Dr. Çağan Şekercioğlu is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. A professor of conservation biology, ecology and ornithology at the University of Utah Department of Biology, he also directs the Turkish environmental organization KuzeyDoğa.
- A gray wolf (Canis lupus) photographed by one of KuzeyDoğa‘s camera traps in Kars
Turkey (Türkiye) is the only country covered almost entirely by three of the world’s 34 global biodiversity hotspots: the Caucasus, Irano-Anatolian,and the Mediterranean. At the nexus of Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, Turkey’s location, mountains, and its encirclement by four seas (Black, Marmara, Aegean, and Mediterrenean) have resulted in spectacular biodiversity, making Turkey “the biodiversity superpower of Europe“. Of over 9000 native vascular plant species known from Turkey, one third are endemic. Large carnivores such as brown bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus), Caucasian lynx (Lynx lynx dinniki), caracal (Caracal caracal), striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), and possibly even leopard (Panthera pardus), still roam the wild corners of this diverse country that covers 783,562 km2 and hosts nearly 75 million people.
- Mt. Ağrı (5137 m) from Kars’ Lake Kuyucuk, 147 km away (Photo: Çağan Şekercioğlu)
region of northeastern Turkey, rich in history, is a high plateau located at the intersection of two of the world’s global biodiversity hotspots, Caucasus
. Kars is reminiscent of Montana, Wyoming or Colorado in its climate, vegetation, and beautiful scenery consisting of mountains, wetlands, rivers, fields, meadows, and pine forests. There are hundreds of plant species, dozens of them endemic. During our ornithological research there since 2003, we recorded over 300 bird species in Kars
, approximately 70% of Turkey’s bird species. Dozens of these bird species were observed for the first time in the region, mostly at Lake Kuyucuk
, eastern Turkey’s only Ramsar wetland and home to Turkey’s first bird nesting island
. The number keeps growing
, thanks to the long-term research conducted by our environmental organization KuzeyDoğa
Kars is also one of the most important places in Turkey for carnivorous mammals such as brown bears, wolves, lynx, and wild cats (Felis sylvestris), especially in the Sarıkamış Forest-Allahuekber Mountains National Park. Even leopards, once widespread in Turkey, may remain in the region, as they occur in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Iran that border Kars and its neighboring provinces Ardahan and Iğdır. Kars’ carnivores are top predators at the peak of the food chain, are indicators of a healthy environment, and comprise flagship and keystone species. Large carnivores need large areas because of their ecology and size, but are increasingly threatened worldwide.
Turkey is a rapidly developing country with inadequate conservation efforts and weak enforcement of environmental laws
. Therefore, Turkey ranks 109. out of 132 countries in the 2012 World Environmental Performance Index and 121. in biodiversity and habitat conservation.
National parks cover only 1% of the country’s area, and intact, protected carnivore habitats are in constant decline. Large carnivores are not protected effectively and the importance of these animals’ ecological functions and services is not known by most people. Asiatic lion
(Panthera leo persica
), Iranian cheetah
(Acinonyx jubatus venaticus
), and Caspian tiger
(Panthera tigris virgata)
are now extinct in Turkey (Caspian tiger is globally extinct), and the Anatolian leopard
(Panthera pardus tulliana
) is on the brink of extinction. Gray wolves, brown bears, lynx, caracals, striped hyenas and other carnivores are thought to be declining due to habitat loss, illegal poaching
, car and train collisions
, and taking young animals from the wild. However, the scarcity of carnivore research makes assessing population sizes and trends difficult. The sustainability of carnivore populations is critical, especially due to the necessity of their ecological services for a healthy environment. In addition, most protected areas are too small and isolated, especially for large carnivores such as wolves that sometimes use thousands of square kilometers. Turkey needs to effectively protect much greater areas and to connect the protected areas with wildlife corridors created through habitat protection and restoration. However, wildlife corridors had not been a part of conservation efforts in Turkey until now.
- A wild cat (Felis sylvestris) captured by a KuzeyDoğa camera trap in Kars
In the past six years, with my environmental organization KuzeyDoğa and in collaboration with the General Directorate of Nature Conservation and National Parks (GDNCNP), we have been doing long-term, community-based conservation, ecological research, and village-based ecotourism work focused on northeastern Turkey’s wildlife. Our work in Kars’ Sarıkamış Forest-Allahuekber Mountains National Park has been supported by Born Free Foundation, Christensen Fund, GDNCNP, Turkcell, United Nations Development Programme, and Whitley Fund. We studied northeastern Turkey’s carnivores with camera traps and last year we started the first wolf tracking project in Turkey, in collaboration with Prof. Josip Kusak of Zagreb University. Our research documented wild cat and two subspecies of lynx in eastern Turkey, discovered a new breeding population of lynx in Kars, and obtained the first photos in Turkey of lynx with young. We also obtained the first home range estimates for wolves in Turkey and showed that in only two months these keystone predators use an area 13 times larger than the Sarıkamış-Allahuekber National Park they were captured in. However, legal and illegal logging of Sarıkamış’ shrinking old-growth forests continue.
These isolated forests provide inadequate habitat for large mammal species, increase their vulnerability, and potentially reduce their genetic diversity. Lack of sufficient carnivore habitat, as well as people hunting and poaching carnivores’ natural prey species (e.g. wild boar, ibex, red deer and roe deer) contribute to wolves and brown bears feeding in garbage dumps and on livestock, increasing the human-carnivore conflict in the region.
Based on our findings, we concluded that a more comprehensive, lanscape-scale conservation approach is needed to ensure the continued survival of large carnivores in Turkey. In 2011, we used the results of our long-term wildlife research to convince the government to create Turkey’s first wildlife corridor
. Successful conservation takes a lot of patience and persistence. We first proposed the corridor to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 2008. After years of proposing the corridor to various officials in vain, our proposal finally made it to the minister Veysel Eroğlu, who requested additional information about the corridor in February 2011. His interest finally put the project on fast track. We created the corridor map with the ministry officials in March and April, did fieldwork with them to groundtruth the corridor route in May, and signed the final agreement with the ministry in December 2011 (now the Ministry of Forestry and Water Works). Last month, in a meeting in Ankara
, the proposed corridor map was accepted. We hope that the reforestation work will begin this spring to connect the isolated forest patches along the corridor route.
Turkey’s first wildlife corridor will cover 23,500 hectares and will extend for 82 km, from our conservation and research focus Sarıkamış Forest-Allahuekber Mountains National Park, through the provinces of Kars, Erzurum, Artvin, and Ardahan, all the way to the Caucasus forests on the Turkey-Georgia border. Bigger in area than the 22,900 hectare national park it connects, this corridor will provide additional habitat for large carnivores, will connect their isolated populations, and hopefully will also help reduce the local human-carnivore conflict. As Ardahan’s Posof forests are connected to Georgia’s Akhaltsikhe forests that border the 85,000 hectare Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, Turkey’s first wildlife corridor will also promote transboundary conservation in the region.
of the Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs
recently declared the corridor area a “Protected Forest”. Two thirds of this area is already forest, which makes the corridor an ideal candidate for reforestation. The General Directorate for Combating Desertification and Erosion
will reforest the remaining third of this area to connect the forest patches. The General Directorate of Forestry
will hire local park rangers for the protection of the forest corridor. Our role as KuzeyDoğa
is to continue our wildlife ecology research, monitor the biodiversity and wildlife use of the corridor, study its long-term efficacy, share our findings with the media, and educate the public about the wildlife corridor. This is the biggest active landscape conservation project ever undertaken in Turkey and the reforestation of the corridor will take close to a decade. The area of the corridor is bigger than the protected area it is connecting, a rarity in corridor projects. If the wildlife corridor were a national park, it would be the 15th largest of Turkey’s 40 national parks
Turkey’s first wildlife corridor is also a significant first for Turkey’s environmental movement. Environmentalists
often risk being perceived as pessimists opposed to everything. A large-scale conservation project like this is important for generating optimism and hope. We need to propose solutions and make use of emerging conservation opportunities that can inspire the general public, the decision-makers, and most importantly, young people. Turkey’s first wildlife corridor is the next step in KuzeyDoğa’s landscape conservation vision. We believe and hope that this corridor will inspire Turkey’s conservationists to propose other wildlife corridors across the country, and one day all of Turkey will be covered in a network of wildlife corridors that connect isolated habitats and wildlife populations into a sustainable web of life.