Today is January 13th, National Geographic Society’s 125th anniversary. In National Geographic’s own words, “For 125 years, National Geographic has been at the leading edge of exploration, conservation, and scientific research. Now technology is allowing us to go places and make discoveries not possible before.”
As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, I am greatly honored to be a part of this legacy of science, exploration, discovery, and dissemination of knowledge. In celebration of this historic day, I decided to write about some National Geographic firsts we achieved this fall in eastern Turkey while studying the conservation ecology of brown bears in the Sarıkamış Forest-Allahuekber Mountains National Park of Kars and Erzurum. These are:
1-Initiating the first study of the wildlife use of Turkey’s first wildlife corridor
2-First National Geographic wildlife research grant for Turkey
3-First National Geographic Crittercams used in Turkey
4-The first combined CritterCam and GPS transmitter deployed
5-Turkey’s first National Geographic wildlife documentary filmed
Turkey’s Biodiversity Crisis and Northeastern Turkey’s Spectacular Wildlife
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. However, Turkey’s globally important biodiversity is experiencing a major conservation crisis. After studying this biodiversity for years, I founded the environmental organizations KuzeyDoga (Turkey) and Nature Turkiye Foundation (USA) to study, promote and protect Turkey’s biodiversity.
My ecology and conservation work is focused on northeastern Turkey. This region, with high biological, cultural and historical diversity, is a high plateau located at the intersection of two of the world’s global biodiversity hotspots, the Caucasus and Irano-Anatolian. Our work takes place in Kars, Ardahan, Erzurum, Artvin, Iğdır and Ağrı provinces, much of it reminiscent of Montana or Colorado in its climate, vegetation, and beautiful scenery consisting of mountains, wetlands, rivers, fields, meadows, and pine forests, with some Utah-like scenic arid lands thrown in.
This 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 of Kars and Erzurum. 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.
Since 2006, we have studied northeastern Turkey’s carnivores with camera traps. Among 15 mammal species, our research documented wild cat and two subspecies of lynx (Caucasian and European) in eastern Turkey, discovered a new breeding population of lynx in Kars, and obtained the first photos in Turkey of lynx with young. Last year, for the first time in Turkey, we captured, collared and tracked gray wolves, in collaboration with Prof. Josip Kusak of Zagreb University. We 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. With support from the Christensen Fund, UNDP and the Whitley Fund, we are continuing our camera trap research and also working on local environmental education, outreach and ecotourism, in order to reduce the human-carnivore conflict in the region.
Will Brown Bears Use Turkey’s First Wildlife Corridor?
We had a dream team from Turkey, Croatia, Switzerland, and the USA, composed of myself (University of Utah) and my KuzeyDoga team, students and scientists from the universities of Bosporus, Kafkas, Zagreb, and Zurich, the National Geographic CritterCam team, and filmmakers from National Geographic Channel Turkey. This extremely important, ambitious, risky, and unique project on the threatened brown bears of eastern Turkey succeeded thanks to a great team, our years of field experience in the region, months of planning, meticulous preparation, a highly professional, dedicated and integrated team, advance planning, and of course, a little bit of luck.
In only 17 days in September and October, we succeeded in catching and releasing 11 brown bears with no harm, fitting them with state-of-the-art GPS/GSM transmitters and Turkey’s first National Geographic Crittercams, and collecting vital data for their conservation. While all this was happening, a seven-person National Geographic documentary team from Turkey and the USA filmed it all to create Turkey’s first National Geographic wildlife documentary. Simultaneously, Crittercams, for the first time combined with GPS collars, filmed the world through brown bears’ eyes. This documentary, also using unique footage from Crittercams, will be aired this spring in Turkey, generating widespread awareness about the ecology and conservation of brown bears and other wildlife in the beautiful wildlands of the Sarıkamış Forest-Allahuekber Mountains National Park in Kars and Erzurum provinces. The ecology, movement, and behaviour data we collect from the transmitters and from National Geographic CritterCams are extremely important in helping conserve these bears and in shaping the creation of Turkey’s first wildlife corridor we initiated last year.
These are European brown bears (Ursus arctos arctos), the same species as the North American grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). The European brown bear is smaller than the grizzly, on average, but in the Kars region, our bears can reach grizzly size. Naturally, these animals are highly dangerous when caught, requiring extensive experience in handling them. Fortunately, we had the perfect person for the job, Prof. Josip Kusak from the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Zagreb, Croatia. He has studied brown bears, wolves, and other wildlife of Croatia for many years and is a trained wildlife vet. We also worked with him in 2011 to track wolves with GPS/GSM collars for the first time in Turkey.
Thanks to his experience and our teamwork, we were able to catch 11 bears in only 17 days, processed each bear within 1.5 hours of capture, and released each bear unharmed and in good health. KuzeyDoga’s Kars team, consisting of biologist Emrah Coban and wildlife veterinarian Aysegul Karaahmetoglu, worked around the clock with Josip to set up the bear traps, taking care of all the logistics, and tracking the bears after their release. We also had extensive help from Dr. Gabrielle Cozzi, a postdoc with my good friend Prof. Arpat Ozgul at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Switzerland. Not only Gabrielle provided seven of the transmitting collars we put on the bears, he also helped us every night in the field and spent most of his days tracking the collared bears. Gabrielle will be analyzing the tracking data along with my Ph.D. student Mark Chynoweth. During the project, Ayse Mergenci, a Ph.D. student co-advised by me and my good friend, Prof. Rasit Bilgin of Bosporus University, Istanbul, collected scat, hair and blood samples for her Ph.D. research. Prof. Zati Vatansever of Kars’ Kafkas University Veterinary Faculty also helped us with the project and collected bear ticks for his research. Prof. Sean Anderson of California State University Channel Islands was an all-around helper and entertainer-in-chief. General Directorates of Forestry and Nature Conservation and National Parks of the Ministry of Forestry and Water facilitated our work in the region.
Turkey’s First National Geographic Wildlife Documentary
Perfectly complementing the scientific team were the National Geographic Crittercam and documentary teams. Greg Marshall and Kyler Abernathy flew in from the National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC with the state-of-the-art CritterCams they developed and perfected over the years. Thanks to their expertise, the CritterCams worked as planned, dropped when they were supposed to, signaled their locations with VHF transmitters, and captured the first-ever CritterCam footage from Turkey.
The entire process, from the adrenaline-surge of tranquilizing a bear to the thrill of tracking one hidden behind bushes only a few meters away, was filmed by the excellent National Geographic Channel Turkey documentary crew led by Emre Karberk and Gokberk Kocal. These brave fellows were constantly with us in the thick of the action, professionally filming every angle and capturing every sound, while remarkably not getting in the way. Their job is still not done and they are now busy editing days of footage. In a few months, the results of their labor, including Turkey’s first CritterCam footage, will be aired as part of Turkey’s first National Geographic wildlife documentary.
Catching, collaring, and releasing these large and dangerous animals required meticulous preparation, perfect coordination, and complete dedication. As the bears mainly feed at night in this region, this required our team to be ready all night to deploy at once with all of our field gear. I could not help but think of firefighters. Just like them, we slept in our clothes and took off as soon as the alarm came. The traps had a high-tech alarm system that sent us a text message as soon as a trap was triggered, so that the bear would not wait for long. Each of our cell phones got the message and we alternated two-hour watches through the night so the others could sleep and rest. When the alarm came, the watch person woke up the others. We were down in a few minutes and roaring to the trap in our 4WD Toyota LandCruiser. Thanks to our immediate response, we could arrive within 20 minutes of the capture, and finish processing the bear within 1.5 hours of capture. This was an important factor in all the bears waking up and heading back to the forest in perfect health, also confirmed by tracking them the next day.
Josip was the “tip of the spear”, certified and experienced with a tranquilizer gun. Josip and Aysegul, both expert wildlife vets, prepared the necessary drugs. For safety, we always drove to the traps, which were placed within the dart-reach of our vehicle. We checked the trap quickly to see if a bear was caught and to estimate its size for the required dosage. Then we drove away not to disturb it unnecessarily and prepared the tranquilizer dart. We drove back, got into position quickly and Josip darted the animal with the ease of years of experience. We drove away again to minimize stress and waited for the drug to take effect. Once the bear was asleep, the real work began. Every person had a role and knew what to do. We worked all together to maximize the data collected. Simultaneously, dozens of measurements were taken, blood, hair and tick samples collected, ear tags attached, a GPS/GSM collar put on, the CritterCam attached, both of them checked to make sure they were transmitting, while the watchers scanned the surrounding forest with spotlights to deter any curious bears from coming our way. Once everything was finished, we weighed the bear with a scale we had custom-made for this purpose. We then got into the field vehicles nearby and we waited until the bear woke up and walked away.
However, that did not mean we could sleep the rest of the night. Often, we would get multiple alarms in one night, as many as five. Unfortunately, most ended up being false alarms, whose frequency increased after the first week, as the bears figured out the traps! They would carefully approach the trap and somehow trigger it without getting caught. Once, we came soon after dawn to find a cow caught in the trap! Our team spent most of the days resetting the intricate traps, tracking the bears with collars, finding CritterCams, and taking the samples back to Kars, so we were getting quite exhausted towards the end. Meanwhile, the documentary crew had to film all this while making sure they interviewed each one of us and got all the necessary shots, so they were also running on fumes. However, the excitement and success of this project gave us the energy to do it all. The first week was especially productive when we caught five bears in five days and the remaining 12 days produced six bears. Not a single bear was caught twice.
The Findings: Why Does a Bear Watch the Sunrise?
After years of anticipation, months of preparation and weeks of hard field work, we succeeded beyond our expectations. Recovering the first CritterCam was especially nerve-wracking, as we did not know if it would work at all. After all, the bear could have moved it around, broken it or there could have been a technical problem. If all worked but the transmitter did not, we would never find the Crittercam in hundreds of square kilometers of land these bears roam.
When we found the first CritterCam, the female bear was sitting on after it automatically fell off her. We waited until she left, carefully retrieved it and rushed back to watch the footage. It was an incredible thrill for all of us to sit down and watch Turkey’s first CritterCam videos, which were recorded while the CritterCam dangled from a brown bear’s neck. Seeing the world through a bear’s eyes is an unequaled experience. As we expected, much of the footage was of bears sleeping, walking and resting, but unique moments and fascinating behavior of bears’ eating various fruits, drinking water, digging a day bed, staring down a wolf, walking away from a wild boar, and even one female watching the sun rise above a beautiful canyon for 20 minutes, made the whole effort worthwhile.
CritterCams are programmed to drop off after 2 to 10 days, so that stage is only the beginning. Our GPS/GSM collars are programmed to stay on these animals for one to three years and collect detailed movement and habitat use data. These are state-of-the-art collars that not only collect accurate GPS points and other data, but also text message us these data to our cell phones. That’s right. We get text messages from brown bears. Because these bears roam far and wide, at programmed times the collar will “wake up” and look for the cell phone network. If there is coverage, it will send the data. If not, it will save the data, turn itself off and try again next time. If there is no coverage for days and no text messages come, one can track down these collars using “old school” VHF vehicle/foot tracking and download all the data rapidly using dedicated VHF or UHF receivers. Fortunately for us, the GSM system worked like a charm and we started getting text messages from the bears immediately. That success led to an unexpected problem. We were getting hundreds of text messages. We had to upgrade the text message plans of the bears’ collars in order not to pay a fortune…
The results were startling. Because these bears spend a lot of time feeding at a nearby garbage dump, especially before their winter hibernation, we did not expect them to travel much, although we very much hoped they would. Our hopes were realized beyond our expectations. The first bear crossed the entire Sarıkamış forest and back in 2 days, a distance of over 40 kilometers. The best surprise came from #87, a male. Within a week of his release, he walked nearly 100 km north and back, using the exact route of Turkey’s first wildlife corridor I had proposed to the government in 2008! Just like we expected, he spent the daylight hours hidden inside forest fragments, walking across deforested gaps only at night. He was like clockwork. As soon as the sun went down, he started walking to the next forest patch and at dawn, he rushed into the nearest forest cover before it got light and people could spot him. His behavior proved that brown bears would use and benefit from Turkey’s first wildlife corridor. The corridor will give them forest cover where they will be able to find shelter, food and a safe place to travel between forest patches. The government officials are very excited that at least one bear was already using the route of the corridor.
With 10 bears currently being tracked, which has doubled the number of brown bears ever tracked in Turkey, we hope to collect a lot more critical data on brown bear ecology and conservation for the years to come. These data will show us the most important parts of the region for these bears, indicate where to focus our wildlife corridor reforestation efforts, show us where bears cross the highways so we can ask the government to build wildlife passages, and help improve the conservation of bears and other wildlife in the region. We closely work with local people to raise awareness and the data we collect will also help us provide them with advice to reduce the ongoing human-bear conflict. National Geographic CritterCam footage is already revealing the bears’ fascinating behavior, and we expect to make other discoveries that would not be possible without the CritterCam. Equally importantly, Turkey’s first National Geographic wildlife documentary, focused on the brown bears of Sarıkamış National Park, will have an enormous impact in educating the public in the fascinating lives of these threatened animals, promote northeastern Turkey’s ecotourism value, increase local pride, and improve the conservation of brown bears and other wildlife of northeastern Turkey.
Honoring Sarıkamış’ Fallen Soldiers by Protecting All of Sarıkamış Forests
One cannot spend a day in Sarıkamış without remembering the nearly 120,000 soldiers of the Ottoman and Russian armies that died during the Sarıkamış battle between December 22, 1914 and January 15, 1915. Most of them were Ottoman soldiers that were ill-prepared for winter conditions and died of hypothermia in the harsh winter of Kars where temperatures can drop to -40 Centigrade (or Fahrenheit). Sarıkamış Forest-Allahuekber Mountains National Park was declared in 2004 to commemorate these martys and also to protect the highest elevation Scots pine forest in Turkey. However, the national park status is deceptive. 85% of this sacred forest that has become a graveyard for WWI soldiers is still actively logged and only 15% of the forest is within the national park’s borders. Of the approximately 400 km2 of forest, only 60 km2 is inside the national park, but even in this “protected” forest, illegal logging and timber poaching by local people is constant. Local, impoverished villagers use the timber for construction and firewood, and during our field work we routinely come across horse carts full of stolen wood. We are asking Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water Works to include all of Sarıkamış Forest inside the national park, to stop logging the old growth forest, and to rapidly reforest the formerly-forested region by creating Turkey’s first wildlife corridor. If you want all of Sarikamis Forest and its world-class wildlife to be fully protected, please write to Prof. Dr. Veysel Eroglu, Turkey’s Minister of Forestry and Water Affairs.
This article is dedicated to the memory of my beloved father, Mehmet Celal Şekercioğlu. My parents were able to join me in Kars for a few days this fall and they were thrilled to see our research. My dad was especially excited, giddy with the joy of observing up close the magnificent bears he always loved to watch in documentaries. I had rarely seen him so energized and he spent the whole night awake to help us in the field. It was to be our last adventure together.