Where Does Europe End?

Petr Gorbunenko,

Head of WWF Russia's Regional Branch Office Russian Caucasus.

In 1995 the capital of Turkey, Ankara, held an international conference with an obviously odd at that time name: „Where does Europe end?“ It was the first time when West European politicians spoke openly about the European Union expansion to the east. However, the Ankara conference was devoted to new political borders of Europe, not issues of physical geography. Still, one can easily find the problem out by asking a simple question from the junior school: What is the highest peak in Europe? Most probably the answer will be: «It's Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Western Alps on the border of France and Italy (4,807 m)» or «It's Elbrus (also called Mingitau), a mountain in the heart of the Caucasus (5,642 m).»

Incessant scientific disputes go on questioning the border between Europe and Asia near the Caucasus. One point is that the delimitation should follow Kuma-Manych depression (lowlands) which once connected the Caspian and Black Seas, along the Main Caucasus Range, and down with the rivers of Rioni and Kura (the point advocated by Ancient Greek geographer Herodotus). However, let scientists decide on the problem. What is most significant to us is that the Caucasus lies on the border of Europe and Asia where the winds and civilizations meet.

The Caucasus is unique at any aspect. Since the Great Migration of Peoples different alien tribes used to settle there forcing out and succeeding one another. The Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Bulgarians, Byzanthians, Arabs, Pechenegs, Komans, peoples of Horde, all of them were the the actors in great and minor events, the creators of the history. They left plenty of brain-twisters for present-day scientists. Tumuli built in the second half of the third thousand B.C. and dolmens (a construction of a stone box covered with a stone slab) keep the history of the land diligently, and are very reluctant in sharing their memories with researches.

The immensely rich past is reflected in highly mosaic ethnic and cultural pattern seen in the Caucasus today. Many nations live here under different religions keeping surprisingly original traditions. In Dagestan alone, in the territory of less than 50 thousand sq. kilometers dwell over 40 nations speaking different languages. It's not uncommon here when villagers from neighboring valleys cannot understand one another; that's why people here use Russian as international language of everyday communication.

Climatically, the Caucasus lies at the junction of subtropical and moderate climatic zones bordered by the Main Caucasus Range. Average annual temperature in the Caucasus is 3°-5°C lower than in other regions of the same latitude. Plainly speaking, the Caucasus seems to be shifted by several degrees to the north, the phenomenon originating from the influence of the Siberian anticyclone and cold Arctic air reaching the Caucasus region. Therefore, in terms of heat regime the Caucasus is an «island of cold».

Another feature of the Caucasus is its substantial landscape variety, one of the most prominent in the world. The region has wet and dry areas, subtropics and glaciers, plains and highlands. Occupying only 0.5 % of the global land the territory of the Caucasus includes over 40% of landscape types. The Caucasus is sometimes called the global landscape laboratory. It's important to note, that one tenth of its area is still little disturbed by human activity.

In terms of fauna and flora, the Caucasus is ranked first among the other regions of the same latitude and yields to tropical countries only. This is explained by its location on the junction between the moderate and subtropical zones, influenced by moderate Atlantic and dry continental air masses of the Eurasia. There are over 5,000 higher plant species in the Caucasus, which is 40% of all vascular plant species of Russia! Fauna is very rich too: over 152 mammals, 389 birds, and 76 reptiles live here.

The Caucasus is one of outstanding centers of endemism, which means it harbors plant and animal species living nowhere else on the planet. Endemics are about 1,600 plant species, 32 mammal species, and 3 bird species. All this taken together makes the Caucasus globally important center of biodiversity.

Most probably, many of guests coming to the Caucasus visited box tree and yew grove near Khosta in the Caucasus Nature Reserve. It's the residue of glacial forests which covered the entire Europe 18 - 25 million years ago and miraculously survived in its original. Fern and liana fairy-world waits a visitor there, the year-round green feast, fantastic trunks of 70 species of trees and bushes which are over 400 years old in average with the oldest aging up to 2,000 years! The Grove is the safety island for 50 rarest animal and plant species. However, the box tree and yew grove is not the only home of globally renowned rarities there. Among the vast variety of species inhabiting the Caucasus, over 30 are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as globally threatened.

The Caucasus is one of the most ancient and richest centers of agricultural species variety. Mild climate and abundant natural resources allowed development of agriculture in all zones there, from the terrains to the highlands. Today there are over 300 varieties of grapes and up to nine basic breeds of cattle in the region.

Unfortunately, the Caucasus undergoes dramatic changes and the human is the cause of them. Natural complexes are being destructed, and the number of virgin landscapes decrease insistently. Many ecosystems are so ancient and vulnerable that even the slightest human interference results in catastrophic consequences. First of all, this is true about the juniper and pistachio light forests in the north-west of the Caucasus. The number of nature reserves and national parks in the Caucasus is obviously insufficient. For example, it's been a long discussion about creation of a protected area between Anapa and Gelendzhik, but it has not been resolved yet. Another unique site is in Imeretinskaya (Adlerskaya) lowland, the key bird area, where many rare bird species nest; it is also one of the last sites where unique riparian plant species grow. Natural complexes of the Skalisky Ridge of the Greater Caucasus are protected insufficiently; no protected areas exist in the mountainous part of Dagestan where in addition to unique flora several iconic for the Caucasus animals such as the Persian Leopard and Bezoar Goat live.

Author thanks Boris Tuniev, Deputy Director of the Sochi National Park, and Vitaly Bratkov, Head of Department at the Stavropol State University for their contribution into this publication.