Human Journey

Turkey’s First Wildlife Corridor Links Bear, Wolf and Lynx Populations to the Caucasus Forests

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)
Turkey’s First Wildlife Corridor extends from Kars’ isolated  Sarıkamış-Allahuekber National Park to the extensive Caucasus forests on the Turkey-Georgia border.

 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.

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, GDNCNPTurkcell, 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.

A brown bear (Ursus arctos) looking for food in mid-April after its winter hibernation in Sarıkamış-Allahuekber National Park, Kars, Turkey (Photo: KuzeyDoğa)

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.

A Caucasian lynx (Lynx lynx dinniki) marking its territory in Sarıkamış-Allahuekber National Park of Kars, Turkey (Photo: KuzeyDoğa)

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.

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.

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