Monthly Archives: February 2012

On the frontline with Turkey’s ecologists

Emrah Coban, science co-ordinator for wildlife charity Kuzeydoga, uses  a radio aerial it retrieve data from tagged wolves in the Sarikamis forest.

If you get depressed following ecological issues in Turkey, a trip to Kars might cheer you up. Inspiring things are happening in this remote, snowy corner of the country.

I recently went there to write about nature NGO Kuzeydoga and the creation of Turkey’s first ‘wildlife corridor’: an ambitious plan to link the isolated Sarikamis Forest with larger wildernesses bordering the Caucasus.

As I’ve written before, Turkey’s ecological situation is at once awful and fascinating: extraordinary biological wealth threatened by grandiose development plans, with virtually no-one knowing or caring.

But in Kars, a tiny community of ecologists have carved out a series of surprising local victories. I’ve become fascinated by their work, and by the reasons behind their success.

Turkish civil society movements of all kinds operate within a constrained space. Whatever field they are working in, Kuzeydoga’s example might offer valuable insights.

Februarys in Kars are very cold, partly why I wanted to go there this time of the year. Kuzeydoga’s founder Cagan Sekercioglu often criticizes Turkish conservationists for spending too much time in big cities, and for being unwilling to live in the sticks, where their presence is needed. But one of the distinctive things about Kuzeydoga, to hear him tell it, is that its entire operation is based in Kars year-round.

The plan was to go wolf tracking, and I had visions of dogged conservationists ploughing through drifts of snow on remote forest tracks. It wasn’t quite like that, though not entirely different either.

The snow and the cold were certainly there. One morning the temperature sunk to -26C, and the diesel froze in the fuel lines of the Toyota Land Cruiser. It took an hour to flush out. We had hoped to check camera traps around the forest, but there was too much snow, and as it turned out, wolf-tracking is a less romantic business than its name suggests.

Kuzeydoga have fitted GPS collars with mobile phone chips to two wolves, ‘Kuzey’ and ‘Doga’, an old one-eyed male and another younger male. Once a week, the ecologists go to the top of a hill overlooking the forest, wave an aerial across the horizon until they pick up the signals, then download the data, telling them where the wolves have been for the past week.

There is a ski resort near Kars with lifts up to the summit of a big hill that serves this purpose well. When we downloaded the data, the wolves themselves were several miles away and well out of sight.

This is the first time anyone has tracked wolves in Turkey, and the information gleaned from Kuzey and Doga over the past four months has been key to convincing the government to create the wildlife corridor.

Since October the younger wolf ‘Doga’ has ranged across an area 13 times larger than the national park itself, demonstrating that there is not nearly enough protected habitat to support the wolf population.

By monitoring the camera traps, collecting and identifying animal faeces from the forest, and dissecting dead wolves, they have gained even more alarming insights.

Part of the problem with conservation in Turkey is that so little research has been done that its difficult to assess how much danger threatened species are facing.

According to one estimate, there are a total of 7,000 wolves left in Turkey, but this is a blind guess, according to Kuzeydoga’s chief science officer Emrah Coban.

In Sarikamis, considered a stronghold for wolves, there may only be around 25 remaining. In the past year alone seven have died as a result of human contact (shot, killed by dogs, hit by cars).

There are a greater number of bears (around 50, they believe) and because these hibernate during winter and generally stick to the woods fewer are killed by people. As few as eight Eurasian Lynxes may remain.

Just as worrying is the extent to which the wolves appear to rely on domestic livestock for their survival. In a healthy forest, prey species will outnumber predators by a ratio of 10:1 to 100:1. In Sarikamis the figure is as closer to 1:1, with roe deer hunted virtually to extinction and wild boar scarce.

In a healthy environment, wolves fatten in the winter, when the snow gives them an advantage against their prey. But in Sarikamis they get thinner, and Sekercioglu speculates that this is because during the winter, livestock are kept safely in sheds, depriving them of what is perhaps their primary food source.

Villagers living close to the Sarikamis Forest discuss a presentation about Kuzeydoga’s work.

So predator-human conflict around Sarikamis is intense. This became very clear when I visited villages with Kuzeydoga as they gave powerpoint presentations aimed at convincing locals not to shoot wolves, and explaining the corridor project and the benefits of the forest.

Particularly in villages whose inhabitants kept sheep rather than cows, the hostility to wolves went bone deep. Photos showing Kuzeydoga volunteers releasing orphaned wolves into the wild evinced gasps of disapproval.

Some of the reactions to the corridor were even more extreme. “This is an Armenian plot,” muttered one farmer when shown a map of the projected route. Another stormed out of the room declaring that it was the first step in a government scheme to rob them of their grazing land.

But in all five villages we visited, I left with the feeling that something had been achieved, no matter how small it might be.

Mainly, there was a sense that people were impressed by what the ecologists were doing, even if some remained baffled by their motivations.

It was the third time Kuzeydoga had visited the villages. The first two times had been spent surveying residents about their views on the forest, its wildlife, and how to deal with wolves. This time they presented the survey results, as well as mapped data from the tracked wolves. They also gave practical information on a little-known government compensation scheme for those who had lost livestock to predators.

They encouraged people to protect their animals with electric fences, which some of the farmers apparently never knew existed. By far the popular element in the presentation were the videos showing the fences’ deterrent effects  on various animals, which were met with gales of laughter. Some discussed the possibility of getting funding from an agricultural bank in order to do an electric fence pilot scheme.

Business cards were handed out, and the day after visiting one village, its mukhtar called to say they had found a wounded bird and thought it was a bittern: would they come to pick it up? They did, and took it to Kafkas University’s veterinary faculty (it was in fact a red-necked grebe).

A map showing the projected corridor route (in blue), linking the Sarikamis-Allahuekbar National Park with the Ardahan Posof Wildlife Reserve, which adjoins forests in Georgia. Courtesy of Kuzeydoga.

I tend to get skeptical when NGOs talk about ‘building awareness’, which seems to me a pretty nebulous concept. But the Kuzeydoga team have a strategy that seems to be working well.

Whether dealing with government ministers or impoverished shepherds, they take care not to come across as misty-eyed environmentalists. They present solid research, gathered over years. They zero in on areas of common interest, offer straightforward suggestions, and give practical advice on how to implement them.

They are also not encumbered by the intense ideological enmity that large sections of Turkey’s NGO community, environmental and otherwise, bear towards the government.

From speaking to Kuzeydoga’s staff, it was apparent that they were not all fans of the AKP, but were still able to drop any ideological baggage they may carry for the sake of their work.

As Sekercioglu points out in the previous post (paraphrasing a documentary): “There is no socialist air, there is no Islamist air, there is no nationalist air, there is only air. And if you breathe air, that makes you part of the environment and if you are concerned about clean air, I would consider you an environmentalist!”

The results of this approach are most apparent in Kuzeydoga’s work on the corridor. The Turkish government’s environmental credentials may be miserable, but one thing it is good at is reforestation. Soil erosion is a problem that has scared successive governments, and in 2009 alone 45,000 hectares of woodland were planted. Turkey’s forest cover is actually increasing.

“We said to the ministry: You are planting these trees anyway, so if you plant them where they provide ecological connections, you will help the wildlife as well,’” explains Sekercioglu.

It was in 2008 that Kuzeydoga first went to what was then the Ministry of Environment and Forests to present them with the corridor scheme. For three years nothing happened, until the project fell under the eye of a high-ranking minister. He he liked it, and it got the green light.

It was the same at nearby Lake Kuyucuk. Having secured its protection, Kuzeydoga addressed the issue of a disused road that bisected the lake, causing drainage and environmental problems.

They came up with an elegant solution: cut either end off the road and add the displaced soil onto the centre section, turning the remains of the road into a nesting island for birds.

When they presented the idea to the governor of Kars on a Friday in March 2009, he was so taken with it that he sent the bulldozers in on the Monday.

“Just like that, the governor gave us two excavators, one bulldozer and two trucks, for two months. They worked around the clock and the government paid for all of it,” recalls Sekercioglu. Now, at least 200 birds nest or roost on the island, safe from humans, livestock, and predators.

“This was so exciting because it was a major environmental construction project. In the US, just getting the authorization for this would take years.”

A Common Kingfisher at wetlands in Igdir, near the Armenian border.

It’s a sad fact of biodiversity conservation everywhere that while victories are never final, losses often are.

While it’s impressive what Kuzeydoga have achieved with only three paid employees covering an area the size of Armenia, it’s also clear that they have picked their battles carefully, and the fragility of their gains is painfully apparent.

“It’s partly to do with Turkey’s centralization of power,” explains Sekercioglu. “If you convince the right person, you can do a lot of good very fast. Of course it also works the other way: a lot of bad is done very fast.”

Will the wildlife corridor really materialize? Will it come in time to save the wolves, lynxes and other wildlife that would benefit from it? It will surely be 15 years at least before the saplings provide adequate cover, and who’s to say that in the meantime the government will not decide to build a dam or a road to cut through it?

Nonetheless, there’s an exciting synergy to Kuzeydoga’s work. The charity’s headquarters in Kars have become a stopping place for a variety of people interested or inspired by their work.

Other Turkish ecologists are said to be preparing plans for wildlife corridors and bird-nesting islands. And in Kars, American Cat Jaffee is launching Balyolu, an ecotourism venture based around the region’s traditional beekeeping industry and designed to benefit local women.

“It is like turning around a very big ship,” says Sekercioglu. “It will happen slowly but we have to keep pushing.”

Two rescued wolf cubs at Kafkas University’s veterinary faculty, Kars. Three cubs were taken by local farmers who discovered their den and hoped to raise them as guard dogs. All three were released into the wild at five months old. One was killed by a car in the past week, another was likely shot. Photograph copyright Carolyn Drake.

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Cagan Sekercioglu: "We have no choice but to be optimistic"

A red fox in the snowbound fields close to the Sarikamis Forest near Kars.

I’ve just written a story for the Christian Science Monitor (not out yet) about the creation of Turkey’s first ever ‘wildlife corridor’, a hugely significant conservation project for the country. It will link the isolated Sarikamis Forest near Kars with larger forests in the Caucasus and Black Sea region.

I sent some questions to Cagan Sekercioglu, a conservation biologist at the University of Utah and founder of KuzeyDoga, the wildlife NGO that has been the driving force behind the corridor.

Having exchanged emails with Dr Sekercioglu in the past, I had a hunch his answers would be fairly comprehensive. In fact he sent a 2000+ word response that is more than double the length of the article I was writing. It’s fascinating for anyone who is interested in these issues, so I’m posting it in full.

Later this week I plan to put something up about my recent trip to Kars for the CSM piece. In the meantime, here is the Q&A with Dr Sekercioglu:

How will the creation of this corridor aid the survival of wildlife in the region?

Turkey’s first wildlife corridor is the biggest landscape-scale active conservation project ever undertaken in the country. By active, I mean the creation of new habitat and habitat linkages through reforestation. There are some national parks in Turkey that are bigger in area, but they were existing habitats that were simply declared protected rather than extensive new habitat being created and linked. The area of the corridor, 23,500 hectares, is bigger than the 22,900 hectare Sarikamis-Allahuekber National Park it is connecting! This is very rare in global corridor projects. In fact, the wildlife corridor, whose status is “Protected Forest”, was a national park, it would be Turkey’s 15th (out of 40) biggest national park. A third of this area will be protected by the Ministry of Forestry and Water Works. By connecting the isolated Sarikamis-Allahuekber National Park and other isolated forest fragments to the extensive Black Sea-Caucasus forests, not only will the corridor link the isolated populations of mammals, especially large carnivores such as wolves, brown bears, and lynx that require very large areas, but it will also provide additional habitat through reforestation.

Does its creation have a broader significance for the Turkish environmental movement?

It has great significance. The Turkish environmental movement has to mature into a constructive, creative movement, with an emphasis on solutions. This is very difficult to do in the current, anti-environmental, make-money-at-all-costs atmosphere in Turkey. However, we need to do this in order to move beyond a movement whose general public perception is anti-everything.
We need to propose solutions and make use of conservation opportunities that can inspire the general public and the decision-makers. Our focus as KuzeyDoga is regional, landscape-scale conservation. In Lake Kuyucuk of Kars, we created Turkey’s first bird nesting island in 2009, by convincing the former Kars governor to provide us with trucks, bulldozers and excavators so that we could convert the old road bisecting the lake into an island. We finished in only 2 months and the approximately 1 hectare island we created was colonized by breeding birds within a week. In fall 2011, we counted more than 200 breeding and roosting sites on it, as it is a safe haven from cattle and sheep that graze the shoreline of the lake, as well as from dogs, foxes, and people. Turkey’s first island created for conservation inspired other Turkish conservationists to imagine similar projects and I know of at least two other conservation island projects that have been proposed as a result. Turkey’s first wildlife corridor is the next step in our landscape conservation vision. We believe and hope that it will inspire other conservationists to propose more wildlife corridors, so that we can cover Turkey in a corridor network.

What inspired you to create Kuzeydoga? 

I am an ecologist, ornithologist, and conservation biologist. My long-term work in northeastern (kuzeydogu) Turkey was inspired by a 2001 Harvard-Stanford-St Petersburg butterfly expedition during which we found 7 cryptic species new to science, even thought Turkish butterflies were thought to be pretty well-known. I fell in love with eastern Turkey, which had always fascinated me, and I vowed to come back. In 2003, I decided to start working in Kars, as it is located on a major bird migration flyway, but there was no bird banding or systematic bird monitoring in eastern Turkey. Initially, most of the work was supported by Christensen Fund of California, whose office was located a 10 minute bike ride from my office at Stanford University. After a pilot bird banding season in Kars, I found the perfect location for eastern Turkey’s first bird banding station in the wetlands of the Aras River near Yukari Ciyrikli village, Tuzluca, Igdir. Soon, I realized the need for community-based conservation, ecological research and biodiversity monitoring in all the “Serhat” provinces of Kars, Igdir, Ardahan and Agri and filed the application to found KuzeyDoga in fall 2007. In time, our projects expanded to other groups besides birds, especially keystone mammal species such as wolves, bears and lynx.

Was there any particular moment when you realized the seriousness of the threat facing Turkish biodiversity?

It was a gradual process but the 2001 butterfly expedition was probably the turning point. We had detailed information on the good locations for the group of butterflies we were looking for, mostly from a detailed book published in 1995. However, about half of the good localities were gone, as key butterfly food plants were grazed away, mostly by sheep. Considering that we found at least (research still ongoing) seven butterfly species new to science in the other localities, I realized that some unknown butterfly species of Turkey may have been only living at the destroyed localities, and may have gone extinct in the past a few years, before ever being discovered. That was a horrifying thought.

Why is it that environmental issues garner so little interest in Turkey?

Part of it is the mistaken belief that environmental issues do not have direct relevance to the daily lives of people, many of whom are focused on survival. However, with increasing education, outreach and environmental stories, as well as people’s own experience, people are starting to realize that environmental health equals human health. The other problem is, like people in general, most people in Turkey have very short-time horizons and short attention spans, and mostly worry about the next week or next month. There is also a fatalistic aspect, embodied in our saying “After I am gone, I don’t care if Noah’s flood destroys the world”. I also think the fact that Turkey did not go through the Enlightenment and the Romantic periods is a factor. A lot of the interest in natural history and environment in Europe and related cultures originated during and after the Renaissance, helped by the myriad new species brought back to Europe from the colonies, which Turkey did not have. Therefore, natural history, natural history museums, and related hobbies such as birdwatching are not part of the culture in Turkey as they are in places like the UK, Holland, Sweden, Germany etc. If the general public is not interested in biodiversity, has little access to good natural history information, and does not know about Turkey’s rich natural heritage, then they will not prioritize conserving it.

How are you trying to change that?

Environmental education, communication, and public outreach are critical. That’s why KuzeyDoga works hard to communicate its findings and the importance of Turkey’s biodiversity constantly. We also work very hard to constantly do public outreach and communication, especially with the local newspapers and journalists in the region. We probably average one different news story and/or press release every week and some of these stories end up in a dozen papers. It is critical to inform the public and we also use social media very effectively, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs and our website, www.kuzeydoga.org.

What are the shortcomings of the Turkish environmental movement?

Unfortunately, weak public support has left most NGOs understaffed and cripplingly dependent on international funding. Excluding support staff, we estimated in our Biological Conservation (2011) paper that around 50 full-time conservation professionals with adequate training and experience are employed in Turkey’s conservation NGOs; i.e. fewer than one in a million. Most major environmental organizations are based in big cities, far from the rural areas where their year-around presence is most needed. Conservation projects are often conducted remotely and
part-time, reducing local grassroots support, weakening the credibility of the ‘‘city environmentalists’’ in the eyes of the rural population, and making it difficult to quickly counter novel threats. Furthermore, Turkish environmental organizations often prioritize competition for limited funding over effective collaboration. These problems, combined with a lack of coordination, have made it difficult for the Turkish environmental movement to be widely accepted by the general public and to achieve widespread success. Consequently, the overall consensus of Turkey’s conservationists is that they largely failed in their mission (Oruc, 2011). The increasing availability of funds from the European Union may help Turkey’s
conservation movement, but this funding has also resulted in an explosion in the number of ‘‘environmental’’ organizations and consultants whose sole mission is writing projects to receive
funding, not achieving meaningful conservation.

Another problem is that conservation and environment in Turkey are often extremely politicized, often as a “leftist” cause and lumped with other “leftist” causes. That makes no sense because everybody wants to live in a healthy environment. Is there anything more “nationalistic” then wanting to protect and conserve Turkey’s beautiful landscapes, habitats and biodiversity for future generations?

To paraphrase a speaker in the Sundance documentary “A Fierce Green Fire” on the history of the environmental movement, “There is no socialist air, there is no Islamist air, there is no nationalist air, there is air. And if you breathe air, that makes you part of the environment and if you are concerned about clean air, I would consider you an environmentalist!”. You can say the same thing about water, soil, forests, and biodiversity.

Turkey’s environmentalists need to communicate the message that every human being, regardless of political leanings, deserves to live in a healthy environment. It is a basic human right.

What is Kuzeydoga trying to do differently?

We are one of most active locally-based environmental NGOs, many of which are located in big cities in Turkey. First, we are located at the heart of our work, in the small city of Kars, within 30-60 minutes drive of most of our key sites (the farthest are 2 hours away). We are not stuck in a big city like Izmir or Ankara, where you are away from a lot of the conservation action and you cannot respond as fast. In Istanbul, sometimes even driving home from work takes over 2 hours! But we can get out of Kars in literally under 5 minutes, which means we can spend a lot more time focused on both biodiversity research and locally-based conservation and do not have to fly to places to do our conservation work. Our ability to get out of the city and access the beautiful places we are trying to save is also a constant source of inspiration and daily reminder of the real places, organisms, and local people we are working for. Because we spend a lot of time in the field and in villages, we have very strong relationships with local people and have a lot of credibility with them because we do not come a few times a year, tell them what to do and go back to the big city. We live in Kars and Igdir just like they do, and after seeing us constantly working at Kuyucuk lake, Aras wetlands and Sarikamis forests, and other field sites, we slowly gain their respect and support. This has also helped change the minds of many people who used to think we had ulterior motives like money.

The creation of the wildlife is a positive step by the Turkish government. Is their attitude becoming more enlightened? Does it give grounds for wider optimism?

Sadly, I do not think so, if the 2012 Yale Environmental Performance Index is any indication. Turkey dropped substantially, from 77th place among 163 countries in 2010 to 109th place among 132 countries in 2012. Even worse, in biodiversity and habitat conservation, we are now behind all but  11 countries, ranking in the lowest 8% of them, countries like Eritrea, Haiti, Moldovia, Libya and Iraq.

That being said, there is increasing realization of the importance of conservation, and the government’s support for KuzeyDoga’s conservation firsts, such as Turkey’s first bird nesting island in Lake Kuyucuk and Turkey’s first wildlife corridor gives me hope. It is like turning around a very big ship. It will happen slowly but we have to keep pushing. I have to keep thinking about how USA and European countries dealt with similar problems but slowly turned things around. At the Sundance Festival in Utah this year, I watched the documentary “A Fierce Green Fire”, the history of the environmental movement. Dam building in the USA in the 1950s was done in a similar mindset to Turkey now, but environmentalists kept fighting and changed things. Let’s hope we can change things faster in Turkey because we do not have the luxury of another 50 years. The next decade will be very critical for the future of biodiversity in Turkey. We have no choice but to be optimistic.

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