Europe and Central Asia
18 May 2016

Alexander Rukhaia wins Whitley Award for protecting birds of prey

Alexander Rukhaia receiving his award from HRH The Princess Royal Anne. Photo: Whitley Fund for Nature
By Brecht Verhelst

Much has been written about the Batumi Bottleneck in Georgia and its importance for migrating birds. So it’s great to hear that its protection is valued and will continue, thanks to the Whitley Fund for Nature and the Society for Nature Conservation in Georgia (SABUKO).

A few weeks ago, Alexander Rukhaia, the founder and director of SABUKO was awarded a Whitley Award – £35,000 in project funding – by HRH The Princess Royal Anne at the annual Whitley Awards ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London. The award – given to conservationists in resource-poor, biodiversity-rich countries – was in honour of his work to reduce the number of birds of prey killed on their migration path through the Ajara region of Georgia and was the first time someone from that country received the award.


The award winners pose at the ceremony with Sir David Attenborough (centre). Photo: Whitley Fund for Nature


While the term ‘bottleneck’ today conjures images of unwelcome car traffic jams, the ‘traffic jam’ one in Batumi is actually a necessary one.

There are two kinds of birds of prey: those that almost constantly flap their wings and can fly over land and water (small, active flyers like falcons and sparrowhawks), and those that rely on the lift of thermal air currents to glide and save energy (these have large and broad wings, like eagles and buzzards). These thermal soarers have to fly mainly over land as water bodies provide no thermal lift during the day. They must also avoid high mountain ranges. As a result, large concentrations of them fly along the same routes, which are called ‘bottlenecks’.

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Batumi is the biggest bottleneck in the world for migrating birds of prey: more than one million birds of prey from 35 species pass through the region. It lies along the mountainous Black Sea coast in the Ajara region of Georgia and is recognised as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) and a hotspot for birdwatchers.

Although illegal, the tradition of shooting birds of prey has long been prevalent in the coastal communities of Ajara. There is a mass indiscriminate killing of birds as they migrate, with up to 13,000 birds of prey shot every year for food and leisure. Limited understanding of hunting regulations, inadequate efforts to enforce them and a lack of conservation awareness have ensured shooting birds of prey remains a family tradition.

As a Policy Science graduate, it was only once Rukhaia volunteered to count migrating birds in Georgia that he saw the killing first-hand and realised he had to do something. He founded SABUKO and has adopted a holistic approach to put an end to the illegal killing. “Our approach delivers a win-win situation for people and raptors,” he said.

Working with authorities and local communities, he disseminates information about hunting regulations, conducts educational activities to build awareness and builds local capacity to support the development of birdwatching tourism, which will help generate income to battle unemployment in the region and consequently build support against the illegal killing of birds.

His efforts have already led to an 80% reduction in the number of birds killed in two villages since 2010. With this new funding from the Whitley Fund, Rukhaia aims to expand the project to six additional villages; increase local awareness of hunting regulations and mobilise government support to enforce them; draw attention to the situation at the local, national and international level; engage communities in conservation activities and develop ecotourism; and continue to monitor raptor killings to measure the impact of the project.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.