Endangered gazelles make a comeback to the edge of a war zone
KIRIKHAN, Turkey – Turkey’s southern border with Syria has become a place of misery and misery, with tent camps for those displaced by a decade of war on the Syrian side and a concrete wall blocking the entrance to Turkey for everyone, except the most determined.
Yet amid the rocky outcrops of a small area on the Turkish side, life abounds as an endangered species of wild gazelle recovers its stocks and multiplies.
The mountain gazelle, a delicate antelope with a striped face and spiral horns, once roamed widely throughout the Middle East and, as Roman mosaics reveal, southern Turkey as well. But by the end of the last century, it had been hunted almost to extinction, with only a dwindling population of 2,500 in Israel, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In Turkey, the gazelle has been forgotten and is said to no longer exist. The only officially registered were a subspecies, known as the goiter gazelles, in the province of Sanliurfa in the southeast of the country.
The rediscovery and survival of the mountain gazelle in Turkey was largely thanks to one man and his love of nature.
Yasar Ergun, a village teacher turned veterinarian and professor at Hatay Mustafa Kemal University in the town of Antakya, heard in the mid-1990s from an old hunter that there were wild gazelles in the mountains along from the border with Syria.
A great hiker, he started looking for them. Barely 25 miles from Antakya – the ancient city of Antioch – the Kurdish villagers knew them and the shepherds sometimes saw them. Gazelles live on rocky hillsides, where their markings and coloring make them almost invisible. But they descend in groups to graze and find water on the surrounding farmland.
The professor spotted his first in 1998 and, after a decade of observation, estimated that there were around 100 people living in the area.
With a small grant for an educational project, he bought a camera and a telephoto lens, which led to a close encounter and a revolutionary discovery.
“It was the mating season,” he recalls. “I ran towards the road, and the male ran towards me to defend his females. It was very unusual. “
When he looked at the photos, he realized that the gazelles differed from those in southeastern Turkey.
“This one was light brown, with some white parts, and the horns were completely different,” he said. He was sure he was watching mountain gazelle, but found little interest in his claims in academic circles, he said.
“I sent the photographs – the teachers just laughed,” he said.
He enlisted the help of Tolga Kankilic, a biologist, who collected poop, fur and skin samples from the remains of dead gazelles for genetic testing, and found that the DNA matched that of mountain gazelles.
The discovery gave Mr. Ergun a much bigger task: helping the gazelles to survive. There were several threats to them – the lack of water and habitat in particular – but by far the greatest danger was illegal hunting. Hunting is only allowed under license in designated areas in Turkey, but illegal hunting is commonplace.
The gazelles had completely disappeared from other regions, including Adana, further west, where American soldiers stationed at Incirlik air base hunted them 20 years ago, he said.
“The end of a genetic source is the same as the collapse of the Earth,” he said. “Nature needs biodiversity.
He won a grant from the World Wildlife Fund in Turkey for a local project with local villagers and purchased mountain gear and amateur walkie talkies for several herders, who began to monitor the gazelles. They dug pools in the rock to collect water for the gazelles, although it took months for the animals to trust the water source.
With his knowledge of village life, Mr. Ergun started off slow, winning the support of local shepherds, educating children to protect gazelles and even encouraging a local Kurdish legend of a holy man who lived with gazelles and treated them. .
With the hunters, Mr. Ergun and his assistants took an approach of traditional courtesy and respect, drinking tea with them without ever mentioning their hunt.
“We never tried to use force to stop them,” he said. “We would say: ‘Hello, we are from Project Nature’. Sometimes silence is more powerful than speaking.
The local population were Kurds, a mountain people with their own language and culture – and a history of resistance to the Turkish state.
“If you make an enemy, just one, in 10 years you will have 10 enemies, and in 100 years you will have 1,000,” Ergun said. But when the shepherds began to watch over the gazelles, the hunters got the message.
Mr. Ergun also needed the cooperation of the Turkish army, which has a base in the region. Gazelles occupy a narrow strip of territory along the border a few kilometers wide and less than 20 miles long which is primarily a restricted military zone.
Yet military restrictions and the outbreak of war across the border in Syria 10 years ago have helped the gazelles unexpectedly. Turkey has built a cement wall along the border and dismantled an old buffer fence, which has opened up more territory to gazelles and protected them from wandering in Syria, where hunting remains a threat.
The project gained momentum, gaining government support for a breeding center and sanctuary for orphaned and injured gazelles. Gazelles have started to thrive, growing from around 235 in 2012 to over 1,100 last year, according to an official tally from Turkish government agencies.
In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a 50 square mile protected area for gazelles, and plans for a cement plant and quarry in the area were canceled.
Turkey is extremely rich in flora and fauna, but is industrializing quickly and falling behind in nature conservation, said Sedat Kalem, director of conservation at World Wildlife Fund Turkey, which awarded two small grants to help to start the gazelle project. The government did not step in to save the gazelles, and that was left to a local initiative, he said.
“But we were happy to have contributed to this result,” he said. “The locals have done a great job. If everyone can take care of their environment, this is the key to the overall success of protecting biodiversity.
Not all villagers are convinced of the importance of protecting gazelles.
“It’s actually a pain,” Nuray Yildirim said as she baked flatbread in an outdoor oven in the village of Incirli. “There are too many of them, and they eat the chickpeas and the wheat.”
But others have described gazelles as a blessing, even holy.
“They have lived here since the days of our ancestors,” said Mehmet Hanafi Cayir, a farmer. “The wealth they bring will come to our door.”
Mr. Ergun’s attachment is above all scientific. He said the increase in gazelles has brought wolves and even hyenas back to the area, reflecting a healthy ecosystem.
He also has plans for the future. As the numbers increase, he wants to reintroduce gazelles to other parts of Turkey and beyond.
“The habitat is suitable for these gazelles,” he said.
“Maybe we can reintroduce them to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq,” he added. “They lost them just 30 years ago. The people of the Middle East have suffered so much. We should offer them that.