Western Caucasus, Russian Federation


The Western Caucasus (43°30' to 44°08'N, 39°53' to 40°48'E) is a World Heritage Site which extends over 350,000 hectares (ha) of the inaccessible western end of the Greater Caucasus Mountains 50 kilometers (km) north-east of the Black Sea. It is one of the few large mountain ranges of Europe that has not experienced significant human impact. Its extensive undisturbed mountain forests, ranging from subtropical to alpine are unique in Europe and its subalpine and alpine pastures have been grazed only by wild animals. It includes about four-fifths of the ecosystems of the Caucasus which is one of the global centers of plant diversity and the site, which is one of the largest of strictly protected areas, includes many endemic and relict species including the reintroduced European bison.

Geographical Location

caption View of the Western Caucasus from Krasnaya Polyana. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This complex of sites is located in the mountains of the western Greater Caucasus in southwesternmost European Russia in the province of Krasnodar and the Republics of Adygea and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The nearest city is Sochi, 25 km southwest. It is 120 km from east to west, and 50 km from north to south. Its core is the Kavkazskiy (Caucasus) Nature Reserve with its buffer zone which together form the Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve, with parts of Sochi National Park and its buffer zone and four natural monuments. Parts of the territory are very isolated. 43°30' to 44°08'N, 39°53' to 40°48'E.

Date and History of Establishment

  • 1882 Most of the future Kavkazskiy Reserve was a princely hunting preserve called 'the Kuban Chase';
  • 1906 The territory was returned to local settlers and no longer protected;
  • 1924 Kavkazskiy Nature Reserve established after pressure from the Russian Academy of Sciences;
  • 1951 The Nature Park and Natural Monuments, already part of the Kavkazskiy Nature Reserve, were transferred to forestry departments: two-thirds of the Reserve lost its protected status;
  • 1979 The Kavkazskiy Reserve was declared a Biosphere Reserve under the UNESCO MAB Program;
  • 1983 Sochi National Park was established to preserve natural areas on the Black Sea Coast and for recreational, educational and scientific purposes;
  • 1996 The Bolshoy Thach Nature Park was re-established by Decree of the President of the Republic of Adygea to protect a complex of primary montane broad-leaf, fir and beech-fir forests. The Buiniy Ridge Nature Monument was also re-established by the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Adygea to protect virgin fir woods having trees 300 years old;
  • 1997 The headwaters of the rivers Tsitsa, Pshecha and Pshechashcha were decreed Nature Monuments by the President of the Republic of Adygea to protect vast beech and beech-fir forests;
  • 1997 Sochi National Park divided into five management zones; three especially protected zones next to the Kavkazskiy Reserve being included within it.


351,620 ha. The territory is protected under various designations:

  • Kavkazkiy Nature Reserve: 275,841 ha
  • Kavkazskiy Nature Reserve buffer zone: 6,000 ha
  • Sochi National Park: 56,910 ha
  • The Bolshoy Thach Nature Park: 3,700 ha
  • The Buiniy Ridge Nature Monument: 1,480 ha
  • The River Tsitsa Headwaters Nature Monument: 1,913 ha
  • Headwaters of Rivers Pshecha and Pshechashcha Nature Monument: 5,776 ha

Land Tenure

The Kavkazskiy Nature Reserve and Sochi National Park are under federal jurisdiction, and are managed by the State Committee for the Environment. The buffer zone of the Nature Reserve and remaining protected areas fall under the Forests Committee of the Republic of Adygea.


From 260 meters (m) to 3,360 m (Akaragvarta Mountain).

Physical Features

The Greater Caucasus Mountains are one of the great mountain ranges of Europe and form a major barrier across the isthmus. The diversity of the landscapes of Adygeya and Karachaevo-Cherkessia is very high. The site is at the western end of the range close to the Black Sea. It does not encompass the highest or steepest parts of the Caucasus, but includes a wide range of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks from Precambrian to Paleozoic in a landscape of high peaks, wide valleys, lakes, mountain bogs and moraines. The Lagonakskiy Plateau and the north of the site is dominated by limestone massifs with many cave systems, among them the longest and deepest cave in Russia, 1,600 m deep and 15 km long. Most of the surface of the site has been glaciated: there are about 60 remnant glaciers with a total area of 18 square kilometers (km2) and over 130 mountain lakes at high altitude, among them lakes Kardyvach, Inpsi and Bezmolviya. The glaciers feed numerous watercourses and two large rivers, the Bol'shaya Laba and the Belaya whose tributaries dissect the northern slope of the range. The rivers of the southern slope, the Mzyma, Sochi and Shakhe, flow into the Black Sea. These rivers form numerous waterfalls some up to 250 m high. Abadzekhskoe Gorge in the headwaters of the River Tsitsa drops 1 km over a 10 km stretch.


The mountain ridges of the Greater Caucasus intercept flows of cold air from north to south and form a climatic boundary between moderate northern and warm humid southern climatic regimens. Below-zero temperatures are characteristic of the northern part in winter; in June temperatures average 20°C. The southern portion, in the low mountains of the Black Sea coast has a warm and damp climate close to subtropical; the average temperature in January is 4.2°C, and in July-August, 20-21°C. Air temperatures in the mountains fall 0.65°C per 100 m of altitude, and absolute minima can reach -22°C. The annual precipitation, falling mainly in summer, is about 1,000 millimeters (mm) and increases with height: the Lagonakskiy Plateau, Achishko and Fisht Mountains receive 3,000 mm per year and can be snow-covered for 9 to 10 months, 2-4 m thick on mountain slopes, but in valleys and gorges accumulating to 10-16 m.deep.


The North Caucasus is the only place in the world where warm-temperate deciduous forests have existed since the Tertiary and is their most important refuge and relict area in west Eurasia. Because of the biogeographic variety of the region, speciation and endemism are high. A total of 1,580 vascular plant species have been recorded from the site, including 967 species from the high mountain zone, about one third of which are endemic to the Caucasus. 160 species of plants are in danger of extinction and are listed in the Red Data books of the Russian Federation, Adygea and the Krasnodar region. There are also over 700 species of fungi, 12 of which are threatened in Russia. 62% of the area is forest, 21% grassland and the rest mainly rock. The flora is vertically zoned. Deciduous forests clothe the mountain foothills from 500 to 1,200 m above sea level. These consist of sessile and downy oaks Quercus petraea and Q.pubescens, pear Pyrus communis, European chestnut Castanea sativa, hornbeam Carpinus caucasica and oriental beech Fagus orientalis. Groves of box Buxus colchica and yew Taxus baccata are especially prized. A belt of dark coniferous forests grows between 1,000 and 2,000 m, 70% consisting of Caucasian fir Abies nordmanniana and various pines Pinus spp. Between 2,000 and 2,300 m, these forests give way to birch Betula pendula and B. litwinowii, and maples Acer laetum and A. trautvetteriare. And from 1,800 almost to 2,500 m, the vegetation is subalpine with tall grasses and the endemic Caucasian rhododendron Rhododendron caucasicum, Betula and Salix shrubs. Above this are alpine meadows and rocky outcrops that yield in places to sub-nival and nival belts. The terrain above 3,100 m is permanently snow-covered.


caption European bison, Bison bonasus bonasus. (Source: San Francisco State University)

The diversity of the landscapes of the Western Caucasus is also reflected in their fauna, with about 384 recorded vertebrate species. Some 60 mammal species have been recorded in Kavkazskiy Nature Reserve and Sochi National Park. These include wolf Canis lupus, brown bear Ursus arctos, lynx Felis lynx, wild pig Sus scrofa, Caucasian deer Cervus elaphus moral, roe deer Capreolus capreolus, the west Caucasian tur Capra caucasica (EN) and chamois Rupicapra rupicapra and the reintroduced European bison Bison bonasus x B.bonasus caucasicus. The Park's territory is a wintering ground for many ungulates. Five species are registered in the Red Data Book: the bats Miniopterus schreibersi and Nyctalus lasioterus, Caucasian otter Lutra lutra meridionalis (VU), leopard Panthera pardus ciscaucasica and the European bison. The latter derives from hybrids between the existing stock and the mountain bison which lived here before being hunted to extinction.

126 different species of birds are recorded, 17 being listed in the Russian Red Data Book. The mountains are a migratory bottleneck for raptors and many are seen in the area: bearded vulture Gypaetus barbatus, griffon vulture Gyps fulvus, osprey Pandion haliaetus, whitetailed eagle Haliaeetes albicilla, cinereous eagle Aegypius monachus, short-toed eagle Circaetus gallicus, tawny eagle Aquila garax, imperial eagle A.heliaca (VU), golden eagle A.chrysaetos and Levant sparrow hawk Accipiter brevipes, Other notable species are black stork Ciconia nigra, Caucasian blackcock Lyrurus mlokoseiwiczi, Caucasian snowcock Tetrogalluus caucasicus, corncrake Crex crex (VU), Alpine chough Pyrrhocorax graculus, Kruper's nuthatch Sitta krueperi, wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria, Alpine accentor Prunella collaris, Caucasian chiffchaff Phylloscopus lorenzii and great rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla.

Seventeen reptiles have been recorded in the territory, two of which are listed in the Red Data Book for Russia: the common turtle Testudo graeca (VU), the Caucasian viper Vipera kaznakowi (EN). Vipera dinniki (VU) is also found. About 2,500 insect species have been recorded from the area, but double this number may well occur. Several of these species have been listed in the Red Data Book for Russia, in particular the Caucasian ground beetle Carabus caucasicus, Alaus parreyssi, Rhesus serricollis, Rosalia alpina, Apollo butterfly Parnassius Apollo (VU), and P.Mnemosyne.

Cultural Heritage

The history of the human occupation of this region is traced back about 500,000 years. Archaeologists have found more than 150 Neanderthal sites along with the remains of mammoths, aurochs, and wild horses. After about 6,000 BC the region was overrun by migrations and new settlers. At the end of 4,000 BC a tumulus culture was established in the area connected with the wave of migrations from eastern Asia. The territory was a part of the highly developed Maikop culture that lasted until 1,000 BC. There have been numerous findings in the tumuli including unique golden adornments and artifacts of metal and clay. For many centuries the area has been largely uninfluenced by human activity and more recently there has been only low impact logging, grazing and hunting around the periphery.

Local Human Population

Owing to their inaccessibility and steepness these slopes were never economically exploited. There is no resident population but there are 200 farmers in the buffer and transition zones.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

Kavkazskiy Nature Reserve has been very isolated and parts are only easily reached by helicopter. There is tourism in peripheral areas, for the most part unquantified, but it is being promoted and is increasing fast. In 1997 2,934 people passed along the one established tourist route, and the museum at Guzeripl received about 3000 visitors in 2000. Tourists in the Biosphere Reserve numbered 40-50,000 in 1997. The River Belaya in the Reserve is a venue for rafting and annual international water sport competitions: in 1997 150 people took part. Little information is available about visitor facilities connected with the Reserves, but Sochi, on the Black Sea 25 km to the southwest, and the approaches from Maikop have many camps and hotels.

Scientific Research and Facilities

Little information is available, but mapping and monitoring the area are part of the program for the Biosphere Reserve.

Conservation Value

The site is rather inaccessible and is one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not suffered significant human impact. It includes about 80% of the ecosystem types of the Caucasus and its subalpine and alpine pastures have only been grazed by wild animals. Its extensive undisturbed mountain forests, ranging from subtropical to alpine are unique in Europe. The Caucasus is one of the global centres of plant diversity and the site, which is one of the largest of strictly protected areas, includes many endemic and relict species.

Conservation Management

Kavkazskiy Nature Reserve is managed by the Russian State Committee of Environmental Protection with the Forestry Committee of the Republic of Adygea. A management plan for the site was drawn up in 1997, dividing the reserve into six regions each with a team of rangers. The Russian Ministry of Forestry manages the Sochi National Park, although the Forest Committee of Krasnodar Province has some influence. A project for the management of this site was drawn up in 1987 with detailed maps and division into four zones. Proposals to amend this into a 5-zone plan have yet to be realized. The three natural monuments and the nature park are under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet of the Republic of Adygea, but there are no management plans for these sites.

Management Constraints

The size and inaccessibility of the area means that threats to the park have been few so far, but there are three areas of concern. There is some illegal deer hunting and it has been suggested that increased provision of salt for ungulates in the hunting reserves around the area may have drawn some animals out of the park. There are currently no roads in the area, but to promote tourism the Adygeyan authorities have proposed one across the Reserve from the limestone Lagomakiy Plateau in the north to the Black Sea coast at Dagomys. This would cross the Fisht-Oshtenskiy Massif, the area generally held to be the genetic center of Caucasian biodiversity, and would cut across the migration routes of bears and deer. No environmental impact assessment has yet been made and local conservationists are not officially consulted. Accessibility would open up the country and compromise the Park's wilderness values and there would be impacts from the construction work itself. Tourist litter, accidental fires and tree-cutting are already evident.


There are 199 staff in the Kavkazskiy Nature Reserve, including 15 administrative staff, 45 scientific workers, 95 rangers, 8 in the department of ecological education and 44 technical personnel. Sochi National Park has 169 staff, including 17 administrative staff and 15 forest guards. The remainder are guards, technicians and other workers. There are no staff assigned to the other protected areas, although the staff of the Kavkazkiy Nature Reserve undertake some management activities.


No information.

IUCN Management Category

  • Kavkazkiy Nature Reserve; 1a (Strict Nature Reserve)
  • Sochi National Park; II (National Park)
  • Bolshoy Thach Nature Park; IV (Nature Monument)
  • Buiniy Ridge Nature Monument; IV (Nature Monument)
  • River Tsitsa headwaters Nature Monument; IV (Nature Monument)
  • Headwaters of Rivers Pshecha and Pshechashcha Nature Monument; IV (Nature Monument)
  • Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1999. Biosphere Reserve. Natural Criteria i, ii, iii and iv.

Further Reading

  • Chebakova, I., (1997). National Parks in Russia: A Guidebook. Moscow, Biodiversity Conservation Centre.161pp.
  • Heath, M. & Evans, M. (eds) (2000). Important Bird Areas in Europe. Priority Sites for Conservation. BirdLife International, Cambridge U.K. ISBN: 0946888345.
  • IUCN (1999, in litt.) World Heritage Nomination - IUCN Technical Evaluation. Western Caucasus (Russian Federation).
  • Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of the Russian Federation (1996). Strict Nature Reserves (Zapovedniki) of Russia: Collection of 'Chronicle of Nature' for 1991-92. Moscow. 270pp.
  • Russian Federation National Park Administration (1998). Nomination of the Western Caucasus Natural Site for Inclusion in the World Heritage List (1998). 41pp. Annexes, maps.
  • Sokolov, V.,& Syroechkovskiy, E.,(eds.) (1990). Zapovedniki Kavkaza (Nature Reserves of the Caucasus) in Zapovedniki SSSR (Nature Reserves of the USSR). 365pp. ISBN: 5244004328.
  • UNESCO-MAB Biosphere Reserve Directory. (2001). Russian Federation. Kavkazskiy.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2008). Western Caucasus, Russian Federation. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/157058


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