The EcoTourism Expert’s correspondent talked to Sergey Shevelev, Head of the Caucasian State Biosphere Nature Reserve, which was not by chance because the Caucasian Reserve is a unique area. It exceeds 280 thousand hectares and is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. This is the first largest mountain and forest reserve in Europe, which has been the leader in the number of visitors in Russia for many years.
- On the Day of Nature Reserves and National Parks celebrated at the beginning of the year, many natural areas traditionally sum up the results of the last year. How successful was 2022 for the Caucasian State Biosphere Nature Reserve?
- Our performance figures speak best of all about our last year’s successful results. In 2022, 563 thousand people visited the Caucasian Reserve. This suggests that interest in the Reserve is growing among tourists. For comparison, the number of guests in 2021 was 539 thousand people. That is, in 2022, the Caucasus Reserve broke the record of the previous year.
It is interesting to analyze the statistics of visits to the Caucasian Reserve and the time spent in it. In recent years, the number of tourists interested in multi-day hikes has been increasing, and in 2022, almost 100 thousand people walked along multi-day hiking trails, but the average time spent by each tourist in the Caucasian Reserve decreased. In other words, tourists go hiking not for 4-5 days now, as it was earlier, but for 1-2 days only. The main reason is the lack of time as the rhythm of life has changed greatly and the world is turning faster and faster. I’m not saying that all visitors’ daily habits have changed, there is a large number of tourists who prefer to enjoy nature at a leisurely pace. However, the new conditions make us think about how to develop tourism so that every tourist can make a journey to the Reserve with any amount of time they have and efforts. It is not the first year that we are developing recreational facilities - Laura and Guzeripl Eco-Centres. In the Laura Eco-Cenre, we are currently building additional houses for accommodation. Last year, the Path of Senses with tactile elements appeared there that is very useful for the development of inclusive tourism. We want to offer those who are not ready to go to the mountains with a backpack to choose a quiet and comfortable vacation in nature. They can stay at the frontier area, walk through the forest, admire nature, get to know something new, interact with the animals at the aviary complex. Leaving the tourist at the frontier area, we solve a lot of problems, for example, unprepared tourists can be on the route, their safety is ensured, the route is ‘loaded’, and the anthropogenic load on nature is partially removed. There are plans to make such ‘points of attraction’ for tourists who are short of time or not ready for hiking in the Guzeripl area. Last year, we arranged the Leopard Trail there that is almost two kilometres of trails through a picturesque forest. So, the development of the Guzeripl area is a project of the near future.
But the main indicator of 2022, which is important for me personally, is the absence of incidents. Both in security and in tourism spheres, we managed to avoid any serious incidents. And the main thing is that everyone is safe and sound.
- How popular are the vacations at the Caucasian Reserve in the winter season?
- The demand for recreation at the Caucasian Reserve in winter is not lower than in summer. Over the eight days of the new year 2023, more than 17 thousand people visited the Caucasian Reserve’s attractions. I emphasize that all these are recreational and excursion sites suitable for a short one-day stay. Traditionally, the Southern Cultures Park hit the record, but I would like to note that this year, the demand for Guzeripl and Laura Eco-Centres and a one-day hike along the Lagonaki Plateau increased significantly. As for the winter routes, the Winter Abadzesh snowmobile and hiking route was opened at the end of December, the ‘Husky in Lagonaki’ route was launched, too. As for these routes, we are highly dependent on the amount of snow. On the one hand, little snow is good for wild animals as the ungulates do not have to remove much snow in search of food. On the other hand, dog teams cannot run without snow. Let’s see what surprises the weather will bring this winter.
As for the mountains in the Krasnaya Polyana area, at an altitude of more than 1,800 metres, the coat of snow in January led to a high avalanche danger. For now, the route for ski touring to the Bzerpinsky Corniche is closed. As soon as the avalanche conditions allow to open the route, only organized groups will be allowed there, accompanied by an instructor who has a special training regarding avalanche situations. This direction is extremely dangerous for independent visitors in winter. To avoid the temptation to try the fate, I would like to say that state inspectors work for us even on closed routes.
- Today, domestic tourism is actively developing in our country and new resorts are under construction, for example, on the Lagonaki Plateau. How are land plots issues being resolved, which, among other things, relate to the Caucasian Reserve’s areas?
- The idea of creating a mountain resort in the Lagonaki Highlands is not new. In the 1980s, a training ski base was equipped on the western slope of Mount Abadzesh, which was abandoned and went to ruins in the 1990s. In 1992, the Lagonaki Plateau with an area of 17.2 thousand hectares was transferred to the Caucasian Reserve as a biosphere testing range. However, the ideas for the development of skiing and recreation on the Lagonaki Plateau were repeatedly expressed and developed by representatives of the state authorities of the Republic of Adygea. These ideas were not implemented due to the high nature protection status of the Lagonaki area, which was recognized by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage Site. In 2010, the idea of creating a mountain resort in the Lagonaki Highlands had another powerful impetus when Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation No. 833 “On the Creation of a Tourist Cluster in the North Caucasus Federal District, the Krasnodar Territory and the Republic of Adygea” was adopted. According to this document, the Lagonaki area was identified as the only promising one for the creation of a mountain or ski resort in the North-Western Caucasus. However, this project was not developed since it did not take into account the nature protection status and area peculiar features. The development of a new concept for the Lagonaki Eco-Resort began in mid-2019. The concept was published on August 05, 2021 at the Visiting Meeting on the Implementation of the Project to Create a Lagonaki All-Season Mountain Eco-Resort”; those who wish to get acquainted with it can easily find the information about it. Since August last year, we know practically nothing about further intentions to create a resort.
As for the activities of the Caucasian Reserve in this area, many infrastructural changes will be at the Lagonaki area by the summer season. Some viewing platforms have already been made there, and the tourists don’t have to take risks now and come close to the edge of the road to admire the plateau. In the spring, new information boards and signs will be installed here. This is important for those who constantly walk along these paths, but it is even more important for those who are here for the first time and want to receive some information about the Caucasian Reserve, its flora and fauna, and visiting rules. Wild nature, even where people travel rather often, is fraught with many dangers. The Lagonaki Highlands are no exception.
- In 2019, the Priazovsky Reserve became part of the Caucasian State Biosphere Nature Reserve. What has been done at the Priazovsky Reserve during this time, how does it look today?
- The Priazovsky Reserve comprises 42 thousand hectares of wetlands that were famous for being rich in fishes in the middle of the last century because valuable and commercial fish species were and still are here, there are also over 230 species of birds in this area. The floodplains where migratory birds build their nests are especially protected, and the appearance of people is limited there to minimize disturbing them.
The peculiarity of the Priazovsky Reserve is that it is not completely wild and untouched nature. Within the boundaries of the special protected natural area, there are several rural settlements for 2.5 thousand houses, various agricultural enterprises, and rice fields. And of course, the management of the Priazovsky Reserve is significantly different from that at the Caucasian Reserve.
The main thing that has been done is putting things in order in illegal use of biological resources, and mass poaching was stopped. During the first year, hundreds of protocols were drawn up in the Priazovsky Reserve’s area, which became the basis for initiating administrative and criminal cases. In the first months of work alone, more than 4,000 crayfish creels were seized. This was achieved thanks to the nature protection at the Priazovsky Reserve. Nowadays, 10 inspectors at the Priazovsky Reserve are equipped with everything necessary to identify violators day and night. However, no new laws or regulations were introduced. We just strongly demanded that everyone who came to the Reserve complied with the established requirements. Of course, there was resistance from the locals. But law is law, so if it is forbidden to fish in certain estuaries, the rules must be observed. Nowadays, there is less poaching.
As for development plans, one of the priorities is to solve the issue of reconstruction or construction of an office at the Priazovsky Reserve. When an office is built, we will start developing tourism - many birdwatchers are interested in visiting the Priazovsky Reserve, but the conditions are needed to watch birds without disturbing them. Eco-education is also developing at this Reserve, we are establishing contacts with schools. This year, we will open the first ornithological circle for schoolchildren in this area.
- One of the acute problems of the natural areas of Sochi in recent years is pests and death of plants, including chestnut trees. What work is being done at the Caucasian Reserve and what is the situation?
- Since 2012, invasive insect species have appeared and are actively spreading in the natural ecosystems of the Caucasian State Biosphere Nature Reserve, mainly on the Southern Macroslope of the Main Caucasian Range. One of the most dangerous is the Oriental chestnut gall wasps that constantly, systemically and chronically damage the sweet chestnut trees (Castanea saliva Mill). Along with a long-standing and widespread disease - kryfonectria necrosis - this can lead to a reduction in the number of chestnuts and its range up to complete extinction in the Caucasus even in the short term, within 10 years.
Currently, the total area of distribution of the Oriental chestnut gall wasps at the Caucasian Reserve is 1,172.5 hectares, and since 2019, it has increased by 140.4 hectares. The distribution of these pests in the valleys has been confirmed, they spread to the north up to the upper limit of growing the sweet chestnut trees, 1,150 metres above sea level, on the southern spurs of the Main Caucasian Range. The dynamics of the degree of damage to chestnut tree shoots is positive. The dynamics of the pest population density compared to 2019 is negative, in 2019-2022 it decreased by 4-21 times. Until 2021, all measures taken were limited to monitoring the distribution of the Oriental chestnut gall wasps.
In 2021, thanks to the efforts of Alexander Kozlov, Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, the experience gained by all the countries where Oriental chestnut gall wasps previously penetrated was applied on the Black Sea coast of the Russian Caucasus; this was the method that included the introduction of its specialized predator, the entomophage Torymus sinensis. The results of this introduction are expected in 2-3 years.
- How are things with the wildlife in the Caucasian Reserve?
- Since 2002, when a full-fledged protection was organized at the Caucasian Reserve, the problems of low animal populations began to be solved in a natural way. Since that time, the populations of all ungulates have acquired a pronounced positive trend, with the exception of wild boars, their population practically disappeared in 2012-2013 due to African swine fever: the number of bisons increased from 135 to 1,200 animals, Caucasian red deer - from 680 to 1,700 ones, West Caucasian turs - from 1,217 to 3,000, Caucasian gazelles (wild goats) - from 750 to 1,300, and bears - from 250 to 340 ones. In 2022, recording of animals was carried out three times at the Caucasian Reserve and the Sochi Reserve, and one time at the Priazovsky Reserve. As for interesting observations, it should be noted that for the first time in the history of bisons in the Caucasian Reserve’s area since 1927, these animals began to cross the Belaya River not far from the Guzeripl frontier area. However, there is no confirmation of their permanent habitation on the left bank yet.
To study large animals, in addition to two UAVs, the number of camera traps used is increasing. In 2022, the number of observation points has been increased and the methods used for processing data from camera traps are being developed to determine the species composition and abundance of wild animals. In 2022, their number increased by 10 units.
- In 2024, the Caucasian Reserve will celebrate its 100th anniversary, how are you preparing for the jubilee? Will new routes be opened, the infrastructure facilities updated? What are the plans for the development of the Caucasian Reserve?
- Indeed, the Caucasian Reserve will celebrate its 100th anniversary soon. This date is extremely important for us. Scientific and environmental education events connected with the celebration will be held. Conferences will also be held, and there will be new publications about the Caucasian Reserve.
As for the routes, I am not a supporter of making new ones, I prefer modernizing the existing ones. There are only 450 km of hiking trails at the Caucasian Reserve. And each metre of the trails needs to be checked for safety, several stone bridges across the rivers must be made, and signs installed. This is a very time-taking and labour-intensive work. At the same time, the routes at the Caucasian Reserve are thought out in such a way that walking along them, you can see all the zones, various terrains, landscapes and vegetation, as well as different types of animals.
There are plans for making routes, but we are talking about modernization. Real and urgent projects include making decked trails, the installation of new and more modern infrastructure, and we are busy with this. An analysis of the routes visited by tourists showed that, first of all, Route No.30 from the Lagonaki checkpoint will be upgraded, as well as route No.8a to the Bzerpinsky Corniche and Kholodny Camp and route No. 13 to Achipsinsky Waterfalls through Lake Zerkalnoe. As for the infrastructure for the functioning of the Caucasian Reserve, we will continue to develop the areas, for example, we need to gasify the Laura frontier area and renovate and build several reserve-provided houses this year.
By the 100th anniversary, it is planned to create a new ecological and educational route at the Caucasian Reserve. But let it remain a secret for now. We will talk about the project when we complete it.