The Mountain Gazelle of Turkey: from a symbol of Mesopotamian civilization to hope for protection of south Turkey ecosystem

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.

The aim of the project is to shed lights on the story of the mountain gazelles in Turkey. An iconic animal, drawn by the first tribes of Mesopotamia in caves and represented in the beautiful Roman mosaics of Antakya and Antep’s museums. Mountain gazelle of Hatay, in particular, risked extinction before even being officially discovered. Thanks to the effort of few passionate people who first got civil society and then NGOs involved, this animal is successfully raising in number. Recently, the government declared a protected area very close to the Syrian border to prevent any poaching or illegal killing of the gazelles. My project aims to highlight the value of this successful conservation program. What happened to the gazelle represents an unicum in Turkey, and can set an example for future projects to preserve the natural heritage of this Country.

There are 2 species of gazelle in Turkey: mountain gazelle (gazella gazella) and goitered gazelle (gazella subgutturosa). The first one lives in the region of Hatay, the second one in the area of Urfa and Mardin.

This is the typical introduction you can read almost everywhere about gazelles living in Turkey. However, before June 2010, you would have found nothing about the mountain gazelles.

Indeed this animal has seriously faced the risk of extinction before even being discovered by biologists and being officially registered in the fauna of the country.

The story of a 21st century’s discovery

In 2001 Dr. Yasar Ergun, now a professor at Hatay University at faculty of Veterinary Medicine, a very energetic man often busy with livestock and cows but also keen in biology, mountaineering, and wildlife, heard of some gazelles roaming wild and free in an area very close to the Syrian border, from an old retired shepherd.

Dr. Ergun immediately started surveying those rocky hills which the shepherd told him, and first, he could find scats and footprints. Then, eventually, he spots a small group of animals. The old shepherd was right, Hatay had its own population of gazelles. It took some years for him to get a proper camera with a lens strong enough to catch the features of the mountain gazelle, which until then was neither registered in Turkey nor was it known to be living this far north.

When Dr.Ergun first showed the results of his research to the scientific community almost nobody believed him simply because mountain gazelle was not supposed to be there. Biologists and zoologists criticized him, saying that only goitered gazelle existed in Turkey.

Dr. Ergun knew that protecting these animals was not just the only way to prove his theory was right, but a conservation priority. So he started involving local communities, in particular shepherds and hunters, trying to explain to them how important it is to protect such unique animals, a heritage belonging to the entire country. A reason for the locals to be proud of.

Dr. Ergun, together with his friend Abdullah Ogunc, got the support of a spontaneous civil society movement. It grew in the following years and led to the first census, in 2008, the results showed that barely 100 gazelles were living on the border between Turkey and Syria. These animals were basically going to disappear before even being discovered.

In meanwhile genetic tests conducted on the samples of these animals confirmed Dr. Ergun's theory: the one of Hatay was the only population of mountain gazelle in Turkey, the one that lives farthest north in the world. These results silenced criticisms coming from some members of the scientific community. Mr. Ergun and Ogunc with the important contribution of WWF Turkey, built up an observation point close to the habitat of the gazelles and a breeding center to recover wounded and orphaned animals and guarantee a future for the few gazelles still alive.

The war in Syria

One of the peculiarities of the habitat of the mountain gazelles in Turkey is that the location lies on the border with the Syrian province Idlib. In 2011, Idlib has been one of the first to rise up against the Bashar Al Assad regime, and it is still a stronghold of rebels and jihadists groups, still not pacified despite the involvement on the field of the Russian and the Turkish army.

The hills beyond the habitat of the gazelles are known to have been bombed by the Assad army in the first year of the conflict. For months the entire region became a route for migrants who fled the war and even jihadists from all over the world that wanted to join the conflict in Syria.

All those circumstances didn’t help the gazelles, at least in the beginning. Nevertheless, when the Turkish army put strict control upon the area, neither poachers nor hunters could hunt and harm these animals, so they found an oasis of peace, despite the proximity with a conflict.

The Future: a border of peace and nature.

The conservation program build-up by Dr. Ergun and Mr.Ogunc worked, the gazelles started to be protected and the reproduction rate raised very successfully on the hills and mountains of Hatay. The breeding center widened its own range of activities and even its size, and then in 2018, the Turkish Government gave a decisive contribution declaring a “protected area” of 135 square km.

The raise of the gazelle, nowadays more or less 1.000 animals, provides different perspectives for the future of an area that suffered a lot because of the proximity with the Syrian border.

Gazelle, an animal that can be easily spotted, can provide a source for eco-tourism. It can attract trekkers, wildlife photographers, and visitors, hence turning the area into a border of peace and set a wonderful example of conservation for a country that needs such a successful story to preserve it's own magnificent and often underestimated natural heritage.

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Written by

Impact Journalism Grant Programme // Medyada Değişim Yaratanlar İçin Hibe Programı

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