Hatay Gazelles: what is threatening gazelles and the next step to be taken for the conservation in Turkey.
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.
So far I have written about a successful example of conservation about an endangered animal living in a critical area. Despite the rise of the population of the mountain gazelle of Hatay, we shouldn’t forget how much the future of this species is intertwined with the wealth and the size of the natural area where they live.
This species were already extincted in the provinces of Maraş, Adana, Kilis and Gaziantep and the near Aleppo in the last century and was classified as globally “endangered” in the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Striving to survive in Palestine, Israel and Jordan, the mountain gazelle already disappeared from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Siria, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen and Iran.
Many are the factors that can play a role in the fast decline of the population. The decline of the population has always been caused by the loss of habitats and hunting. While this second factor does not represent a risk (at the moment!) for the population in Hatay, thanks to the military patrolling in the area, the risk has not yet been eliminated. Competition with livestock, reconversion of their traditional feeding areas for agricultural purposes, consequent loss and pollution of water still threaten the gazelles.
As I said, the Turkish Government declared the area to be “under special protection.” This is seemingly helpful, but in practical terms, it doesn’t guarantee the same parameters of protection of a national park. The gazelles spend most part of the day on top of the rocky hills, sleeping, resting under the hard weather conditions of the region: warm in summer, chill in winter. It is easy for them to run on the rocky terrain unlike potential predators such as wolves (Canis lupus) or striped hyenas (hyaena hyaena), but still such terrain is not rich in feeding grass. In order to feed themselves, these animals go downhill at dawn and sunset to enjoy the grass and drink the little amount of water they need, which one of the six spring researchers restored for them. Under these conditions the competition with the flocks of sheep and goats for grass and water is inevitable. Shepherd dogs are also a source of trouble, scaring and disturbing animals in particular during the mating and the breeding season.
Since the Syrian war started, a big part of the land has been abandoned by locals, for many reasons: risk of shelling, the passage of refugees, crossing of jihadists towards Idlib and Pkk/Ypg control on the other side of the border. All these factors resulted in an intensive military activity by the Turkish army, which restored a total control regime in the last 4 years by closing the border with a wall that is constantly patrolled. As I said poachers and hunters are not roaming the area anymore; however, a large amount of land has been utilized for agricultural purposes, causing a drastic loss in the areas of feeding.
One side of the habitat of the gazelle is literally closed by the wall on the border with Syria, the other side is delimited by the villages of Golbasi, Adalar, Kemberlikaya, Incirli, Sucukoyu and Akpinar. Villagers recently converted many fields to the plantation of melons. Fire is often the first step to set up this kind of plantation, who requires a lot of water and doesn’t allow any other grass to grow on its soil. The government, despite the “special protection” status, keeps putting out large pieces of land to tender every year. An effort for the weak local economy, but it is not good news for the gazelles. The result is not only the loss of their habitat but also the dissemination of trash, plastics, the leftovers of fertilizers, and chemical products that pollutes and poisons the oil and water
A factory of marbles and stones is also eating away pieces of the gazelles’ habitat. The factory appealed to a tribunal against the declaration of the “special protection area”, established by a decree of the Turkish Presidency, with the claim that there are not any gazelles in the area, hence no need for special status.
The story of the gazelles of Hatay, so far, has revealed that many important steps have been taken, but still, there are a lot of things to do to guarantee this animal a thriving future.
The first step must be the definition of protection criteria more strict than the already existing ones. The conditions of the “Special protection area” cannot be based on the mere existence of the animal to be protected, it should also ensure the welfare of the habitat they need. A plan should be set to decide how much land can be put out for tender and how much of it should remain untouched. Pressure from the villages cannot be neglected, but a plantation program is the easiest way to avoid monoculture and to enable growing plants that match the standards of the gazelle’s habitat.
The number of roaming dogs must be reduced by capturing. And the activities of the shepherds must be regulated, particularly in pasture areas.
The already mentioned wall on the Syrian border, the number of villages, and consequent pressure by the population are factors that will not permit a significant rise in the number of the gazelle population of Hatay, already under siege, but still protected. Too much density in the population would inevitably raise the risk of an epidemic.
Considering the limited space these animals roam and share every day, a single outbreak can potentially destroy the population. This is a risk that can be prevented by allowing a different spot of the population. Professor Yasar Ergun and officers working on the field told me that provinces of Kilis and Gaziantep still have some areas where the gazelle would adapt quickly and thrive.
Reintroducing animals as a first step to start a new population in new territories can be a game-changer for the future of this animal. A pioneer group can be easily reintroduced to the provinces mentioned above, and then the number can be increased by including other animals, which must of course be monitored.
Turkey has the potential to reverse the worldwide declining trend of this animal. Drawn in the caves by the first men of the Middle East, shaped in manufactures of the Iron Age, painted on magnificent Hellenistic plates, depicted in Roman and Byzantine mosaics, the gazelle has ended up on the edge of extinction. The population in Hatay, after discovered, provided a ray of light in what seemed to be no more than a dark future. The time for the next step has come, because now Turkey has the responsibility to help these animals survive into the next decades, not just in the magnificence of mosaics but in all their living elegance, beauty and grace.