The Western Caucasus was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. According to UNESCO: “The Western Caucasus, extending over 275,000 hectares of the extreme western end of the Caucasus mountains and located 50 kilometers northeast of the Black Sea, is one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not experienced significant human impact. Its subalpine and alpine pastures have only been grazed by wild animals, and its extensive tracts of undisturbed mountain forests, extending from the lowlands to the subalpine zone, are unique in Europe. The site has a great diversity of ecosystems, with important endemic plants and wildlife, and is the place of origin and reintroduction of the mountain subspecies of the European bison. [Source: UNESCO]

“The Western Caucasus has a remarkable diversity of geology, ecosystems and species. It is of global significance as a center of plant diversity. Along with the Virgin Komi World Heritage site, it is the only large mountain area in Europe that has not experienced significant human impact, containing extensive tracts of undisturbed mountain forests unique on the European scale.”

An expanded area of the Western Caucasus was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in.2014: According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Expanding tthe area of existing World Heritage Site means including the broad leave, old-growth forests (currently not represented within the Site boundaries) of Sochi National Park and Sochi Reserve, located on the southern macroslope of Greater Caucasus and forming almost a continuous strip along the southern and southwestern boundaries of the "Western Caucasus" Site.” [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

The of nominated area covers 358,112.94 hectares. “The site "Western Caucasus-in the new nomination capacity is represented by 175 kilometers long stretch of unpopulated, undeveloped or marginally developed western part of the Greater Caucasus range, which is the most important watershed divide and climatic barrier between Eastern Europe and West Asia, i.e. between the two continents. The site represents all the characteristic landscapes and fundamental types of vegetation of the Greater Caucasus, with pronounced latitudinal and longitudinal zonality. Moreover, the site represents the unique Colchian vegetation.

The area, proposed for expansion of the existing World Heritage site "Western Caucasus", is located mainly on the southern macroslope of the Greater Caucasus, starting from 40 kilometers to the northwest of the existing nomination, and spreads to the southeast in three large fragments. The first separate patch is located in the upper reaches of the river Ashe. The second and the largest patch is adjacent directly to the boundaries of the existing Western Caucasus site in the upper reaches of the rivers Psezuapse, Shakhe and Sochi. The third patch also closely borders with the site "Western Caucasus", but in the upper reaches of Mzymty River. These new patches form part of the reserve and specially protected zones of Sochi National Park (SNP), and Sochi General State Nature Sanctuary.

“Incomparably smaller, but valuable patches supplement the existing "Western Caucasus" nomination on the northern macroslope as well. These being the forests to the north from Lagonaki plateau, in the valley of the rivers Tsitsa and Pshekha: beech forests, beech and fir forests and box forests. The proposed new area of total length 140 kilometers and width 3 - 10 kilometers occupies an area of 69,828 ha.”

Topography of the Western Caucasus

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The site area is a section of the western part of the Greater Caucasus range, comprising of several parallel ranges. The basis of its relief is the Greater Caucasus range, stretching from northwest to southeast. Overall, the range is asymmetrical. It has steep southern macroslope, falling to the Black Sea and included in the Colchian region of Caucasus highland. The wide northern macroslope of least dip is made up from the system of additional ranges: Bokovoi, Peredovoi and Skalisty. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

Typically, the mountain relief is characterized by elevation changes of 250 - 3.360 meters above sea level. The highest points viz. the Akaragvarta Mountain (3.360 in), Tsakhvoa Mountain (3,346 meters), Pseashkho Mountain (3,256 in) and Chugush Mountain (3,228 meters) arc related to the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range. The peak height of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range increases in the direction from the west to the east.

The Bokovoi range passes to the north of the Greater Caucasus Range with marked mid-mountain relief. Further, north of the Bokovoi range and parallel to the Greater Caucasus Range is the Peredovoi range, dissected by the river valleys into separate stretches. The highest peaks here are Pshekish Mountain (2,257 in), Bolshoi Tkach Mountain (2,364 meters), Yatyrgvarta Mountain (2,760.1 meters). Overall, the Peredovoi range has smooth and slightly sloping form of relief.

The northwestern part of "Western Caucasus" has been formed by the Fisht-Oshtensky mountain group with three peaks viz. Fisht Mountain (2,867.7 meters), Pshekho-Su (2,743.9 in) and Oshten Mountain (2,804.0 in). The limestone block is dissected by numerous funnels, caves, karren, vauclusians. The Lagonaki plateau closely adjoins the massif, which represents the system of medium altitude mountain graded ranges with extensive subalpine and alpine meadows, developed at the karsted limestone massif.

The northern boundary of the Site passes mainly along the Rocky range. The Rocky range starts near the Lagonaksky highlands and extends to the east. The range has sharp asymmetrical appearance, characteristic for cuesta, viz. slightly sloping long northern slope and steep, dropping sharply southern slope. The heights of the Rocky range reach the levels 1,000 to 1,250 in. Individual peaks of the Rocky range exceed 2,000 in: Acheshbok, or Chertovy Vorota (2,486 in), Afonka (2,036 meters).

The Southern Front Range is at the territory of Sochi National Park on the southern macroslope, parallel to the Greater Caucasus Range. The massif Aibga (2,396 meters), Bzych (1,936.7 meters), Amuko (1.918 meters), Autl (1,855.7 in) etc. belong to it. The third to the south chain of mountain ranges unites the massif with heights about 1,000 M: Dzykhra (1,277.1 meters), Akhtsu (1,124 meters), Arosh (836 meters) etc. It is less expressed in the relief than the previous. The fourth chain of mountain ranges with heights Akhun (662.7 in), Mamaika (307 in) and Akhshtyr (464 meters), which is stretching from the southeast, ends abruptly to the sea. The mountain chains and dividing intermountain falls are intersected by the valleys of numerous rivers and streams.

Hydrology of the Western Caucasus

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: About 80 small glaciers are located at the "Western Caucasus" territory, of total area 18.2 square kilometers and more than 130 mountain lakes of different origin, age and size, with the most famous among them being Kardyvach (14 ha), Inpsi (13 ha) and Bezmolviya (20 ha). [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

The rivers of the northern part of "Western Caucasus" belong to the Kuban River basin, falling into Azov Sea; the rivers of southern macroslope have relatively short length and after 50-100 kmfrom the origins fall directly into the Black Sea. The full-flow of the rivers during the course of the year intensely changes, as they are fed by precipitations. The largest rivers of northern slope of "Western Caucasus are Belaya (with tributaries Ches-Su, Kisha, Pshekha etc.), Malaya Laba (with tributaries Tsakhvoa, lirushten), and the Zakan and Damkhurts Rivers, related to the Bolshoi Laby basin, of the southern slope — Mzymta (with tributaries Chvezhipse, Laura, Achipse, Pslukh, Tikhaya etc.), Khosta, Sochi, Shakhe (with tributaries Bzych, Azhu, Bushchi etc.). The territory of Sochi National Park is similarly covered by vast hydrographic network of rivers and streams. Here there are more than 60 rivers and streams with numerous inflows. The longest and full-flowing river of the Dart is Mzymty River. The largest are also Shakhe, Psou, Sochi, Psezuapse, Ashe Rivers. All the rivers fall directly into the Black Sea. The length of rivers fluctuates from 7 to 89 kilometers. They are primarily of mixed feed: ground water, rainwater and snow. Moreover, Mzymta River is also glacier-fed.

The hydrological system of the nominated area has undergone no changes. Water is of drinking quality and even spring water quality, and many adjoining population centers (villages and settlements) consume it without treatment, directly from the river channels. The resort city Sochi is provided with water, which is taken from channels of the largest rivers viz. Shakhe, Mzymty and Sochi Rivers.

Climate of the Western Caucasus

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: "Western Caucasus" is located in the zone of intersection of moderate and warm humid climatic belts. Its relief exerts a great influence on the climate of individual parts of the Site. Many ranges are the boundaries of climatic areas. The Greater Caucasus range prevents the transfer of cold air mass from the north to the south. The warm and humid climate of the Black Sea coast and low-hill terrain has nature, close to sub-tropical, average temperature in January is 4.2°C, in July and August — 20-21°C. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

In the middle altitudes the annual temperature fluctuates from 1 to 6°C, average temperature in January is –4 to –6°C; winters are moderate, snow-covered. The snow cover is retained for five or more months. The summer is moderately warm, average temperature in July is 16-22°C. Annual amount of precipitation is 700-1,200 mm, and the maximum is in early summer.

From the height about 2,000 in the leading role belongs to the western transfer of air, therefore the highland climate is more humid and by certain properties of its regime reminds of marine climate. However, winter here is distinguished by sustained frost. Thus at the level about 2,000 meters the average temperature of January fluctuates from –6 to –8°C, about 3,000 meters reaches –10°C.

The temperature of air in the mountains of "Western Caucasus" decreases by 0.5°on an average rise of every 100 meters. The Black Sea considerably influences the overall climate. The cyclones of the Mediterranean front, defining the precipitation regime and quantity, pass predominantly above the nature reserve. Their greatest amount is observed on the windward southwestern slopes. The snow line due to significant humidity of the climate in the western area of the reserve is lower than in the eastern area by 200-500 in. At the northern macroslope, it passes at the level of 2,750 3,200 in. The height of snow cover in the mountains is highly intermittent. The snow cover thickness at the flattened areas of the mountains constitutes 2-4 meters. Snow avalanches are common.

Soil of the Western Caucasus

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The soil cover of the "Western Caucasus" site has strongly pronounced altitudinal sequence. Mountain-meadow, mountain-meadow-forest, mountain-forest, alluvial soils of river valleys and azonal soil types are distinguished here. Mountain meadow soil is predominant in the central and eastern part of the Site. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

Mountain-meadow alpine soil is found at the heights of 2,300-2,500 to 2,800-2,900 in above sea level below the alpine vegetation. Mountain-meadow subalpine soil is confined to the subalpine belt and formed within the limits of heights 1,850-2,000 to 2,300-2,500 meters below subalpine vegetation. Mountain-meadow-forest soil is prevalent by a short belt at the places of contact of subalpine and forest vegetation, rhododendron thickets in the subalpine belt and below rarefied birch, beech and maple timber stands with thick grass cover. The mountain-forest brown soil occupies more than half of the territory of the Caucasus natural reserve at the height 600 – 850 in. The mountain forest brown acid soil is confined to the upper part of the forest viz. pine forests with closed canopy. Brown weakly unsaturated forest soils are formed below the fir, fir and beech, beech, oak and chestnut forests on the parent rock materials, rich with base. Humic, carbonated degraded soils are found predominantly in the piedmont part of Sochi National Park. These soils are usually of medium and minor thickness, and at places with developed deluvial processes are thick.

Vegetation of the Western Caucasus

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The historic development of the "Western Caucasus" mountains, unique geological, orographic and climatic features were instrumental in the formation of the unique biological diversity, especially vegetation. The saturation of "Western Caucasus" site with endemic and relict species is one of the parameters of its uniqueness. Hydrophilic and thennophilic elements of the late Tertiary flora survived here the unfavorable climatic conditions of glacial and interglacial epoch. The location of "Western Caucasus" on the northern and southern macroslopes of the Greater Caucasus stipulates the clear phytogeographic differentiation of this territory. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

The territory of "Western Caucasus" on the northern macroslope belongs to Maikop District of West Caucasus Province. It is represented by the highlands of the moderately warm belt with typical vertical change of orobioms. Represented here are: 1) Zone of beech, beech and fir forests; 2) Zone of fir forest comprising of Caucasus fir; 3) Subalpine zone with crooked birch and willow forest or rhodorets comprising of Caucasus rhodendron and tall grass; 4) Alpine zone with heathland and grassland vegetation and ledge rock; 5) Subnival zone with fragmented vegetation on mass of rock; 6) Nival zone with ice caps and snow patches.

Oriental beech forests predominantly extend within the limits of 500-1 500 meters above sea level. Fir forests and beach and fir formations occupy a greater part of the forests. Giant grass thickets, called as "subalpine tall grass are found along the ravines, clearings in the forests and edges near the upper boundary of forest. At the height 1,800-1,900 meters above sea level the fir forest gives way to unique vegetation communities of the forest upper limit belt, called as subalpine wood and timber belt. Hooked pine forests frequently form the forest line along the southern slopes.

The heights 2,000-2,300 meters above sea level is the tree line of forest expansion. Above lies the treeless space of the highlands, occupied by meadows, bushy scrubs, scree debris and ledge rocks. The Caucasus rhododendron thickets occupy extensive areas in the subalpine belt. Grass and herb meadows constitute the basic vegetation ground in the limits of 1,800-2,400 in above sea level. Low grass small sedge and grass and herb meadows are widespread at the alpine belt meadows.

The southern macroslope, steeply descending to the Black Sea, belongs to the Sochi district of Evksinsky province. It has a special transition version of ecosystems, from eastern sub-Mediterranean Colchian to alpine. These forests, characteristic for warm humid climate of near N-S latitude, are fully represented only at the territory of Sochi National Park, proposed for expansion of the existing World Heritage Site, and are not found anywhere else in Russia.

The bulk of Sochi National Park (SNP), extending from Psou River to Ashe River, belongs to Cherkessk geobotanical district, which is divided into four forest districts with well-defined vertical zonation and influence of slope direction: 1) Coastal district of oak and hornbeam forests; 2) Area of medium-altitude mountains of chestnut, oak and hornbeam and beech and hornbeamforests; 3) Mountainous area of beech forests; 4) Upper mountainous area of beech and fir and fir forests.

Broad-leaved oak, chestnut, hornbeam, maple, ashwood and alder forests are located in the coastal and low mountain area up to height 1,000 meters above sea level. Highland forests in their entire range of height are represented primarily in the eastern part of SNP. They are made of beech, beech and fir, rarely white deal forest crops, with mixture of beech, gradually transiting with increase in height above sea level to alpine fir forests with inclusions of maple forests on the terrace type ledges and places with increased wetness. A small part of SNP territory is located in the southeastern part of North Cherkessk district, represented by mesophile Eastern beech and European chestnut forests. Forest meadow plant communities are the widespread component of the biotic mosaic of forest ecosystems of the national park.

On the territory of "Western Caucasus" site, according to summarized information, currently about 4000 species of plant bodies, mushrooms and lichen sprout. The share of vascular plants constitutes more than 2,000 species. This corresponds to 2/3 of the total number of species of the Greater Caucasus and '/2 species of the entire Caucasus (about 6000 species).

Vascular plant are related to the areal types, which represent different elements of flora: ) Eurasian boreal (for example, plants of coniferous forests); ) Eurasian and European moderately-(sub) oceanic (for example, Nemoral plants of deciduous forests); ) Eurasian and European meridional-submeridional (-moderately) continental (for example, plants of steppes and forest steppes); ) Submediterranean/Alpine central European; ) (Mediterranean/alpine)- submediterranean, and eastern-Mediterranean species, Euxine, Colchian or western Caucasus species are distributed and are endemics of the provinces or even local areas; ) (Sub-Mediterranean) - Central European and (Mediterranean)- Sub-Mediterranean oreophytes, typical highland plants, besides included here are numerous species, which have only Caucasus or only western Caucasus distribution. Cases of local endemism are also known in Western Caucasus.

The flora of Caucasus reserve has been explored best of all, a greater part of which is located in the northern macroslope. Recorded at the reserve territory are 1586 species (503 genus, 121 families) of vascular plants. From the total quantity of species, 10 percent are tertiary relicts. The composition of vascular plant flora of the reserve has 416 endemic forms or 26.2 percent of their total quantity. Endemism of highland flora overall is higher and constitutes 35 percent. Caucasus endemics represent the largest group. related with the Greater Range in its origin. The forest flora of the reserve includes 16 percent of endemic species. The flora of Fisht-Oshtensky massif of Lagonaki highland is characterized by the highest uniqueness. Three types of local endemic of this district are noted here, and 22 species are narrow regional endemics.

The flora of Sochi National Park is distinguished by very high species diversity and comprises 2,026 species of vascular plants, of which 164 species belong to trees, shrubs, sub-shrubs and climbers, and the remaining to herbs. In view of direct proximity to the Caucasus reserve, a majority of the species of the National Park coincides with that grown at the reserve. The number of rare plants, animals and mushrooms, included in the Red Book of the Russian Federation and Krasnodar Territory exceeds 70 species. A large numbers of rare Mediterranean species, majority of which is in the Red Books of different levels, are present. Abkhazian floristic endemics are concentrated in the southeastern part of the nominated area. Among 84 Abkhazian endemics at the nominated area of SNP growth of 35 species has been noted.

Wildlife in the Western Caucasus

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: "Western Caucasus" is part of Holartic biogeographical realm and by faunistic zoning of Caucasus belongs to two large biogeographical sub-realms: Circumboreal and Central Asian. The Site at the Circumboreal realm is represented by the Caucasus forest district of European forest province, and widely distributed forest species are represented in its fauna, found here often at the boundary of its distribution or away from the basic areal. The fauna of Central Asian subregion is represented by the Caucasus mountain meadow district, occupying subalpine, alpine and subnival belts and part of Nagorno-Asian province. The wildlife of -Western Caucasus" site is extremely varied. Among the animals living here are a multitude of endemic and protected species. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

Shellfish fauna of Caucasus reserve, jointly with the territory of Sochi National Park. includes no less than 128 species. The list is to be considered as incomplete. Terrestrial spineless gastropods are predominant. Overwhelming majority of shellfish constitute the Caucasus group species (80 species) -70 percent, including Colchian species (29) - 25 percent, western Caucasus (27) - 24 percent and General Caucasus (24) ) 21 percent. The remaining groups in total constitute less than 30 percent of the total number of species: boreal (21) ) 18.4 percent and Eastern Mediterranean (12) -11.4 percent.

Insects: Information about the region's entomofauna is not complete. More than 2.500 species have been recorded (forecast strength about 15,000). Entomofauna best of all has been studied on the territory of the Caucasus reserve. Here it is represented by more than 20 orders. Ninety-eight insect species have been included in the Red Book of Russia and regional Red Books. The largest by the number of species is beetles. About 5,000 species of the representatives of this order comprising of more than 70 families inhabit at all the biotopes of all attitudinal belts. About 12 percent of beetles are endemic to Caucasus. Similarly, among this order there are many tertiary relicts.

The species composition of lepidopterous insect group is rich and varied. The rarest endemic of Caucasus is Apollo Nordmann and Polyxena. Protected on the territory of the reserve are 31 species of butterflies, included in the Red Book of Russia and regional Red Books, and three are included in IUCN Red List. The hymenoptrans group is quite varied. Among Syrphidac about 200 species have been detected, 137 species of Dolichopodidae have been described, and among them more than 20 species are endemic.

Fish: Twenty-eight species of fish inhabit the rivers of "Western Caucasus", live among them are included in IUCN Red List. The brook trout is the common specie of the upper and middle course of a majority of the Site rivers. The richest is the ichthyofauna of Sochi National Park. It is represented by 27 species and subspecies, related to 24 genus, 8 bloodlines, 7 orders. The representatives of 10 species and subspecies of 4 bloodline fish are characteristic for the lower course of the rivers.

Amphibians and Reptiles of "Western Caucasus" are distinguished by the uniqueness; many types are represented by several sub-species. Each second specie of the amphibians and reptiles inhabiting here is located at the boundary or in total separation from its basic areal. At the Site territory, four types of representative areas of these groups criss-cross (Tuniev, 1994): European, Eastern Mediterranean, Colchian and Caucasus. Sochi National Park is among the most interesting regions of Caucasus isthumus in herpetological relation. Between 86 amphibian and reptile species, inhabiting the Caucasus, 29 (32.6 percent) are registered within SNP. An overwhelming majority of the species are represented by endemic and relict forms (amphibians — 66 percent, reptiles -47.7 percent).

Birds in the Western Caucasus

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Avifauna of "Western Caucasus" numbers 246 species, among them about half are nestling, 23 species are included in the Red Book of Russia and 11 in IUCN Red List. The presence of endemic species and sub-species of birds is a unique feature of avifauna of the region. Endemism is manifested most at the sub-species level. Endemic species are lesser, among the Caucasus snowcock, Caucasus blackcock, and Caucasus chiff-chaff. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO]

The unique migration routes of the birds cross the territory of "Western Caucasus. One of them passes along the Black Sea coast. Smaller migration flows of birds fly over the mountain river valleys.

Sochi National Park is an Important Bird Area of global significance by three key features. Here is a considerable number of species with endemic or organic areal, and species whose propagation is limited by one biotope. Avifauna of the national park numbers 234 species, representing 16 orders: among them 99 are related to nestling, 87 to flying, 36 flying in for wintering, 12 vagrant species.

Mammals in the Western Caucasus

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The mammal fauna of "Western Caucasus"numbers 8 species, 11 of them have been included in the Red Book of Russia and 17 in IUCN Red List. Small animals constitute about 60 percent of the species diversity. The smallest representatives of mammals are related to the insect-eating order, which numbers 11 species.

At "Western Caucasus" 22 species of night bats, with each third species included in the Red Book of Russia, inhabit. Rodents are the most numerous order of mammals, that numbers 23 species, among which almost half is represented by relict or endemic forms. Predatory animals at the Site territory number 17 species. Wolves are numerous (about 80 permanently living animals).

Seven hoofed mammal species inhabit "Western Caucasus". The wide spread representatives of cloven-hoofed mammals common for this territory are the Caucasus gazelle and West Caucasus Tur. The unique representative of "Western Caucasus" mammal fauna is the bison.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website russiatourism.ru ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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