Turkey's Rich Biodiversity in Crisis, Scientists Say

bazylek/CC BY 2.0
Turkey's mountain habitats are 'severely understudied,' according to a new scientific paper.

With more than 1 million hectares of wetlands lost since 1950, half of the country's forest area degraded and populations of fish, birds, and large mammals on the decline, Turkey is facing a conservation crisis. And the worst part may be that no one really even knows just how bad the situation is.

The country's mountain habitats "remain severely understudied," a "rigorous national wetland inventory has yet to be undertaken," and monitoring of birds is "limited and inconsistent," according to acclaimed conservation biologist Çağan Şekercioğlu and his coauthors of the new scientific paper "Turkey's globally important biodiversity in crisis."

Crossroads Of Three Biodiversity Hotspots
Though Turkey is nearly covered by the Caucasus, Irano-Anatolian, and Mediterranean biodiversity hotspots, it ranked 140th out of 163 countries in biodiversity and habitat conservation on the 2010 Environmental Performance Index. Major waves of urbanization and dam construction, as well as poaching, overgrazing and overfishing, pollution, and excessive irrigation, threaten to destroy species and ecosystems that have survived 10,000 years of human land use, according to the paper, which was published last week in the December issue of Biological Conservation following an eight-year research process.

Şekercioğlu first started gathering material in 2003, but the work went into high gear after he recruited collaborators specializing in everything from microbes to plants to climate to insects at a December 2009 workshop of Turks studying ecology and evolution abroad. His founding of the environmental group KuzeyDoğa in eastern Turkey in 2007 also spurred the project forward, Şekercioğlu told TreeHugger in an email. "As I got more involved with KuzeyDoğa, saw how bad the situation really is, and the environmental situation in Turkey got worse and worse, I knew I had to write this," he said.

Government Making Matters Worse
Despite its natural wealth, Turkey "lacks the biological 'charisma' of many tropical countries and suffers from the international misconception that, as a European nation (though not part of the European Union), it must have adequate funds and priorities to support conservation," Şekercioğlu and his co-authors write in their paper. Instead, it faces limited public awareness of environmental issues, a poorly developed NGO sector, and benign neglect -- or worse -- on the part of the government:

Various government departments, sometimes without knowledge of each other's plans and without any environmental impact assessments, implement unnecessary, costly, and ecologically harmful projects, ranging from "supplementing" a pristine lake with water from a polluted river, to "landscaping" natural meadows in a protected area, building on the shoreline of a protected Ramsar lake next to the breeding area of the globally Endangered white-headed duck or installing permanent barbeque stands in a seasonally-dry national park dominated by conifers.

© KuzeyDoğa
The populations of 53.6 percent of Turkey's bird species declined between 1994 and 2004, largely due to habitat loss.

The lack of good information also hampers conservation efforts. By tagging and tracking two wolves, KuzeyDoğa discovered that their range far exceeds the size of protected areas.

"As of Nov. 24th, [the wolf named] Kuzey has walked over 300 kilometers and has covered 575 square kilometers, an area that is 2.5 times bigger than Sarıkamış National Park (229.8 square kilometers). It shows how inadequate this national park is," Şekercioğlu told TreeHugger, also refuting a widely quoted figure on the nationwide wolf population:

That number 7,000 is not based on research, but simply a guess. I think it is quite an overestimate. That's why this work is so important. For example, we have already found out that Sarıkamış National Park only has one or two packs, each [with] around a dozen individuals, and it is a remote forest suitable for wolves. 7,000 wolves in Turkey is unrealistic.

People Benefit From Biodiversity
Better protecting Turkey's biodiversity is important for the country's human inhabitants as well, with nearly 20 million rural people benefiting from it culturally and commercially, particularly through fishing, honey production, and the use of plants for medicine and dyes. Tapping the "nostalgia for nature and the outdoors" among urban Turks could also be a powerful way to raise interest in conservation, the paper's authors write.

Şekercioğlu remains upbeat despite the challenges. "I hope this [paper] will become the main international reference on Turkey's biodiversity, habitats, and conservation issues," he told TreeHugger, noting that it is being translated into Turkish and distributed around the world. "It's already been used and distributed by UNDP colleagues in meetings about Turkey so I hope it will make some difference."

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Tags: Animals | Biodiversity | Conservation | Turkey

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