The Western Caucasus, extending over 275,000 ha of the extreme western end of the Caucasus mountains and located 50 km north-east 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.
Justification for Inscription
The Western Caucasus has a remarkable diversity of geology, ecosystems and species. It is of global significance as a centre 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.
The site is at the far western end of the Greater Caucasus Mountains within Krasnodar Kray and the republics of Adygea and Karachevo-Cherkessia. It includes a number of units. The largest of these is the Caucasus (Kavkazskiy) state biosphere reserve, together with its 1 km wide buffer zone which runs along much of the perimeter of the reserve except in Karachevo-Cherkessia Republic and where the reserve abuts Georgia (Abkhazia). The second main component of the site comprises the three elements of the most strictly protected zone of Sochi National Park (all in Krasnodar Kray).
The remainder of the site comprises four small areas in Adygea Republic: Bolshoy Thach nature park; the nature monuments of Buiny Ridge, the headwaters of the River Tsitsa and the Pshecha and Pshechashcha rivers. The region is mountainous, ranging in altitude from 250 m to peaks over 3,000 m, of which the highest is Akaragvarta (3,360 m). The geology is very diverse, including sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks from the full span of eras from the Precambrian to the Palaeozoic; it is also very complex, reflecting the origin of the Caucasus Mountains. The north part of the site is characterized by karst limestone massifs with many caves, including 130 in the Lagonaki massif alone. Over the majority of the site the landscape has a typical glaciated relief, with high peaks, 60 remnant glaciers, moraines, and over 130 high-altitude lakes. The main rivers on the north side are the Bol'shaya Laba and Belaya, which feed into the Kuban; on the south side the rivers are shorter, flowing into the Black Sea. There are numerous waterfalls, up to 250 m in height.
The flora of the area is characterized by clear zonation, both vertically and from west to east. The western part has oak-hornbeam and beech and beech-fir forests; the higher central parts have fir-spruce forests with birch and maple at high altitudes; and the eastern parts have both fir-spruce and pine-cedar forests. Above the timberline at around 2,500 m are endemic rhododendron thickets as well as subalpine and alpine meadows. In total, 1,580 vascular plant species have been recorded on the site. Of the forest plant species, about one-fifth is relict or endemic. Some 160 of the vascular plant species are considered as threatened with extinction in the Russian Federation, Adygea Republic and Krasnodar Kray. There are over 700 species of fungi, including 12 that are nationally threatened.
The fauna is also rich, with 384 vertebrate species, and 60 mammal species, including wolf, bear, lynx, wild boar, Caucasian deer, tur, chamois, and reintroduced European bison which are globally endangered. Signs of snow leopard area are occasionally seen (globally endangered). There are 246 species of bird, including many endemic, of which 24 are nationally threatened and 24 globally threatened. There is also a high species richness of amphibians, reptiles and fish, with many rare species. About 2,500 insect species have been recorded from a projected total of 5,000.
Since the last glaciation, ecological succession has taken place across the nominated site, resulting in a great diversity of ecosystems. The forests are remarkable on the European scale for their lack of human disturbance, i.e. natural ecological processes have continued over the millennia. Vegetation dynamics and timberline have not been influenced by the grazing of domestic animals; an unusual situation on a global scale. There are important populations of both ungulates and wolves, providing opportunities for studying both competitive interactions between grazing animals and predator/prey interactions. Given the size and untouched nature of the site, it should be considered for inscription under this criterion.
The Caucasus is one of the global centres of plant diversity. The site includes around a third of the 6,000 plant species of the Greater Caucasus, including Tertiary relicts and Mediterranean and Asiatic Turano-Iranian elements. About a third of the high mountain species and about a fifth of the forest species are endemic. The fauna is also very rich. The site is the place of origin and reintroduction of the mountain subspecies of the European bison, and acts as a reservoir for its expansion through the region. There are stable populations of many other large mammals. The avifauna is rich, and includes many endemic species. There are also high levels of species richness and endemicity in the lower orders. Apart from the Virgin Komi Forests of the Urals, the Western Caucasus is probably the only large mountain area in Europe that has not experienced significant human impacts. Its subalpine and alpine pastures have only been grazed by wild animals. Its extensive tracts of undisturbed mountain forests, extending from the lowlands to the subalpine zone, are unique in Europe. The forests include very large specimens.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC