Awareness: The Game Changer
Giuseppe Didonna — born in Southeast Italy, in the province of Bari in March 1982. I am a PhD Doctor in Comparative Law, Law of Islamic Countries. I first move to Turkey for short periods of research in 2010, since then I started studying Turkish language and still keep improving it. Since 2013 I move to Turkey on almost permanent basis and since 2015 I’ve been working as journalist for Italian news Agency, AGI, and as a producer for Italian State run Television, Rai. I am also keen in biology, nature conservation and wildlife and I think Turkey has a big potential in these fields. Thanks to my passions, mountaineering, mountain running, ultra running and diving, I could discover and enjoy the country where I’ve been living for almost 9 years.
It was a mere coincidence that while looking at my shootings I decided to share a video of group of gazelle at full speed on a WhatsApp group with other 30 (Turkish) members, who are my running mates. Some of them imagined I left the country for an exotic destination, many of them thought it was a documentary on Netflix, none of them guessed that the scene happened in Turkey and I witnessed it. After this episode I kept asking friends what, if anything at all, they knew about the mountain gazelles of Turkey, even to more than one friend born and raised in the Hatay province. The result was quite disappointing, just a few out of a total of 60 people, knew that gazelles lived in the area of Urfa (but that’s another gazelle species, not endangered!). I can’t say what I did is a statistical survey, 60 people doesn’t give a a significant sample, but still it is meaningful. For most of them, until I showed pictures, it was hard to believe that their country still holds a treasure like the mountain gazelle. This animal conservation cannot be a task and a duty of only few biologists, local rangers and passionate naturalists, while at the same time be neglected by the rest of the country.
“Involving local communities, raising awareness, have been the first steps taken to save these animals from extinction”, tells me prof.Yasar Ergun: “It’s crucial, because if people don’t even know that gazelles exist, how precious, rare, endangered and sensitive they are, acting for conservation is literally impossible”.
“Talking with local farmers, shepherds, hunters, involving the entire local community has been the real game changer that brought population from 90 to 900 in 12 years”.
“Nobody from the villages here harms the gazelles, we love them, they belong to this land exactly like us. My grandfather used to say that killing a gazelle brings misfortune. If my dogs chase them I immediately call them back”, tells me Ergun, a local shepherd, while sharing with me his tasty cheese and çay.
Military control of the area provided a significant support to protect these animals. It’s not a coincidence that gazelles took shelter in an area forbidden to civilians, which since 1944 is under a military control that got stricter and stricter after the war in Syria started. Just in the last few years some herds started to move out of such under restrictions area. Population grew, but remained inaccessible to the sight of people.
“Gazelle got used to us”, says the commander in chief of one of the military bases along the border. “When our vehicles pass next to them, gazelles are not scared at all, they simply keep doing what they do”. Meaningful words for a shy animal that is hard to get close to.
Nevertheless, there’s a huge difference between implementing concrete measures for the conservation of animals and seeing their number growing merely because access to civilians is forbidden and some land is still mined.
Nowadays these animals don’t need more protection, but definitely need a better protection.
“Just local farmers and shepherds can enter the military zone and their names are registered. Still the impact on ecosystem is self evident. Now that gazelles have slowly started moving outside the area where the core population survived, it’s hard for them to find proper feeding areas”. This is the alarm raised by Nuri Akin, bureau chief of the local branch of the directorate for Conservation and National Parks (DKMP).
“Gazelles are very adaptable animals, their presence has a positive impact on the quality of the soil and on some agricultural products, like wheat. However, there’s no space left adaptation with the abuse of fertilizers and chemicals that poison soil and water; that’s what happened for olive trees plantations too. The same can be said for the intensive use of the scarse water resources and the raise of barbed wire fences. Farming itself it’s not a problem, but the extension of cultivated area needs to be regulated”, explains Akin.
A plan for farming is next step to be taken by the local DKMP office. The plan aims at regulating fertilization of already existing plantations and avoid new stock of terrain to be put out of tender. Barbed wire should be removed, not just the one surrounding fields, but also the old ones that is not necessary for military purposes anymore, after the wall has been built along the border.
“The increase in numbers allows us to plan a split of the population, which is necessary for the future of mountain gazelle”, says Prof Ergun: “New sites have been located in near provinces where this animal got extinct decades ago. Now, once again, it will be crucial to raise awareness among local communities and win their hearth”.
Awareness seems to be the magic word, the game changer for the future of an iconic animal survived thanks to a problematic border.
The local communities living in the new designated areas might not be immediately convinced just by the rarity of this endangered species, but what happened in Hatay could provide an extraordinary example of the benefits for the whole environment. A healthy population reactivates an entire ecosystem, whose gazelle are the basis. This species contributes significantly to spread seeds, enhancing plants variety and increasing fertility. The impact on a land where they disappeared decades or centuries ago is going to be powerful. The population raising numbers In Hatay made new stocks of land available for farming, after being barren during the decades ecosystem was not working.
Then awareness should be spread in the entire country, and there’s not better way to hit this target than showing these animals to people. If at the moment the border with Syria makes mountain gazelles inaccessible to visitors or tourists, a successful reintroduction program would make this newly designated areas an attraction just like Halfety, Samandag or the mosaics of Antakya.
Of course, for the health of the animals, tourism should be regulated, but the impact on people is essential to raise awareness, once again crucial word, across the country and eventually ensure the survival of the species. In particular among people like the friends in Istanbul mentioned in the beginning…
The huge naturalistic heritage of Turkey is often at risk. Actions are needed across the country not to loose wilderness. On this purpose the story of mountain gazelles, after being on the edge of extinction, can show the path to follow not to loose forever wilderness and beauty, teaching that something that is not even known can not be protected and saved from destruction.
It’s my last day in Hatay. My permission to work in the military zone is going to expire. Sun is slowly going down, days are shorter, weather gets colder and colder. Suddenly, it seems there are no gazelles around, as if a mysterious signal, inaccessible to humans, ordered them a retreat on the hills where their posts makes them invisible and their agility makes them unique. On my way back to the ranger’s station of DKMP I spot a herd of gazelles, the first in hours, on the same side of the wall dividing Syria and Turkey. I can shoot videos, but the wall should stay outside the frame — that’s the deal with the army. A military vehicle stops and two soldiers tell me not to shoot in that direction. Just after ensuring them I wasn’t shooting the wall, my eyes go bak to the animals and I spot a big, fierce, grey figure running, with all the gazelles staring at it. A wolf. Probably out for a hunt, started moving as fast as he could to disappear from my sight. Impossible for me not to get emotional, my hands are shaking and shooting properly is impossible, so I decide to enjoy the moment. And it happens, when the wolf stops for a few seconds and turns to me, looking straight into my eyes. I can’t say how long it lasted before the legendary predator starts running again, until disappearing behind the rocks.
“Wolves came back in this area 8 years ago. A pack of 4 roams this land now”, says Huseyin, one of the guardians of the breeding center, while watching the, shaky, video of the wolf I took. “There were no wolves for 50 years, I heard stories of wolves from my father, now they’re back thanks to the gazelles”. And so, once more I find myself saying thank you to the gazelles of Hatay.