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.
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.
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.
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.
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.