But the psychologist said there was no problem and that he needed “proper mentoring,” and Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu continued his endeavors to become a well-known conservation ecologist, ornithologist, tropical biologist and nature photographer.
On May 21, Dr. Şekercioğlu became the first person from Turkey to receive the United Kingdom’s most prestigious environmental award, the Whitley Award, in the 15-year history of the prize for his work at Kuyucuk Lake in Kars, a northeastern province of Turkey.
For Monday Talk, he provided the details of his work at Kuyucuk Lake and explained why it should be protected.
Before discussing the award-winning project, let’s first talk about you. How did you find yourself in this area of work and study?
Since my early childhood years, I have been interested in wildlife and animals. In encyclopedias, I would look at the pictures of animals and nothing else. I would have my parents read me the articles about those animals, and they were sick and tired of reading the same stories over and over again, so I was forced to read them myself. I surprised my parents by reading at the age of four and a half. I spent my childhood in Ataköy (a district of İstanbul), and it was greener and wilder back then. I would spend a lot of time outdoors and catch lizards, turtles, insects and frogs and bring them home. I would keep and raise them. My parents became worried and took me to a child psychologist. I mentioned in my Whitley acceptance speech that my early career in biology almost came to an early end when I was 6 years old.
Hopefully, the psychologist supported you.
He told my parents that they should encourage me. But in Turkey who would do that? They just let me be.
You’ve received some scholarships, right?
I received full scholarships to Harvard University and to Stanford University. When I went to Robert College, it was much less expensive compared to today; but I still really needed a scholarship because my family is a typical Turkish middle-class family. Only when I was 16 we moved into this apartment out of a rental. My brother, who is eight years younger than me, won the exam and got a chance to go to Üsküdar American High School, but he couldn’t because my parents could not afford it.
Now about your project, why Kuyucuk Lake?
The project is a conservation, restoration, environmental education, research and eco-tourism initiative at Kuyucuk Lake of Kars in northeastern Turkey. This lake is a globally designated important bird and biodiversity area. We counted over 30,000 birds in one day on the lake, especially during fall migration. Throughout most of the year you’ll see thousands of birds there, except in December through February, when the lake is frozen. We have documented more than 160 bird species, and I’m sure there will be more than 200 bird species recorded as we study it more. The lake is small, but there are a lot of birds. We counted over 20,000 ruddy shelduck in September 2004. This is nearly 12 percent of the world population found on one day on Kuyucuk.
The Whitley Awards committee values projects with local impact and local support, right?
Absolutely, you would never think this is a small lake. One of the finalists of the Whitley Award was a man who was trying to save 1 million hectares of Amazon rainforest. If they just looked at the size, they would have decided differently. But they appreciated the fact that our project involves lots of local support, all the way from villagers to the mayor and the governor.
What is it that attracts this variety of birds to Kuyucuk Lake?
It is a productive wetland surrounded by intensive grazing and agriculture. It is protected from hunting and it is located right on the eastern Turkey bird migration flyway, which is one of the most important flyways in the world. Tens of thousands of birds have to rest, feed and breed there. It’s also a very clean lake, both chemically and biologically.
Have you spotted any rare birds there?
We spotted a few, for example, the spur-winged plover, not recorded in the area before. This bird is seen mostly in Africa, the Middle East and southern Anatolia, and only in warmer climates. The closest location where it is found is 640 kilometers away. But on April 23, I saw and photographed one, a beautiful bird that we didn’t expect to find there. Recently, we also saw six endangered and beautiful red-breasted geese, a greater sand plover, a Caspian tern and a super-rare white-tailed plover.
Right after getting your award, you went to the region again. Could you tell us what you did there?
We monitor birds. We catch birds with special bird nets that are 12 meters in length and 2.5 meters high. Birds cannot see it and they hit the net and then they dangle in the pocket. We put very lightweight rings on them, or bands as they are called in the United States. Each ring has a unique identification number.
So various aspects of a bird’s life can be studied by being able to locate the same bird again?
Yes, the finder can use the address on the ring, give the ID number and be told the known history of the bird’s movements. Near the Aras River, we ringed a bird which was later shot in Cyprus; we caught a hawk with an Israeli ring; we caught a bird coming from Moscow, and a swallow with a South African ring, a Turkish distance record. This is a way to determine the migration flyways, patterns of bird movements for large populations.
When did you go to Kuyucuk Lake for the first time?
September 2003, and we started the project in 2004. I go there twice a year, in spring and fall, during migration, when the area is the most biological activity.
You also travel to other regions in the world to observe and research birds. Could you tell us more about this?
I have major projects in Costa Rica and Ethiopia. I did my Ph.D. project in Costa Rica. I received my Ph.D. in 2003, but I have continued working on the project. This year was my 10th year there. I think it’s the biggest tropical radio-tracking project. Radio tracking means putting a small radio-tracking device with an antenna on birds. They give a signal about every two seconds. So we can walk in the forest and follow an individual bird for weeks or even months.
What do you find out about birds that way?
We can tell what they eat, their habitat, nesting type and their means of survival. We found that the juvenile mortality rate was 55 times higher than adult mortality. Another interesting project relates to coffee plantations versus forests in Costa Rica. We found that forest is three times better for the long-term productivity of the species than the coffee plantations. But no one knew this before.
Is radio tracking a new technique?
No, but tracking young birds with radio, especially in the tropics, is relatively new. Even with established methods, such as bird monitoring, ringing and bird counts you can find out things that won’t give you the whole picture.
You’ve been given 60,000 pounds as part of the award. How do you plan to spend it?
It is all allocated. When you apply for a Whitley, they ask you for a very detailed project budget. (Showing the glass rectangle prism and the paper award), these are all the awards I received personally. The money does not come to me. It goes to the society, Kuzey Doğa Society, bank account. We have to buy ecological monitoring equipment and research supplies. I have to pay the salaries of my team. We plan to hire an eco-tourism consultant with the money from the budget, and we will use it for our vehicle expenses during research in the region. We don’t have a car but we need one, and the money is not enough to buy a vehicle because we have other priority expenses. We are field biologists, but we cannot afford a field vehicle. So we need to rent a car. I have been to 60 countries, but I have never seen more expensive car rentals than in Kars. There is no competition.
How much are the rentals?
We tried to rent a four-wheel-drive last year and they asked for YTL 250 ($200) a day. After a lot of bargaining, we got it for YTL 200. In Costa Rica, a brand new Nissan Pathfinder is $50 a day. So we usually rent a regular car which cannot take us deep into the forest, or we borrow a professor’s car; she kindly offers us her car for free quite often. And the award is for 60,000 pounds but half of it is for next year. We have to give them a report and they have to be satisfied with what we have done to release it.
Does the project in Kars have any financial support from Turkey?
No, Americans and Britons are supporting it. They value our biodiversity more than we do.
Is there at least an increasing interest in supporting your project in Turkey?
The local government is very interested in it. The governor and the mayor are very supportive in terms of facilitating things. They will pay for the guards and the fence to protect the lake from too many cows. The governor gave us an empty school building to use as a tourist guesthouse. The environment and forestry directorate gives us research permits. We collaborate with Kafkas University in the region. Arpaçay kaymakam (an administrator within a province) recently gave us YTL 1,000 -- a first and a very nice gesture -- to buy a chicken wire fence and poles to use in a cattle exclosure experiment. He wants to improve our research cabin. Another positive development occurred when I was in Kars this time around. At the district office of the Ministry of Forestry and Environment, they said they will provide support for our publications.
What publications do you have other than the calendars full of beautiful photographs of birds in the Kars region?
I have published a bird watching chapter in a tourism guide for Kars, an article on birding in Iğdır and Kars in an American bird watching magazine, many articles in Turkish magazines and newspapers, and a poster of the birds of Igdir. We are also working on scientific articles.
How are you using the funding from the Christensen Fund, one of the main sponsors of your project?
Their mission is to give seed money to encourage things which would then find local support. They want local people to show ownership of the project and support it as well.
How are things going at the local level?
The governor gave us an empty school building to turn into a guest house for eco-tourists, but there are no decent showering facilities or toilets. The building has to be cleaned and painted, and none of this is in our budget. If this is done, it will be good for the village as well because tourists could stay in the village, eat, sleep and spend their money there. This should be a task of Kuyucuk businessmen who are outside of Kars and mostly in İstanbul. We are trying to help their village.
I noticed that last year an Armenian project received the Whitley Award. It’s right across the border near Kars, right?
The Armenian project is about protecting and educating about storks. Actually, the symbol of Iğdır (eastern province of Turkey) is the white stork. When I saw the Armenian project, I thought, we could have done that in Iğdır. It’s an easy project, but it shows you the importance of marketing. Storks are not even endangered. They are declining in parts of the world, but it really is not a conservation priority. But storks get everyone’s attention, they are symbols of wetlands, and they are charismatic birds.
Why was it so important for you to save Kuyucuk Lake, outside of its ecological qualities?
Everyone has to do his or her share. If everyone saved one Kuyucuk, we would have saved 29 planets. If you do the math, 219 hectares (the area of the lake) times 6.7 billion people (world population) equals 29 times the surface area of the planet. In terms of bird numbers, Kuyucuk has 30,000 birds and the world has about 86 billion individual wild birds. That is 13 birds per person. If every person saved 13 birds, every bird would be saved. So I’m doing the job of 2,300 people!
Dr. Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu
Şekercioğlu was the recipient of two awards on May 21 -- the Whitley Award, donated by the William Brake Charitable Trust, and the United Kingdom’s most prestigious environmental award, the Whitley Gold Award, for his work at Kuyucuk Lake, in Kars province of northeastern Turkey.
Şekercioğlu was born in 1975 in İstanbul and graduated from Robert College with highest honors. He went on to receive biology and anthropology degrees from Harvard University before obtaining his Ph.D. on a full scholarship from Stanford University in biological sciences. His doctoral research focused on the causes and consequences of bird extinctions around the world. He is the recipient of various awards and honors, including the silver medal in the fourth International Biology Olympics in 1993 and JCI Turkey’s outstanding young environmental and moral leader of the year in 2003. He is currently a senior research scientist with Stanford University’s department of biological sciences.