Nearly half of the lands in the Caucasus Biodiversity Hotspot have been transformed by human activities. The plains, foothills and subalpine belts have been the most heavily impacted. Native floodplain vegetation remains on only half of its original area in the North Caucasus and only two to three percent of original riparian forests remain in the southern Caucasus.
Illegal logging, fuelwood harvesting and the timber trade
Illegal logging, fuelwood harvesting and the timber trade threaten biodiversity in the region's forests and lead to habitat degradation. In Armenia, for example, 27,000 hectares of forests—eight percent of the country's forest reserves—were cut down between 1992 and 1995 because of the energy crisis.
Rural populations are largely dependent on fuel wood consumption for heating and cooking. Illegal timber export is a serious problem, particularly for Georgia and Russia. The Greater Caucasus, West Lesser Caucasus, East Lesser Caucasus and Hyrcan corridors are the most impacted by illegal or unsustainable logging and fuel wood harvesting.
Overgrazing is causing environmental damage in much of the hotspot, and a third of pasturelands in the region are subject to erosion. Intensive grazing has resulted in reduced species diversity and habitat degradation. Secondary plant communities now occupy 80 percent of grasslands in the subalpine belt. Grazing of cattle in forested areas disturbs undergrowth and creates competition for wild ungulates.
Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade
Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade have increased significantly as a result of the economic crisis and the opening of the borders in the former Soviet countries. Overhunting of legal game species and poaching of rare species is widespread in mountain regions, in particular. Government agencies set quotas for game species without carrying out appropriate research on game numbers and population dynamics. Thus, quotas are often too high to ensure that viable populations of game animals (mostly ungulates) are maintained.
Overfishing, mostly driven by poverty and international demand for black caviar, is widespread in the Caspian Sea and spawning rivers. It takes nearly two decades for the sturgeon to reach maturity, therefore overfishing has far-reaching impacts for populations of these fish.
Overfishing is also a serious problem in the Black and Azov seas where poachers may exceed the legal catch quota by 10 times. Fish inspection agencies are often powerless to halt overfishing—either they are corrupt and benefit from the business or they lack the capacity to fight it.
Infrastructure development—including roads, dams, channels and pipelines—fragments natural habitats and contributes to habitat loss. Draining wetlands and digging channels for agriculture and irrigation alters riparian ecosystems irreversibly and leads to habitat loss. Oil extraction in Baku Bay in the Caspian Corridor causes pollution and habitat degradation.
Certain provinces in Turkey have experienced population booms in recent years, leading to growth in construction of residential housing, industrial complexes and infrastructure. A highway along the Black Sea Coast has damaged marine ecosystems irreversibly and expansion of urban areas has destroyed forest cover.
Pollution of rivers and wetlands
Pollution of rivers and wetlands is generally a result of runoff from human settlements, factories, farmlands and pastures. While the use of pesticides and fertilizers in commercial agriculture has declined significantly in the former Soviet countries since 1990, use of chemicals on private plots has grown. Manure from livestock is often dumped directly into rivers, altering nutrient balances and causing eutrophication of lakes. Waste materials from timber production are also thrown into rivers at logging and processing sites. Erosion from farmlands, pastures and logged forests causes increased turbidity in many rivers.
Smaller factories generally do not have the means to install effective waste management mechanisms and equipment, and runoff waters are highly polluted. Pollution of wetlands and rivers impacts breeding birds and fish populations. Pesticides and fertilizers kill large numbers of invertebrates and make their way up the food chain to birds and even humans.