Journey to Turkey
Situated in one of the world's most important migratory bird flyways, some of Turkey's wildest places face threats from massive construction projects. Trying to provide a better way, one visionary biologist aims to put his country on the birding map.
"This is the end of the world," field biologist Yakup Sasmaz said to me as we pulled into Kuyucuk, Turkey, population 350. We had arrived during afternoon rush hour, which meant the village's sole rutted road was packed hoof-to-hoof with cattle traveling home from the fields. Men and women crisscrossed the herds, carrying buckets of milk that would soon be turned into a locally popular cheese.
Sasmaz and I crept along, looping around potholes and kicking up dust. We passed houses with tin roofs, squat buildings with sod roofs, and low walls that marked the boundaries of family compounds. After a few minutes, we reached the home where I'd be staying, a narrow structure that sat perpendicular to the road and rambled back toward the eastern horizon.
A man with a cleft chin and a salt-and-pepper mustache walked up to greet us. He wore a loose-fitting gray suit with a pressed black shirt. This was Turan Demir, the village's elected chief and my host for this visit. He extended a rough hand to shake then showed me to the room where I'd be sleeping for the next two nights, a garage-sized living area with lace curtains and wide-timbered ceilings. Deep wooden benches piled high with pillows ran the length of two of the walls. A sword hung from a vertical support beam. Demir's wife Birgul served us a hearty and spicy soup, which we ate with hunks of bread. We shared salad from a common plate.
We didn't linger. The sun was low, and soon the bird activity would pick up on Lake Kuyucuk, a mile away. Sasmaz wanted to show me the bird banding station that KuzeyDoga Society, the environmental non-profit for which he works, operates during the spring and fall migrations.
I had come to Kuyucuk, 25 miles from the provincial capital of Kars, to check out an experiment with low-intensity ecotourism in an area that receives less than 1 percent of the nation's travel revenues. Northeast Turkey sits at the junction of the Irano-Anatolian and Caucasus biodiversity hotspots, two of 34 threatened regions singled out by Conservation International for their unusual species richness and uniqueness. For birders, it's a paradisiacal crossroads of migrants traveling to and from South Africa, Hungary, Israel, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, the Russian-Finnish borderlands, and numerous other parts of three continents. And it's a haven for birds whose populations have crashed in Western Europe.
It's also a region facing significant threats. In its push for economic development and energy independence, the Turkish government has been promoting massive construction projects, from hydroelectric dams in rural areas to the proposed Istanbul shopping mall that triggered the Taksim Square protests last spring. It has particularly focused on historically neglected areas like the northeast. Yet critics say Turkey lacks the tough laws needed to protect its environment from the impacts of growth. In May, for example, the English-language Hurriyet Daily News reported that Parliament had passed a law exempting billions of dollars worth of large infrastructure projects from environmental-impact assessments.
Cagan Sekercioglu, a Turkish-born, U.S.-educated ornithologist who founded KuzeyDoga, believes that visiting birders can help protect Northeast Turkey by creating an economic demand for unspoiled habitat. He has coined the term "village-based biocultural tourism" to describe his vision of small home-stay businesses in the communities adjacent to birding areas. Travelers would come primarily to watch the birds, and they would also enjoy local home-cooked meals and hospitality. With the revenue that birdwatchers bring, and the pleasure they receive, he's hoping to garner both local and international support for his group's conservation efforts.
When I first spoke with Sekercioglu a year ago, he called the northeast "quite a different world" from the rest of Turkey. He described the high plateau that reminds him of the American West; the alpine meadows and conifer forests; the dramatic rise of Mount Agri (Ararat), which peaks at almost 17,000 feet. He told me about the traditional villages, where homes are still heated with bricks of cattle dung, and where kindness to strangers is the rule.
Enticed by his descriptions, I booked a plane ticket to Kars, arriving during this year's spring migration. I divided my five days between two rich birding areas where KuzeyDoga runs banding stations: Lake Kuyucuk, which is protected under an international treaty but still faces degradation if the closed Turkish-Armenian border reopens; and the Aras River Valley, which is even more lovely but also threatened by a proposed dam that could put it completely under water.
Sasmaz and I arrived at Lake Kuyucuk just as the sun was setting. The wide, watery expanse seemed like a shallow cauldron of fertility: an open lake brimming with noisy frogs and aquatic plants, surrounded by reed beds of different heights and, beyond that, montane meadow. From the lake rose a 650-foot-long manmade island, constructed from an old road bed and planted with birch and willow to provide breeding and nesting ground safe from humans and mammalian predators. At the edge of the property, two small buildings stood side-by-side: a stone dormitory where volunteers slept in bunk beds; and a portable white trailer that doubled as a kitchen and a banding station. There was no electricity: Nighttime banding was done by kerosene and headlamp.