‘Mr. Velvet Scoter’: New film celebrates CLP-supported conservation in Georgia

November 08, 2023

A project supported by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) in Georgia, focused on saving the last velvet scoters in the Caucasus, has been featured in a new film.

The velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca) was thought to be extinct in the Caucasus until CLP alum Nika Paposhvili discovered a small population in Georgia in 2014 © Nika Paposhvili

In 2017, CLP began directing funding and training opportunities to the project team in Georgia, led by local ornithologist Nika Paposhvili.

The team has since reported some remarkable conservation successes, including significant increases in numbers of nesting pairs and fledging ducklings.

The incredible story has been captured by British film-maker Saxon Bosworth, who spent much of the last year filming in Georgia.

“It took me some time to understand the situation…the behaviours of the [velvet] scoter… and to observe the cost and sacrifices made by Nika. Things finally started to align when I thought of the name, “Mr. Velvet Scoter” and for the film to focus on the deep connection between the species and Nika,” said Saxon.

The film depicts a heroic conservation effort by Nika and his team that has spanned seven years and two CLP Team Awards.

A still from the new film: Nika fits a leg ring onto one of the scoters at Lake Tabatskuri – these enable the team to identify and monitor individual birds at the project site © Saxon Bosworth

The story of Mr. Velvet Scoter

The story began nine years ago after Nika made an amazing discovery: a small population of velvet scoters breeding at Lake Tabatskuri in the Javakheti Plateau, Georgia. At the time this species was thought to be extinct from the whole Caucasus.

For Nika, this was a euphoric once-in-a-lifetime discovery and, simultaneously, a sad realisation of the vulnerability of not just this remnant population, but the entire species.

In 2014, Georgian ornithologist and CLP alum, Nike Paposhvili, discovered the last velvet scoters in the whole Caucasus here at Lake Tabatskuri in Georgia © Saxon Bosworth

It was at this point that CLP stepped in to help. Nika was selected for one of CLP’s Future Conservationist Awards, which aim to forge long-term solutions to save threatened species by supporting local conservationists’ work on the ground.

This initial award enabled Nika and his team to start uncovering vital information. They conducted the first-ever survey of the species’ historical breeding sites in the Javakheti Plateau region. This confirmed that the velvet scoter was confined to just one site in the whole Caucasus: a tiny (1 ha) island in the northern part of Lake Tabatskuri, called Mamia’s Island.

A still from the new film: A map depicting Lake Tabatskuri and Mamia’s Island to the north, where the scoters nest © Saxon Bosworth

The team also managed to identify key threats: local people were taking the eggs for food and boat disturbance on the lake was causing further harm. Ducklings were getting accidentally caught in fishing nets, and mother ducks were flying away in panic, leaving their ducklings vulnerable to predators like Armenian gulls.

Conservation success

Thankfully, through CLP support, Nika and his team are mitigating these threats.

After establishing relationships with protected area rangers, gaining the trust of local communities, and circulating information brochures and posters, they have now completely eradicated egg collecting.

What’s more, after recruiting local fishermen, they have established a “no fishing zone” in the scoters’ feeding areas to reduce boat disturbance.

A still from the film: Fishermen on Lake Tabatskuri. Velvet scoters on the lake are now protected from boat disturbance by the “no fishing zone” set up by the CLP project team and local fishermen © Saxon Bosworth

All of this work is paying off.

Since 2017, the number of pairs nesting at Lake Tabatskuri has increased by almost eightfold.

Also, while only four ducklings survived to fledge the nest in 2019, just four years later that number is almost seven times higher.

The scoter’s home is also expanding – this year, Nika and his team are delighted to see them nesting on a second islet.

These incredible successes, achieved in such a short time, are already securing a much brighter future for the velvet scoter.

A new film

The new film about Nika’s conservation work in Georgia – which features field expeditions and camera trapping funded by CLP – beautifully showcases and celebrates the fascinating story behind these accomplishments.

“The story [I depicted in the film] is a symbiosis of a number of entities; the velvet scoters, the lake, the volcanic plateau that enshrouds it, the local community of the village, and then Nika, his team, and family,” explains the film-maker, Saxon.

A still from the film: Camera trapping funded by CLP helped the team monitor velvet scoter nesting success on Lake Tabatskuri and was featured in the new film about their work © Saxon Bosworth

In fact, the project has so deeply connected Saxon to the biodiversity in Georgia that he has now started a new position as Director at local NGO, Nature Conservation Georgia.

“I continue to work with Nika to support him in whatever ways I can to aid his mission in saving the velvet scoters of the Caucasus,” said Saxon.

Watch the film below:

Future plans

Nika’s work is far from finished, and CLP support continues. A Follow-Up Award in 2020, including a $25,000 project grant, has enabled the team to build on their initial successes.

As part of this project, they are uncovering scoter staging and wintering areas, and assessing genetic connectivity between Caucasian and north European scoters (publication forthcoming), to inform future conservation measures.

In the future, Nika also hopes to be able to combat predation by invasive Armenian gulls on the scoter ducklings at Lake Tabatskuri.

A still from the new film: Nika uses a predator decoy to try to deter Armenian gulls from taking scoter ducklings © Saxon Bosworth

These works would not have been possible without support from the Conservation Leadership Programme, the Rufford Foundation and the Institute of Ecology, Ilia State University and NGO “GARIELI” (NGO “GARIELI” – the Georgian name for the velvet scoter – aims to research and conserve waterfowl in Georgia). Thanks also go to environmental GOs, NGOs, and the people who were involved in the implementation of the project and contributed to these works.

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