be found there. The National Park lies on the migration route of many migrating birds. In spring and autumn you can see large flocks of beautiful yellowish bee-eaters. Relatively permanent populations of the brown bear, wolf, lynx, red deer and chamois live in the virgin forests.

This beautiful nature requires careful attitude on the part of the visiting public – all plants and animals are protected by law! The National Park is a natural habitat for many species – for some of them, it is the only remaining habitat. Hunting and collecting of any species is strictly forbidden. Please avoid any activities that could disturb animals or harm the flora.


Flora

Georgian flora is very diverse and rich. There are about 4,200 - 5,000 species of vascular plants (of which 380 are endemic to Georgia and about 600 to the Caucasus), and about 8,400 - 10,000 cryptogamous or spore-bearing plants (including 5,000 fungi, 2,000 algae and seaweeds, 675 mosses, 738 lichen and 73 ferns). Ten species are extinct (notably the chickpea Cicer arietinum, the Georgian elm Ulmus georgica, the Trans-Caucasian poplar Populus transcaucasica, and the Eldari pine Pinus eldarica, existing only in Azerbaijan now); 50 species are in a critical state (including the fern Osmunda regalis, the Mingrelian birch Betula megrelka, the Colchic water chestnut Trapa colchica, and the Caucasian yam Dioscorea caucasica)', around 300 species are now rare (including the Pitsunda pine Pinus pityusa, the Saguramo camomile Anthetnis saguramica, and Pseudovesicaria digitata) and about 140 are seriously reduced (including the joint-pine Ephedra distachya (a red-berried under-shrub), Pachyphragma macrophyllum, and the Mediterranean caper Capparis spinosa). Others of interest include: Campanula tnirabilis, found only in one gorge in Abkhazia, Iris iberica, only in the southeast of Georgia, Hypericum thethrobicum, only in Javakheti, a Caucasian endemic Senecio rhombifolius found throughout Georgia, Solidago turfosa, in peat bogs, Epigaea gaultherioides, in the Colchic forests, Heracleum sommieri, in subalpine megaphorbias, Rhododendron caucasicum, in alpine habitats, and Delphinium caucasicum, in subnival habitats. Around 2,000 vascular species are of economic importance (for timber, fruits, dyes, oils, fodder and medicinal properties), and at least 150 fungi are edible.

Oak (Quercus pedunciflora, Q. hartwissiana, Q. imeretina), chestnut (Castanea saliva) and lime (Tilia sp), while higher regions are covered with beech (Fagus orientalis), fir (Abies nordmanniana) and spruce (Picea orientalis), with an evergreen under storey dominate in lowland Colchic forests. At subalpine levels there are crooked-stem and dwarf forests of birch (Betula litwinowii, B. raddeana, B. medwedeu'ii, B. megrelica) and oak (Q. pontica). Other trees and shrubs found in the Colchic district include hornbeam (Carpinus caucasica), pine (Pinus kochiana, P. pityusa), juniper (Juniperus foetidissima, J. polycarpus), turpentine (Pistacia mutica), Colchic boxwood (Buxus colchica), cherry-laurel (Laurocerasus officinalis), holly (Ilex colchica), bladder-nut (Staphylea colchica), Colchic hazel (Corylus colchica), rhododendrons (Rhododendron ponticum, R. luteum, R. caucasicum, R. ungernii, R. smirnovi), rowan (mountain ash; Sorbus subfusca), wing- nut (Pterocarya pterocarpa), Caucasian wing-nut (P.fraxinifolia), small-leaved elm (Zelkova carpinifolia) and the extremely rare strawberry tree (Arbutus andrachne).

High Caucasus is also rich in endemics; thick deciduous forest is spread on the lower to mid-altitude of the southwestern slopes and is described as 'temperate rain forest' (though it falls far short of Chilean or British Columbian standards). Then m ixed deciduous-coniferous forest of birch, dwarf rowan and rhododendron (the lilac-flowered R. ponticum below and the bright yellow R. luteum at the forest limit), with spectacular flowers in clearings and on the forest edges, such as the yellow Turk's cap lily Lilium monadelphum, purple bellflower Campanula latifolia, columbine Aquilegia olympica, fragrant orchid Gymnadenia conopsea, butterfly orchid Platanthera chlorantha, and marsh orchids Dachylorhiza spp is located somewhere between 1,250m - 2,300m. Around Mestia, for instance, you'll also find red helleborine Cephalanthera rubra, tall pink campion Silene sp, large yellow loosestrife Lysimachia punctata, henbane Hyoscyamus niger, Datura sp, endemic giant hogweed Heracleum sommieri, hollyhocks Alcea sp, as well as white foxgloves, yellow cinquefoil, and wild strawberries and gooseberries.

Subalpine meadows, very lush to the west, are above the tree line; herbaceous plants include masterwort Astrantia sp, maroon lousewort Pedicularis sp, bistort Polygonum bistorta, lilies, columbine, lousewort, delphinium, ranunculus, bellflowers, orchids, campion, vetch, scabious, pansies and cornflowers. Above these you'll see the white-flowered Rhododendron caucasicum and further the territory above l, 800/2,000m is home for p erennials, many in rosettes or cushion. These include spring gentians Gentiana verna pontica, Pyrenean gentian G. septemfida, G. oschtenica, purple oxlip Primula elatior meyeri, P. algida, P. auriculata and P. bayerni, pink cinquefoil Potentilla oweriana, yellow cinquefoil P. ruprechtii, sandwort Arenaria sp, chickweed Cerastium undulatifolium, fleabane Erigeron sp, dwarf forget-me- not Myosotissp, Snowdon Lily Lloydia serotina, rock-jasmine Androsace villosa and A albana, whitlow grass Draba bryoides, wild pansies Viola caucasica, Pulsatilla aurea, fumitory Corydalis conorhiza, C. alpestris, fritillaries Fritillaria latifolia, the white Anemone impexe and yellow A. speciosa, prophet flower Arnebia pulchra, Trollius ranunculus and saxifrages, campanula and buttercups.

Many native plants have also suffered from an increase in trade: in 1994, 515,000 bulbs of the snowdrop, Galanthus ikeriae, a species listed in Appendix II of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), were illegally collected in Georgia and subsequently exported by Turkish traders to markets in Western Europe. Other species have also been affected by this illicit trade, including wild cyclamens (Cyclamen spp) and snowflakes (Leucojum spp).


Flora of Borjobi-Kharagauli National Park

The vegetation of the Park presents a great number of pleasant surprises and encounters with a lot of beautiful blossoming plants.

In the northern (Kharagauli) part of the National Park between 400 – 1800 m Colchic forest vegetation predominates. The peculiarity of the Colchic forest is the under storey growth of semi-creeping evergreen bushes such as rhododendron, cherry-laurel, ilex and others. It is particularly impressive to visitors around spring when rhododendron ponticum and rhododendron luteum are blossoming. Hiking up to around 2000 m you will find sub-alpine meadows with Caucasian lotus, ranunculus, alchemilla, anemone and others, distinguished for their colourful variety and sub-alpine tall grasses. At Mt Samethskhvario, 2642m, the highest point of the national park, you will enjoy a picturesque variety of plants blossoming in July-August.

This fascinating place requires careful attitude from visitors – the plants are under protection of the law. Damaging or collecting of any species is strictly prohibited.