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Western Caucasus

Cultural criteria: ix, x
Year of inclusion in the List of World Heritage: 1999

The natural tract that has obtained the status of the World Heritage site is very vast and compact: these are almost untouched by man highlands once served for grand-ducal hunting, in area of approximately 300 thousand ha. The tract is situated on the west side of the Great Caucasus, about 50 km north-east of Sochi, and specifically - in the upper reach of the Malaya Laba and Belaya Rivers, sources of the Kuban River.

The central position is held by one of the oldest and known in the country Caucasus Reserve created in 1924, and since 1979 having the status of a biosphere reserve (Krasnodar Territory, Adygei, Karachai-Cherkess), in area of 282.5 thousand ha.

The Heritage site also comprises other valuable high-altitude areas, adjoining the reserve from north and northwest, notably: Bolshoy Thach Nature (regional) Park (3,700 ha, created in 1997) and three monuments of nature of republican importance – the Buyny mountain range (1480 ha, 1996), the Upper Pshekha and Pshekhashkha Rivers (5,776 ha, 1997) and the Upper Tsitse River (1913 ha, 1997), as well as a part of the Caucasus Reserve buffer zone, running along its north and northwest border (5.7 thousand ha, 1 km in width, marked out in 1981).

On this territory over 6 thousand species of plants and animals are registered, which makes it a unique center of biodiversity on a scale of not only the Caucasus, but also Eurasia. This area is known as the largest mountain forest reserve of Europe: forests occupy here at least 60% of the whole area. In the lower part of sides of mountains forests of broad-leaved species grow (beech, oak, maple, hornbeam, chestnut), and higher – those of coniferous species (fir, spruce). In its upper bound (2,000–2,300 m) the forests are framed by transition birch and maple-beech crooked forests. Further the subalpine belt begins with colorful high-grass meadows and Caucasian rhododendron bush, still higher – the Alpine belt with predominance of short grass meadows, and above 3 thousand meters – snow, ice, stony placers.

Altogether in local flora were found over 3 thousand species, of which a half is higher vascular plants, of which every third is recognized precinctive, and every tenth – a relict of previous ages, mainly of Tertiary times. For example, among 165 species of woody and frutescent plants, Caucasus endemics are the following: Georgian oak, longicorn spurge, smooth-cortex wahoo; on the other hand, plants such as Nordmann's Silver Fir, Caucasian Mock Orange, common laurel cherry, common yew, kolhidsky box tree and a number of others are relicts. Furthermore, flora of the highest-altitude zone was recognized the richest (abundance species) and the most original (excess percentage of endemics), where in whole about 900 species of vascular plants were registered, which is substantially higher than the similar indicator for many other Eurasian highlands. 55 species of vascular plants of those found in these parts are inscribed in the Red Book of Russia.

The animal world is impressive too: altogether about 10 species of amphibians were registered, 20 – reptiles, 30 – fishes, 250 – birds, including the nestling here rare birds of prey – golden eagle, bluegrass, osprey, griffon etc. These are also about 90 mammal species, for example, brown bear, wolf, lynx, forest cat, marten, wild boar, chamois, roe deer, European red deer, Caucasian tur and wisent. Among vertebrate animals very many precinctive ones as well as rare and endangered forms were found. Thus, 25 species of vertebrates are inscribed in the Red Book of Russia, and some of them (or more exactly – 8) were even enlisted at that in the International Red Book. There is a big variety of insects and other invertebrates – about 10 thousand species.

Caucasian auroch holds a specific place in the ecosystem – a massive wild bull, once called “dombai” by mountain dwellers. The question is rather abut the mountain subspecies of European bison, whereas other subspecies is flat, mainly inhabits in Bialowieza forest (World Heritage site as well). Earlier bison had been widely distributed in Europe and in the Caucasus, but it was subsequently completely dislodged: In the early 1920s the last freely living individuals were shot. Only taking emergency measures and above all the establishment of the Caucasus Reserve made it possible to revive the extinct animal. Though the purity of the mountain subspecies is now already lost: because the basis of the modern Caucasian run are hybrids – Bialowieza-Caucasian bisons and auroch-bisons. Nevertheless, outwardly these strong animals almost do not differ from their faraway ancestors. Further to calculations of 2002 there were about 250 aurochs in the protected area (what is several times less than 15-20 years ago). The Caucasian auroch figures not only in the Russian but also in the International Red Book.

In the reserve and its environs there are over ten “three-thousandth” mountains, many fanciful rocks and deep gorges, unique forms of weathering, waterfalls (up to 250 m in height), high-altitude lakes; these are also various caves in limestones – caverns, wells and cavities with underground rivers, lakes and waterfalls (including 15 kilometers underground under the Fisht Mountain); these are also a score of mountain glaciers, rogue valleys, cirques, tarns, moraines. We should also mention the deepest – up to 1 km, 10 km in length, Abadzekhskoye gorge in the Upper Tsitse, as well as unique findings of ammonites in the valley of the Belaya River – petrified ancient shells up to 1 m in diameter.

On the territory there are several tourists routes, landscape points are installed, nature museum is created, and about 3–3.5 thousand tourists walk on rocky paths during a season, and the average time of such routes passage is 4–5 days. The most attended place is the area of the Red Glade, situated at south borders of the reserve.