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Hunting for tourists, Tbilisi lifts protections for animals widely considered endangered.by Tsira Gvasalia 17 February 2012
TBILISI | When Georgia’s hunting season opened last month, hunters were allowed, for the first time, to train their sights on several threatened species.
The decision by the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry to permit hunting for animals on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species, commonly called the Red List, is part of Tbilisi’s efforts to promote tourism.
Some conservation groups contend the decision could be the death knell for species already under extreme strain from poachers, with even the environment minister weighing in against it. Researchers and environmentalists say there is no reliable count of how many of the threatened animals still roam the forests and mountains of Georgia.
In September, the Natural Resources Ministry proposed that hunting be allowed for several Red List species, including the brown bear, the Caucasian tur (a goat antelope), the bezoar goat, Caucasian grouse, and red deer. In an interview at the time, the ministry’s head, Alexandre Khetaguri, said Turkey, Ukraine, and Austria were already luring international hunters and it made sense for Georgia to profit from the trade as well.
Although the brown bear is not threatened globally, Georgia’s Red List (pdf), deems it endangered. The IUCN warns that even where the bears exist in large, contiguous populations, “they are sometimes hunted for sport or killed for control purposes at unsustainable rates.” The group notes that many countries lack the resources to maintain “adequate monitoring programs and sustainable management plans” for the bears.
Red deer, too, are plentiful globally, but they are considered critically endangered in Georgia, as is the bezoar goat.
The Caucasian grouse is classed as vulnerable on the country list.
Two species of Caucasian turs are considered vulnerable or endangered in Georgia. A 2006 count put about 1,000 in the country’s Svaneti region, and a count two years earlier estimated the entire population at about 5,000 to 6,000 animals in Georgia and Russia, according to the IUCN.
The only limits on the opened-up hunt would be a ban on killing Caucasian turs in November and December, when the species mates, and from March to July, when females give birth.
That affords the animals little relief, says Irakli Shavgulidze, a biologist at Tbilisi’s NACRES Biodiversity Conservation and Research Center.
“We have to put the main question: is it right to hunt for the Red List animals at all?” he said.
The Natural Resources Ministry refused to answer several questions about the changes for this article, offering details only on the periods when hunting is banned for Caucasian turs.
But Maia Sidamonidze, director of the Georgian National Tourism Agency, was more forthcoming in an interview with the Rustavi 2 television channel.
Speaking from Safari Club International, a gathering of hunters, tour operators, and equipment and gun sellers that took place in Las Vegas early this month, Sidamonidze said, “Hunting tourism is a brand new priority for Georgia. We made the legislation flexible to develop a hunting industry in the county. It gives us an opportunity to popularize hunting tourism’s potential and take part in such exhibitions.”
This year was the first time Georgia exhibited at Safari International. Its stand showcased photos of Red List animals that can legally be shot in the country now.
Hunting licenses for Red List animals cost 100 to 300 lari ($60 to $180) depending on the quarry. In addition, a hunter will have to pay from 1,350 to 8,350 lari per animal bagged, but there are no limits on the number of animals that can be killed.
In September, environmental group Green Alternative challenged the new law in court, arguing that it violated existing laws that bar hunting Red List species.
“During the court hearing, the ministry did not present any arguments against us,” said Irakli Macharashvili, the group’s biodiversity program coordinator. “On the contrary: they confirmed that including the species in the legislation meant intending that they be hunted.”
Instead, the government argued that subsequent amendments would bring the new legislation in line with existing law. Those amendments, since introduced, instituted a per-kill fee and removed a provision that would have allowed hunting in national parks.
The court is expected to rule on the case by 24 February.
“A HEAVY BURDEN”
The government has not conducted its own count of Red List species, leaving the unofficial Georgian Red list – compiled in 2006 by a team of biologists without government funding – as the closest thing to an information resource on the animals’ numbers.
Hamstrung by a lack of resources, the eight-member team tried to contribute information about species they had worked with, 197 species of flora and fauna in all. Some Georgian biologists, including participants in the effort, doubt that the count is still accurate.
“The numbers should be double-checked at least every five years. New information should be added,” said David Tarkhnishvili, a professor at Ilia State University who led the 2006 project.
“It’s impossible to allow hunting for the animals without actually knowing their numbers and the trends of decline or increase, and the types of danger the species are exposed to,” said Natia Kopaliani, a biologist at Ilia State University.
Tarkhnishvili said even the best counting methods would yield only estimates. ”It’s like counting needles in a hay stack. Even if the government invests millions of laris in this, it’s very difficult to name the exact number. But in a country like Georgia, saying we have this many bears or other species is impossible.”
Almost as hazy are meaningful statistics on the widespread problem of poaching in Georgia, which biologists say is the prime culprit in many species’ declines.
In 2009 two people were each fined 50,000 lari for killing brown bears. Two years later, poachers were fined for killing four Caucasian turs. Apparently not realizing they had committed a crime, the hunters filmed themselves on a mountaintop with the carcasses of the Red List animals and uploaded the video to YouTube. The video became evidence for the police to jail them and fine the four hunters 260,000 lari in total.
In a meeting with journalists in January, Environmental Protection Minister Goga Khachidze called the move to allow hunting of Red List species “a heavy burden on my shoulders” and a “very bad” decision. He said the government should have conducted a count of the species and then set hunting quotas.
The Natural Resources Ministry has said it will conduct research into the population size and range of Red List species.
Biologists say some species, like the bezoar goat and red deer, are so rare that they are likely to become extinct in Georgia unless struck from the hunting list.
NACRES has studied the bezoar goat since 2005. Shavgulidze, the NACRES biologist, said that during the Soviet era he could “observe the animal in the forest with my own eyes.” But as poaching flourished after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the goat became rarer. The Red List deems it vulnerable, one rank above endangered.
According to NACRES, only 100 bezoar goats remain in Georgia, in the northeastern Tusheti region.
“If we kill too many of them today we won’t have them tomorrow,” Shavgulidze said.