Conserving the unique biodiversity of Turkey

Conserving the unique biodiversity of Turkey

KuzeyDoğa Society founder Çağan Şekercioğlu hard at work.

September 29, 2011, Thursday/ 15:34:00/ THERESA DAY

Some of Turkey's most important ecosystems are in the remote northeast of Anatolia but its unique nature is degrading rapidly and locals are also countering environmental problems, underlines Dr. Çağan şekercioğlu, founder of the Kars-based ecological research and conservation NGO the kuzeydoğa Society.

Şekercioğlu founded KuzeyDoğa in 2007 to help prevent extinctions and consequent collapses of critical ecosystem processes in the area where the Irano-Anatolian and Caucasus biodiversity hotspots meet and which harbors 11 important plant areas, 13 important bird areas and 22 key biodiversity areas. KuzeyDoğa also aims to ensure that human communities benefit from conservation as much as the wildlife they help conserve. "With our partners we're involved in all aspects of biodiversity, including bird research, conservation and education. We also study large carnivores, are involved in wetland conservation and restoration, are bent on creating Turkey's first wildlife corridor and we work on enabling ecotourism."

Thanks to Şekercioğlu's determination and in spite of the logistical challenges of often running KuzeyDoğa remotely from the US -- where he's professor of conservation ecology and ornithology at the University of Utah -- KuzeyDoğa has a small team of dedicated conservationists and increasing support from both the public and private sectors. Above all, the NGO's skill and science-based grassroots efforts have achieved dramatic results over the past four years.

Turkey's first 'vulture restaurant'

In addition to banding nearly 40,000 birds at the Aras and Kuyucuk bird research and education centers, KuzeyDoğa has also been instrumental in the setting up of Turkey's first “vulture restaurant.”

“We're working with the Iğdır Directorate of Nature Conservation and national Parks [DKMP]," he continues. "This project is aimed at the conservation and promotion of Turkey's vultures and also at developing wildlife tourism in the region. A secret wildlife viewing blind will be built for ecotourists to observe and photograph the vultures and other predators and the vulture restaurant has an excellent view of Mount Ağrı National Park.”

Rescue mission for wetlands

Lakes, rivers and other wetlands are the most important biological areas in the Kars region and also happen to be the main bird areas in the region, which are also internationally important. Unfortunately, overgrazing has greatly reduced the natural vegetation, which has had a negative knock-on effect on biodiversity, so KuzeyDoğa is working on restoring it.

“As with old buildings, it's overambitious to think that you can fully restore them,” Şekercioğlu explains. “It's a complicated, highly sensitive and very time consuming process so there's a higher chance of success when aiming to partially restore a small, relatively undamaged area. In 2007, we started a partial restoration project with Dr. Sean Anderson, a wetland restoration professor at California State University Channel Islands in the US. It focuses on the seasonal wetlands on the Kafkas University campus and at Lake Kuyucuk, the most important wetland for birds in the Kars region. With support from Kars' governor and the Special Provincial Administration we've built Turkey's first artificial island for bird conservation by converting the old dirt road which bisected the lake into an area where birds can roost and breed safely. We were awarded the Whitley Gold Award in 2008 for our work there and in 2009, Lake Kuyucuk was designated a RAMSAR site as defined by the Ramsar Convention of 1971, Turkey's 13th and eastern Anatolia's first RAMSAR site. The same year, it also became a European Destination of Excellence [EDEN], an award which recognized our work helping local people earn income from village-based biocultural tourism."

Anderson, who has restored wetlands and the natural flow of rivers across the globe, is also teaching students at universities across Turkey as there are very few opportunities to learn practical ecological restoration techniques here. “We're here to help strengthen and revitalize the natural resources of Anatolia,” Anderson explains. “But more importantly, we're training the next generation of Turkish conservationists and restoration experts. I view our work with students from Turkish universities, ecotourism professionals and professionals from government ministries as KuzeyDoğa's longest-lasting impact. Their accomplishments in the years to come will make all the struggles and long hours worth it.”

Nature tourism

As Kars, Ardahan, Iğdır, Artvin and Ağrı are all home to a rich and diverse nature, ecotourism does not only help prevent further destruction of nature but can also contribute to the local economy. Bears and wolves are not bad guys: We're in this together. “There are many advantages to bird watching tourism. Above all, birdwatchers travel outside the normal tourist seasons to areas that are of little interest to other tourists,” he explains. “The potential revenues are impressive, such as in Costa Rica, another important world bird center, where the Tourism Institute of Costa Rica calculated that 41 percent of its $1 billion tourism income in 1999 came from bird watching.

Such large mammal projects are often an easy way to introduce people to the biodiversity of their region, as Anderson explains. "We've done this near my home in California, where interest in mountain lions is spurring great public interest in more effective conservation of our local mountains and parks. It's hard for many of us to get excited about worms or crickets, but everyone can get interested in lynx and wolves. By highlighting how important and amazing these large predators can be, KuzeyDoğa is fostering an understanding of the interrelation of all life," he said.

“As there are very few large mammal experts in Turkey, a major component of this project is contributing to the education of future scientists," Şekercioğlu points out. "As part of the Kars-Iğdır Biodiversity Project, the precursor to KuzeyDoğa, we held theoretical and applied training workshops on large carnivore research and conservation for biology students from Kafkas University. KuzeyDoğa staff, with Kafkas University students, have carried out field studies with camera traps in Sarıkamış Forest and the Allahüekber Mountains National Park, and conducted surveys about large carnivores in the surrounding villages. This project also provides crucial thesis research opportunities for Kafkas and other university graduate students."

Creating Turkey's first wildlife corridor

While bears, lynx and wolves all make interesting subjects for nature documentaries, the locals' experiences of living side-by-side with them tends to be one of conflict rather than cohabitation.

So what can be done? "Give them more space: While a single satellite-tracked brown bear in Sweden uses 300 square kilometers of area, the Sarıkamış-Allahüekber National Park, an isolated protected area, measures only 230 square kilometers in total," Şekercioğlu highlights. "KuzeyDoğa's solution to this problem is the creation of a wildlife corridor by connecting the Sarıkamış-Allahüekber National Park to the extensive forests of the Black Sea, Caucasus and Georgia through reforestation of an 81-kilometer-long corridor that would double the size of the national park. Not only will it free the bears from the constraints of the Sarıkamış forest but also, hopefully, help reduce human-carnivore conflict in Kars.

“The Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry has been very successful with reforestation; forest cover has increased by 5.9 percent since 1973," Şekercioğlu highlights. "Minister Veysel Eroğlu expressed an interest in a proposal [we made towards creating Turkey's first wildlife corridor] earlier this year and requested a detailed plan and map. We then travelled the proposed route -- that crosses Erzurum, Kars, Ardahan and Artvin -- with ministry officials, mapped it in further detail and checked the site conditions. Even though the creation of new ministries this summer has slowed down the official process, the new Turkish Ministry of Forestry and Water is still interested and we hope they go ahead with creating Turkey's first wildlife corridor."

But how has KuzeyDoğa managed to achieve so much in such a short time span? According to Şekercioğlu, the reason is simple: “Animals care about themselves. What makes humans different and special is our capacity to go beyond self-interest.” Generosity of spirit has been a key factor in KuzeyDoğa's successes to date. “For example, our project coordinator Önder Cırık is busy coordinating the construction of Turkey's first wildlife rehab center in Bursa,” he emphasizes. “Our science coordinator Emrah Çoban is trekking through the forests of Kars' Sarıkamış-Allahüekber National Park, placing infrared cameras and video traps to take photos of lynx, wolves and bears. Our ornithologist Sedat İnak spent three months banding birds in the swamps of the Aras River in Iğdır. Of course, KuzeyDoğa has also been developing important partnerships with local, national and international organizations, mainly on environmental education, community work and nature-based tourism."

"We need Turkey's support to continue our good work," Şekercioğlu emphasizes. "I hope the government and the Turkish public will support our conservation efforts and ecological work more so KuzeyDoğa can become financially stable and won't have to rely on foreign donations. The world's 17th biggest economy shouldn't have to rely on international charity to conserve its globally important biodiversity. If KuzeyDoğa becomes self-sustaining, I'll have achieved a big part of my conservation mission."

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