Turkey's Scientist of the Year on Butterflies, Banding Birds, and Eco Tourism (Interview)

Turkey's "Scientist of the Year," as selected by a consortium of media groups, is no ivory-tower academic.

Though his published research at Stanford has made him one of the most-cited scientists in the past decade, Dr. Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu can just as often be found in the remote wilds of northeastern Turkey near the city of Kars, banding birds and doing community outreach with the small grassroots organization he founded in 2007, the KuzeyDoğa Society. TreeHugger spoke to him in Kars about this biologically rich area and KuzeyDoğa's efforts to protect it.

TreeHugger: Kars is so far away from Istanbul, where you grew up, and the United States, where you've made your career. How did you first get involved with conservation efforts there?

Çağan Şekerçioğlu: KuzeyDoğa started as a research project. I first came through Kars in 2000 on a butterfly-collecting trip through Central Asia and the Middle East.

We discovered six butterfly species new to science. That's amazing because butterflies are a very well-studied group. That showed me there is still so much biodiversity to be discovered in Turkey.

About half of the areas were gone since earlier researchers had come through; they had been overgrazed to the point that no food plants were left. Which makes you ask, how many butterflies have gone extinct without anyone knowing about it?

I decided I had to work in Eastern Turkey, especially in Kars, which is on a major migratory flyway for birds. Turkey is the only country in the world that's almost entirely covered by three biodiversity hotspots, out of a total of 34 in the world. There are nearly 10,000 plant species here, one-third of them endemic.

It started out as just a bird banding (ringing) program, but as you see all the problems in an area, it's hard not to do something about it. A pure research project expanded into a community-based conservation project. This is unusual in Turkey; it's typically a very strict division here -- if you're a bird person, you just do birds.

The First Bird-Banding Station in Eastern Turkey

Lake Kuyucuk.

TH: Tell me more about your work at your flagship site, Lake Kuyucuk, where KuzeyDoğa established the first bird-ringing station in eastern Turkey, has documented 220 different bird species, and turned a road that used to bisect the lake into an artificial island for wildlife conservation.

ÇŞ: The creation of the island in Kuyucuk Lake is a first for Turkey. The entire shoreline is exposed to cattle, sheep, dogs, foxes, and people; there's no safe place for birds to rest.

The grasslands around the lake evolved with natural grazing, some of that is good for the land. But our experiments show cattle are eating 93 percent of the biomass. As soon as green shoots start to appear, people are letting their cattle out.

With our test enclosures at Kuyucuk, we're trying to see what is happening to ground-nesting birds, plants, insects, frogs, and other species. Traditional farmland birds are already gradually declining in the area.

We have tried to bring in an expert from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to demonstrate better grazing practices, but it's hard to get people interested in doing something different. Still there is a growing group that understands what we're trying to do.

We really focus on children and young people because it's hard for older people to change their mindset. We need to get students to grow up with this [conservation ethic]. Primary-school kids are a key age to focus on. We celebrate various days, about 10 a year, at Lake Kuyucuk and bring school groups [to the site]. We're trying to get schools more involved, but they're afraid to break from the centralized curriculum.

New Eco-Tourism Plan Could Include Tracking Wolves

Çağan Şekercioğlu with children in Kuyucuk Village.

TH: What type of work are you doing with the community around Lake Kuyucuk?

ÇŞ: We're trying to change the perspective on tourism -- it doesn't just mean hotels. Winter could be a good time for nature tourism, for things like wolf-tracking. The area is snow-covered then, so there's not much to disturb.

The former governor of Kars gave us an abandoned teachers' house to use as a guest house. We're encouraging villagers to run it and keep the money. The economics of the area are changing; people are leaving, they can't depend on agriculture as much anymore.

We're bringing in a sustainable-tourism expert to talk to villagers and try to bring together the different villages in the area, which don't always get along. It's pretty much all women who are interested in offering ev pansiyons (homestays), cooking, and handicrafts. We hire village women to cook meals for visitors and volunteers. Some families are becoming interested in offering homestays. The challenge is getting a modern shower in a traditional house!

TH: How is KuzeyDoğa's work supported?

ÇŞ: We mostly get international funding, and a bit of support from Kafkas University in Kars. The government gives us some in-kind support, such as donating the trailers at the bird stations. The land we use is also government property.

A KuzeyDoğa field biologist with a bird netted for banding at the group's monitoring site in Iğdır.

Environmental Protection Should Be Addressed Before Opening the Turkey/Armenia Border

TH: What are the biggest environmental threats in this area?

ÇŞ: The road near Lake Kuyucuk is a huge priority. There's pressure on the area that would increase if the border between Turkey and Armenia is opened. We have to get this on the agenda before the border opens: Within a month, you'll have crews expanding the road. One villager already wants to open a gas station on property he owns right by the lake if the road is expanded.

We are not against opening up the border, but environmental considerations haven't been taken in mind at all. Arpaçay Canyon near Ani (about 20 miles from Kuyucuk) is currently a military zone.

We spent two years trying to get permission for KuzeyDoğa Science Coordinator Emrah [Çoban] to walk the entire length of the zone. He did a full survey and discovered at least six Egyptian vulture nests. It could qualify as a Ramsar wetland. But raptors are very sensitive. If people go near their nests, they will move.

TH: How have people in the community responded to the presence of KuzeyDoğa environmentalists and the volunteers you bring in to work at your bird-monitoring stations?

ÇŞ: Data are respected [in Turkey] -- the amount of pride people take once you tell them the place is special surprised me. It also helped that we talked to them, as equals. People expect academics to come at them in a superior way.

People often can't believe I would come to Kars because I like it here; it's interesting the initial suspicion, people thinking I might be a spy and all that. That has been allayed now. People can show up at the bird stations without advance notice, they can see we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. Villagers often immediately start worrying when environmentalists come that we will want to kick them out, but most understand we want to protect this place together.

Turkey's Scientist of the Year on Butterflies, Banding Birds, and Eco Tourism (Interview)
Though his published research at Stanford has made him one of the most-cited scientists in the past decade, Dr. Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu can just as often be found in the remote wilds of northeast Turkey, banding birds and doing community outreach.

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