Turkey’s wildlife: ignored and in crisis

Hatay Province, where scientists recently discovered a hitherto unknown breeding population of the globally endangered mountain gazelle.

While much is made of its status as a major emerging economy, most people do not realize that Turkey is also the biodiversity superpower of Europe – a title it is in danger of losing due to the woeful under-protection and destruction of crucial habitats.

The threats to Turkey’s biodiversity and the efforts to save it have been mapped out in detail in an academic paper published last month in the journal Biological Conservation.

The principal author is Cagan Sekercioglu, a leading Turkish ecologist and founder of the Kuzeydoga conservation NGO. He was recently the subject of a brilliant New Yorker article by Elif Batuman, about his efforts to save the rich but imperilled wildlife in the bleak northeast of the country.

Full of useful data, the latest article is an invaluable document for anyone interested in environmental issues in Turkey. The picture that emerges from it is a depressing one: a vast and unique biological heritage is in crisis amid an atmosphere of ignorance and indifference.

Turkey is an extraordinarily biodiverse nation. Despite it being the world’s 15th largest economy and a cradle of civilization for more than 10,000 years, new species are still discovered on a weekly basis, sometimes even large animals. The critically endangered mountain gazelle was found to be living in Hatay province in 2009, and it is possible that the Anatolian Leopard may still cling to survival in the Taurus Mountains.

There are more bird species than in any European country, and as many reptiles species as in the whole continent combined. Due partly to its varied terrain and mountains, there is a high level of endemism (species unique to Turkey). A third of its 10,000 plant species are found nowhere else in the world, and these include the wild forbears of many of today’s food crops. Lying at the junction of Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East, Turkey is the only country that is covered almost entirely by three of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots.

Pitted against this extraordinary diversity is a government that suffers from what the authors call a ‘developmentalist obsession’. Macro-engineering projects, hydroelectric dams, mining, and the poorly planned expansion of cities and towns are decimating Turkey’s natural heritage. Meanwhile the government is striking down, almost at will, the legal safeguards protecting it.

As the authors point out, the problem is not development per se, but rather that there is little attempt to balance conservation and development concerns. They draw attention to the infamous ‘Draft Act on Nature and Biodiversity Conservation’, discussed previously on this blog:

“While this bill was supposed to enact a more rational conservation framework in agreement with the European Union norms, the accepted version is cynically and decidedly pro-development. The law has redefined terms such as ‘sustainable use,’ ‘common good,’ and the ‘balance between use and conservation’ in order to enable development in protected areas.”

One of the most depressing symbols of the Turkish government’s approach to environmental issues is the reorganization of government ministries following the July 2011 elections. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry was split up into the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning and the Ministry of Forestry and Water Works.

In conservation terms, this is like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coup. The government ministries tasked with protecting the environment have been subordinated to those playing the biggest role in destroying it. The Environment and Planning Minister, Erdogan Bayraktar, is former head of TOKI, the country’s mass housing administration. The Minister of Environment and Water Works is Veysel Eroglu, former head of the State Water Works, and a man who once said that ‘my job is building dams.’

Dam and hydroelectric power plant construction remain the biggest single threat to biodiversity. Under current plans, there will be some 4,000 dams and HEPPs in Turkey by 2023.

According to the paper, around half of Turkey’s 61 endemic freshwater fish species are now critically endangered. Eighty-three out of 319 breeding bird species are threatened with local extinction due to the construction of dams. Meanwhile, 1.3m hectares of Turkey’s important wetland environments have been destroyed since 1950. Bird numbers in four crucial lagoons on the Mediterranean coast have declined 40-fold since the 1960s.

Turkey lags behind almost every European nation- and most Middle Eastern nations- in the level of protection afforded to its natural environment.  Just 0.6 percent of the total land area is protected (the Middle Eastern average is 2.6%, the European average 5.4%), and Turkey ranks 140th out of 163 countries in biodiversity and habitat conservation.

Most disturbing is the ignorance of, or indifference to, these problems among the population at large. Opinion polling in 2010 showed that only 1.3% of Turks view environment-related issues as a major concern.

This is reflected by a lack of proper research and the relative weakness of the NGO community. The paper’s authors estimate that there are only 50 full-time conservation professionals with adequate training and experience employed in Turkey’s conservation NGOs.

Part of the problem is that Turkey lacks a charismatic animal to spark public imagination and enthusiasm. It is particularly sad that until very recently, such animals did exist. The Asiatic Lion died out at the end of the 19th century. The Asiatic Cheetah still clings on in neighbouring Iran. The last Caspian Tiger was shot in Hakkari in 1970. The last verified Anatolian Leopard was shot in 1974, though there is evidence that they possibly still survive.

So what can be done? The authors bemoan the increasingly antagonistic relationship between conservation organizations and the Turkish government. They also note that many Turkish conservation NGOs do not engage in enough of the on-the-ground work necessary to earn the respect of local communities whose support and understanding is crucial to conservation.

In this regard, Sekercioglu’s own Kuzeydoga offers a good model. Based in northeast Turkey, it conducts year-round conservation operations such as bird ringing and has opened Turkey’s first ‘vulture restaurant’. It works closely with the Kars governorate, the municipality and the local Kafkas University. Thanks to its work with government ministries, it is now poised to secure the creation Turkey’s first wildlife corridor, linking the Sarikamis Forest to large national parks in northern Turkey and Georgia.

Kuzeydoga’s success powerfully demonstrates that it is far more fruitful to work with the government than to oppose it.

Another interesting tactic that the authors suggest is to play on Turks’ fondness and pride in their history to arouse an interest in conservation. For a people with more-than-usual pride in their own soil and territory, Turks generally show remarkably little interest in how their natural resources are managed. The authors write:

“While many Turkish people may not be aware of basic ecological principles or natural history, most are very familiar with and passionate about the history of Turkey. This passion could be exploited such that, for example, rather than starting a conversation on the Sarikamis forests in eastern Turkey with a description of the area’s diverse plants and animals, one might introduce the forest as the location of the martyrdom of 90,000 brave Turks fighting the Russians. In fact, this was the main reason for the creation of the Sarikamis Forest-Allahuekber Mountains National Park.”

The more I consider it, the possible creation of a network of wildlife corridors is perhaps the most exciting prospect in Turkish conservation. Such links between fragmented wildernesses allow for the continuing existence of large animals such as bears, wolves and the like amid increasingly human-dominated landscapes.

In Britain, where a relatively meagre biological heritage is intensely cherished by the general public (a British bird protection society, the RSPB, is the biggest conservation NGO in Europe), there is discussion of reintroducing some of the large animals that once roamed the land such as bears, lynx and elk.

But Turkey’s wildlife and wilderness is on a different scale. Could Turks one day be discussing the reintroduction of tigers and leopards? There’s no harm in aiming high.

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