ILIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Conservation and Ecology of Large Mammals

ECOLOGY AND CONSERVATION PROGRAMME OF LARGE MAMMALS

Key areas:

Wolf Ecology

Between 2007 and 2010, studies dealing with wolf-human conflict in Georgia were conducted. Areas in which wolves attacked livestock and men were identified, reasons due to which wolves had inhabited populated areas were explained and strategies used by wolves in densely populated places were analyzed. The research was the first to address the process of re-colonization of the Kolkheti Valley, which wolves had abandoned in 1950s. It also served to explain ecological and socio-ecological reasons determining the increased presence of wolves near populated areas.

For the first time in Georgia, the research aimed to detect hybridization between wolves and dogs. Samples were collected throughout the territory of Georgia during 2008-2012. Skin, excrement and blood samples were collected in places which were permanently inhabited by wolves, as well as on those territories which have been recolonized by wolves for the last 5 years (Kolkheti Valley). For the purposes of studying hybridization, samples of fur of large-sized dogs (shepherds) were collected, with mitochondrial as well as nuclear DNA having been studied.  In 2013, the data obtained was analyzed by using statistical and genetic computer programmes.

The research showed that 10% of wolves and 20% of dogs are of hybrid origin, while 3% of wolves and dogs are first generation hybrids. The hybridization index here is higher than in Europe. Hence, hybridization is an ordinary phenomenon in territories at which large-sized guarding dogs are kept without restrictions. Genes among dogs and wolves greatly influence the populations of dogs and wolves.
Research in this field will be continued in the future to determine whether hybrids are characterized by simplified habituation, and to establish the quality of hybridization in the Kolkheti Valley and nearby territories.

Evaluation of endangered ungulates and prospects of rehabilitation

Within the aforementioned area, the number and density of East Caucasian tur (Capra cylindricornis), West Caucasian tur (Capra aegagrus), chamois (Rupicaprarupicapra) and deer (Cervuselaphus) was determined. The fieldwork covered Kazbegi, Tusheti, Lagodegi, Racha, Svaneti, Borjom-Karagauli, and Atchara. In addition, for the first time in Georgia, a census of hoofed animals from the air was conducted. The evaluation of the aforementioned species became possible under the projects Holding research in the territory of Georgia for the purposes of counting and studying wildlife facilities and Carrying out census in the territory of Georgia for the purposes of monitoring wildlife habitats, supported by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources of Georgia.

In 2012, foreign colleagues were also involved in collecting census data. The MA student from the University of Geneva, the co-supervisor of whose dissertation was Prof. Zurab Gurielidze, was involved in estimating the tur population. In 2012, Prof. Zurab Gurielidze, together with his German counterpart Hartmut Jungius, completed the project Studying the Possibilities of Reintroduction of Bezoar Ibex in the National Park of Borjom-Kharagauli  financed by the WWF Caucasus. The development of a management plan for the rehabilitation of deer have also been started.

Ecology and Conservation of Cetacean in the Black Sea

Since 2009, monitoring of all three species of cetaceans - short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), bottle-nosed Dolphins (Tursiops truncates) and harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) has been underway. As a result, the data ata for quantitative analysis have been obtained. The structure of each species, their seasonal changes and influencing factors were studied. Video and photo evidence about dolphins to differentiate between individual species and study their groups have also been collected. Research is underway to study social hunting forms,  as well as to detect age structure of hunting groups and factors influencing hunting forms by delphinus dolphins and Tursiopstruncates.

On 23 June 2012, in Georgia’s Black Sea water area, we saw and filmed white porpoise for the first time. The aforementioned colour is extremely rare in cetaceans. For the last 100 years, only 13 white porpoises have been found, 9 of which, including the one detected by us, was found in the Black Sea.
Information on Black Sea white porpoise is included in the World Cetacea Database. Presentation on this topic was made at the ACCOBAMS (the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area) seminar in Istanbul.

Black Sea Biodiversity

The Project Biodiversity Strategy and Renewal of National Action Plan in Thematic Field: Black Sea Biodiversity was funded by German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). The 96-page document “Black Sea Biodiversity: Situation Analysis” includes data on the biodiversity of Georgia’s Black Sea area, as well as the threats it is facing and legislative instruments. The representatives from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Protection of Georgia, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), as well as different non-governmental organizations and other interested persons along with professors and students were invited to the workshop Dangers Affecting Black Sea Biodiversity.

On November 2012, another project called Exploration of Back Sea Underwater Habitats and Determination of Indicators related to Black Sea explorations was completed; in this project, together with ecologists, researchers of the Faculty of Engineering and professional divers were involved. The project was funded by GIZ, within which continental shelf was also scanned, maps weredrawn up, and living organism samples were collected. Ilia State University research vessel Holy Ilia was used for marine expeditions. Underwater shooting also took place during expeditions. As a result interesting video evidence was produced on underwater creatures, especially invasive species of the Black Sea, such as sea walnut, Mnemiopsisleydyiand Beroeovate, mollusks Rapanavenosa that have a negative impact on Black Sea ecosystem. Therefore their quantitative evaluation and monitoring is essential for the study of the Black Sea and threat modeling.

In 2011, the Ecology and Conservation Programme of Large Mammals was presented within the project Biodiversity of Large Mammals East Europe and of Siberia on Population Genetic Variation Level funded by the 7thprogramme of the European Union, which was completed in 2014. Within the project, ISU professors Natia Kopaliani, Zurab Gurielidze, Mari Murtskvaladze and researcher Maia Shakarashvili familiarized themselves with noninvasive research methods of large mammals as well as modern methods of statistical processing of data at Białowieża Mammal Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Polish professors and doctoral students, and Columbian and Norwegian researchers left Białowieża Mammal Research Institute for Georgia in order to take part in the expeditions planned by the Ecology and Conservation Programmes of Large Mammals, which aimed to expose topical issues on large mammals in different regions of Georgia. Researchers from the University of Tartu also participated in census expeditions. Within the BIOGEASTprogramme, associate professor at the Institute of Ecology, Mari Murtskvaladze visited the University of Tartu in order to study the genetic research SNP method. Within the same programme, samples of wolves, bears, deer, roes, hogs, and lynxes are collected and studied afterwards throughout entire East Europe.

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