Turkey’s Conservation Crisis: Global Biodiversity Hotspots Under Threat

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.

 

For me, 2011 started with a great post by David Braun, so I will thank him by ending the year with my first National Geographic piece, about my country Turkey (Türkiye). Turkey 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 three seas have resulted in spectacular biodiversity, making Turkey “the biodiversity superpower of Europe“. Of over 9000 known native vascular plant species, one third are endemic. Large carnivores such as brown bear, wolf, Caucasian lynx, caracal, striped hyena, and possibly even leopard, still roam the wild corners of this diverse country that covers 783,562 km2 and hosts 75 million people.

Map of Turkey showing some of the key biodiversity areas

Turkey’s Globally Important Biodiversity In Danger

Two papers I published with my colleagues this month highlight Turkey’s growing conservation crisis, the worst in the country’s long and fascinating history. “Turkey’s globally important biodiversity in crisis“, our detailed review of Turkey’s biodiversity, habitats, and conservation issues was published in the December 2011 issue of the journal Biological Conservation. This comprehensive and up-to-date overview of Turkey’s natural wealth and environmental problems, elaborated below, has been engagingly summarized by the New York Times, and the Treehugger.

Brown Bear, KarsTurkey’s rich natural heritage under assault“, published in Science last week, highlights the scale and extent of these threats, in particular all the environmental laws that were changed in the past two years to make it easier to replace Turkey’s crucial habitats and protected areas with mines, dams, tourist resorts, and other types of “development”. As Jennifer Hattam states, this “arbitrary, development-obsessed environmental policy-making is greatly threatening Turkey’s ecosystems“.

Consequently, Turkey’s astonishing amount of biodiversity, especially for a temperate country of its size, is being destroyed rapidly, partially in the past decade during which “Turkey’s Great Leap Forward” has put the country at the risk of “cultural and environmental bankruptcy”. In addition, Turkey lacks the biological ‘‘charisma’’ of many tropical countries and suffers from the international misconception that, as a nation that wants to enter the European Union, it must have adequate funds and priorities to support conservation. These factors, combined with the Turkish public’s general disinterest in conservation and the government’s unrelenting ‘‘developmentalist obsession’’, have created a conservation crisis which began in the 1950s and has peaked in the past decade. With Turkey’s biodiversity facing severe and growing threats, especially from the government and business interests, the country  is now entirely covered by crisis ecoregions, most of them critically endangered.
Undammed Çoruh River, Artvin
Turkey currently ranks 140th out of 163 countries in biodiversity and habitat conservation. Although Turkey’s total forest area increased by 5.9% since 1973, endemic-rich Mediterranean maquis, grasslands, coastal areas, wetlands, rivers, and even some old-growth forests are disappearing, while overgrazing and rampant erosion degrade steppes and rangelands. The current developmentalist obsession, particularly regarding water use, threatens to eliminate much of what remains, while forcing large-scale migration from rural areas to the cities. According to current plans, Turkey’s rivers and streams will be dammed with almost 4000 dams, diversions, and hydroelectric powerplants for power, irrigation, and drinking water by 2023.
A dam being built on Çoruh River, Artvin

Unchecked urbanization, dam construction, draining of wetlands, poaching, and excessive irrigation are the most widespread threats to biodiversity. Preserving Turkey’s remaining biodiversity will necessitate immediate action, international attention, greater support for Turkey’s developing conservation capacity, and the expansion of a nascent Turkish conservation ethic.

KuzeyDoğa: Conservation Action in Northeastern Turkey

Conservation biologists should not be content with only publishing scientific papers and expecting other people to do the boots-in-the-mud grassroots conservation. Conservation biology is a crisis discipline and its practitioners need to practice what they preach. In 2003 I began my biodiversity research and conservation work in Kars, northeastern Turkey, a wild, remote and impoverished corner of the country where the Caucasus and Irano-Anatolian biodiversity hotspots meet. As our conservation, biodiversity research, ecological restoration, and village-based ecotourism projects grew, in 2007 I founded the nonprofit environmental organization KuzeyDoğa that works to promote biodiversity research and conservation in Turkey. In eastern Turkey, threats to wildlife are many, but grassroots conservation and wildlife research efforts are scarce. We work hard to fill this gap, conducting community-based conservation, education, research, and ecotourism projects that cover the whole range of ecology and biodiversity, from ethnobotany to wetland restoration and from bird lice to lynx. With the help of hundreds of dedicated volunteers from more than 20 countries, we monitor migratory and resident birds at eastern Turkey’s first bird banding station, situated in the Aras River wetlands near breathtaking Mt. Ağrı (5137 m). We study bears, wolves, lynx, wild cat and other mammals of the Sarıkamış-Allahuekber National Park with camera traps, molecular fingerprinting and radio tracking. We created Turkey’s first vulture restaurant, built Turkey’s first bird nesting island and are working with the Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs to create Turkey’s first wildlife corridor. Equally importantly, we work with local villagers and students, undertake environmental education, promote village-based ecotourism, and regularly communicate the importance of biodiversity conservation to students, citizens, and decision-makers in the region and throughout Turkey.

Video: Kars Lake Kuyucuk by Sir David Attenborough

You can learn more about our conservation work in eastern Turkey here and here. For a fascinating and funny account of our work that weaves Russian literature with northeastern Turkey’s rich history, culture and biodiversity, I recommend you read the New Yorker article “Natural Histories” by Elif Batuman and listen to the related podcast.

Mt. Ağrı (5137 m) of eastern Turkey seen from Lake Kuyucuk of Kars, 137 km away. © Çağan H. Şekercioğlu

 

Human Journey

Dr. Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu is a professor of conservation ecology and ornithology at the University of Utah Department of Biology. He is also the president of the non-profit environmental organization KuzeyDoğa (www.kuzeydoga.org) in Kars, Turkey. Born in İstanbul, Şekercioğlu is a conservation ecologist, ornithologist, and Turkey’s first tropical biologist. An award-winning photographer, Şekercioğlu’s photos have been published by National Geographic, BBC, and hundreds of magazines, newspapers, books, and other publications. After graduating from İstanbul’s Robert College in 1993, Şekercioğlu won a silver medal at the International Biology Olympics and started Harvard University. In 1997, he graduated with degrees in Biology and Anthropology, magna cum laude, receiving a summa cum laude for his honors thesis. Before starting his Ph.D. in ecology at Stanford University, he took a year off to work in Alaska for the USGS National Biological Survey, to climb in the Andes, photograph, and explore in South America and Antarctica, and do wildlife photography in Africa for his first book “Vanishing Africa”. In 2001, he was chosen one of the 100 leading academics of Turkey by Aktuel magazine. He received his Ph.D. in 2003 from Stanford University Department of Biology, with the thesis Causes and Consequences of Bird Extinctions. He was chosen 2003 Outstanding Young Person of the Year in environmental and ethical leadership by Junior Chamber International of Turkey and he initiated his community-based conservation, biodiversity research, ecological restoration, and ecotourism projects in northeastern Turkey. As his projects expanded in scope, he founded the Kars-based environmental non-profit organization KuzeyDoğa (www.kuzeydoga.org) in 2007. He directed KuzeyDoğa pro-bono while working as a senior scientist at Stanford University. For his community-based conservation, research, restoration, and ecotourism work at Lake Kuyucuk of Kars (www.kuyucuk.org), he received the Whitley Gold Award of the United Kingdom from Princess Anne in 2008. Following the award, Şekercioğlu succeeded in getting Kuyucuk declared eastern Turkey’s first Ramsar wetland, had the lake chosen the 2009 European Destination of Excellence, and helped create Turkey’s first bird-nesting island in the lake. As a result, Princess Anne invited Şekercioğlu to the Buckingham Palace for her 60. birthday party in 2010. Same year, Şekercioğlu joined the faculty of the University of Utah Department of Biology. Also in 2010, was chosen one of the 100 Hopes for the Future of Turkey by Newsweek Turkiye and Turkey’s Scientist of the Year by NTV, Radikal and MSNBC Turkey. In 2011, he was chosen a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and received Turkey’s two wetland conservation awards for his individual efforts and for the work of his NGO KuzeyDoğa. In 2011, Şekercioğlu and colleagues published the books "Conservation of Tropical Birds" and "Winged Sentinels: Birds and Climate Change" (www.wingedsentinels.com). In 2013, he was chosen a National Geographic Risk Taker and received the Whitley Fund 20. Anniversary Gold Award for "Putting Turkey on the Conservation Map". Şekercioğlu’s achievements in ecological research and community-based conservation have been commended by Turkey’s president Abdullah Gül, the former prime minister Erdal İnönü, and various government ministers. In addition to his long-term work in Turkey, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and Utah, Şekercioğlu has visited over 70 countries on all continents for research and has seen over 60% of the world’s bird species in the wild. He is a board member of the Society for Conservation Biology, an ornithology associate of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology, Fellow International of the Explorers Club, Elective Member of the American Ornithologists Union, and a full member of the Sigma Xi Scientific Society. His ecological research and conservation efforts have been covered by the world's leading media, including ABC, BBC, CNN, Fox, National Geographic, Nature, Newsweek, New York Times, Science and The New Yorker. Şekercioğlu’s three books and over 80 scientific publications have received more than 2600 citations. He is among the most cited 1% of the world's scientists of the past decade.