Batumi Raptor Trail Development, Georgia

SABUKO (Society for Nature Conservation) – formerly Bird Conservation Georgia – aims to promote the conservation of wildlife in Georgia, increase the valuation of nature by the public and encourage the sustainable use of natural resources.  It protects wild birds and their habitats, raising awareness about the value of nature and the importance of its protection.

The foothills of the Lesser Caucasus along the Black Sea coast in Georgia form one of the world’s biggest bottlenecks for migrating raptors. More than one million birds pass through this area during migration seasons in spring and autumn. At least 35 species of raptors have been observed including ospreys, eagles, buzzards, vultures, hawks, falcons and harriers. As many as 100,000 raptors may migrate in a single day. However, illegal and indiscriminate hunting – a deeply rooted tradition amongst local communities – kills between 7-9,000 raptors each autumn, among them a high proportion of endangered species. The area is well known and visited by bird watchers, eco-tourists and hikers already, putting them in direct conflict with the hunters. This project aims to increase the importance and value of the raptors to the locals by making this spectacular flight more accessible for visitors, so creating alternative means of income for the locals. Hunters are well respected by local communities and so education forms a strong part of this project which will:
– Increase capacity development by improving the infrastructure of the Raptor Trail area and raptor watching points. This will include information desks, access development, production of maps, and the establishment of photographers’ hides, childrens’ play areas and bird watching platforms.
– Create an interactive 6km footpath linking observation points between the villages of Sakhalvasho and Shuamta and into Mtirala National Park
– Run training courses, public meetings, TV talk shows and distribute printed materials, all aimed at locals to increase their understanding of the ecological importance of migratory birds and how to generate an income from tourism

The Update

What a success!  This project had a huge impact from the start.  In the autumn 2014 migration, 1,390,089 raptors were counted, including ospreys, buzzards, kites, harriers, eagles and falcons. Two viewing platforms were constructed and 5000 leaflets printed, to help locals and tourists watch and enjoy this spectacle. The total number of nights visitors stayed in the area went from 720 in 2013 to 1999 in 2014, clearly demonstrating and delivering a benefit to the local community from the migrating birds.

Most importantly, the illegal killing of raptors was decreased by around 33% in 2014 from 2013.  What a result!

Update November 2017: 7 km of Raptor trail with relevant signage have been developed, and birding maps for visitors, children, hunters and eco-clubs produced.

Although initially delayed, with support of the local municipality, several children’s playgrounds were installed in or close to local schools.  The playground were initially due to be installed along the bird watching route, but following several thefts of bird hides and picnic benches on the trail, plans were revised.

Three bird hides / photographers hides were planned, but unfortunately the first one was stolen and the construction materials for the remaining 2 were also taken.    However, following local falconers’ traditional methods of building hides using only tree branches, 3 new hides were constructed and can easily be rebuilt every year and are just as effective as the planned hides.  3 birdwatching platforms have now been installed.  It was planned to install binoculars at each site, but due to initial problems with theft, the binoculars were loaned to 5 families living closest to the raptor trail area for them to rent out over the migration season.    At the end of the season the binocular income was donated to each family as a gift for their self motivation and eco tourism development.

One week long educational conservation youth camps have been held with children from local secondary schools attending.

Development training of local hunters and falconers has taken place including issues such as the importance of the Batumi Bottleneck, diversity of species, alternative livelihoods including guiding and tourism, legislation and regulations governing hunting in Georgia and the EU etc.

Finally, an information campaign has been run including public meetings, several TV broadcasts, videos on youtube, a birding activity week, meetings with local communities, all to highlight illegal killings, the importance of the raptors, the importance of the migration, problems solving tools, opportunities of tourism and bird watching.  Finally an agreement was signed with the Batumi State University to collaborate with the Eco-Club which is used to raise awareness amongst students about conservation issues.  The membership of the club has tripled over the last 18 months.

A field survey and monitoring of illegal killings in the area found that, over the last 5 years, since the beginning of Sabuko’s work in the area, bird killings have dropped by 80%, a large proportion of that during the 2 years of the project being funded by Osprey Europe, through EOCA.  What a fabulous result!!  Funding has been secured for similar work in a further 6 villages going forward.  Visitor numbers to the area have also tripled, with foreign visitors  spending 2,100 bed nights in local home stays and guest houses.  Finally, Alexander Rukhaia who has led this project from the beginning has been awarded the 2106 Whitely Award, a very prestigious award for work in conservation, presented to the winner in London my HRH Princess Anne!

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Image: Aftermath of hunting. Image credit: Bert Willeart