Turkey is a key country for global biodiversity conservation as a result of its location at the junction of three continents as well as Anatolia’s complex topography and geomorphology. These geographical features account for a great variety of habitats and species, and, particularly, for an exceptionally rich flora. The global map of biodiversity hotspot gives perhaps the best insight on Turkey’s global importance for conservation. Three out of 34 biodiversity hotspots meet in Turkey: Caucasus, the Mediterranean and the Irano-Anatolian. This exceptionally rich and unique biodiversity raises the significance of the work of Doğa, BirdLife Turkey, as a contribution to save world’s biodiversity.
Plant and animal endemism
With nearly 10,000 species of vascular plants and ferns, Turkey has the richest flora of any country in the temperate zone, with a level of endemism of almost 34%. New plant species are still being discovered in Turkey at a rate of more than one a week. Nearly 1000 endemic plant species are threatened from extinction and classified as CR, EN or VU according to IUCN redlist criteria. Most of these globally threatened endemic species are confined to grassland and Mediterranean ecosystems.
Rate of endemism of animal species in Turkey is not as high as plants. Yet, Turkey forms the main range numerous globally threatened species. Moreover, current studies show that several endemic and threatened mammals, reptiles and amphibians occur in Turkey that remained unexplored until recently. Lycian salamanders (Lyciasalamandra sp.), frog species confined to the Taurus range and the Taurus suslic (Spermophilus taurensis) are examples of such rare species. The recent discoveries of two large mammals in Turkey, the globally threatened Mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella) and the regionally threatened Anatolian Leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana), are key indications of how unexplored Turkey’s biodiversity is.
Turkey’s birds are better studied compared to any other taxa, while there are still major gaps in our knowledge of the status of some Anatolian disjunct bird populations. 15 bird species regularly occurring in Turkey are threatened from extinction at global scale. These include the critically endangered (CR) Northern Bald Ibis and the Sociable Plover. For both, the grasslands in southeast Turkey are of critical importance.
Five other bird species are classified as endangered (EN). Among these, Egyptian Vulture and White-headed Duck have globally significant populations in Turkey, e.g. up to 25% of the global population of Egyptian Vulture may be breeding in Anatolia. The status of the globally endangered Velvet Scoter in Turkey is insufficiently known, having a highly isolated breeding population in northeast Anatolian mountains, originally described as a distinct subspecies – Melanitta fusca penicillata. The current status and distribution of Saker Falcon in Turkey is not known, requiring specific studies. Red-breasted Goose has a small wintering population in northwest Turkey, extending to south and central Anatolia in heavy winters.
Eight bird species classified as globally vulnerable (VU) occur in Turkey. Great Bustard, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Dalmatian Pelican and Marbled Teal have a number of significant breeding populations. Bosporus, Dardanelles and the Marmara Sea in general are globally important migratory bottlenecks for the Yelkouan Shearwater. Yet, the breeding status of the species is not studied up to now although several islands in or around the Marmara Sea host suitable nesting habitats. The Houbara Bustard is recorded in central Turkey in December 2013 in a suitable breeding habitat, after more than hundred years. The status of this rare species in Turkey is not known. Greater Spotted Eagle and Lesser White Fronted Goose have small wintering populations in western half of Turkey.
Status of some disjunct bird populations in Turkey is inadequately known, both ecologically and taxonomically. These include the Anatolian Mountain Crane (Grus grus archibaldii), Mountain Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca penicillata), the Taurus Mountain population of Brown Fish Owl, the distinct Beyşehir Lake population of large gulls – currently described as a transition population between Yellow-legged Gull and Armenian Gull – and some subspecies of passerines. Some articles indicate that these might be described as full new species. Further studies on these disjunct populations are of global conservation significance as most of them are threatened from extinction.
Turkey has a central location within the eastern flyways of soaring birds and other species. Systematic research and conservation efforts along the flyways in Turkey have been lacking for a long time, including the mega city of Istanbul where more than 20 million people share there province with tens of thousands of soaring birds twice a year.
Key Biodiversity Areas and Important Bird Areas
305 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) are identified in Turkey triggering KBA criteria for one or more taxonomic groups. KBAs cover 20.456.884 hectares of Turkey, 26% of the country. Among these, 106 are Important Bird Areas (IBAs) of global significance.
Turkey’s exceptional terrestrial species diversity and endemism is largely confined to three main ecosystems: Mediterranean scrublands and forests, grasslands and freshwater. Vast majority of the globally significant plant diversity in Turkey is associated with the Mediterranean and grassland ecosystems. Freshwater and grassland ecosystems in Turkey hold great variety of globally threatened bird, mammal and fish species. Furthermore, the rivers and streams of isolated water basins of Anatolia are home for great variety of restricted-range species ranging from plants and insects to vertebrates.
Although Turkey is surrounded by the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and embraces one domestic sea – the Marmara Sea – the marine biodiversity of its seascape is very little studied. For instance, the discovery of the first breeding colony of Cory’s Shearwater took place only in 2013, although there are many other suitable breeding habitats along Turkey’s coastline.
Landuse and threats
The recent assessment of KBAs has shown that dams, irrigation, and drainage projects (i.e. water policies) form the most important threat to Turkey’s biodiversity. Irrigation and drainage projects affect 225 KBAs and hydroelectric power plants and dams have an effect on at least 185 sites.
Because of their irreversible impact, dams form by far the most immediate threat on Turkey’s biodiversity. As a result of Turkey’s water policies, several rivers, wetlands as well as grassland KBAs have disappeared or their ecological integrity has severely deteriorated. In many cases, dam projects do not only overlap with KBAs but also with primarily important protected areas such as Küre Mountains National Park and Çoruh Valley Wildlife Reserve reflecting the conflict of interest between water and nature conservation policies. In addition to water policies, mining, development for tourism and urbanization in the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts has resulted, and continue to result, in loss of terrestrial and marine biodiversity at many KBAs.
KBAs in Turkey are inadequately protected. 71 KBAs have one protection status and 52 others have more than one. 176 KBAs do not have any kind of protection. However, less than 14% of the surface area of KBAs in Turkey is legally protected. A recent analysis shows that the network of protected areas in Turkey poorly covers steppic habitats, river valleys and Mediterranean habitats.
Turkey has consistently weekend nature conservation laws over the past seven years. This has come to a point of proposing a new “Nature Conservation Law” to the Parliament of Turkey, which – in contrast to its name – will open all protected areas to major development projects with almost no restrictions. Doğa, the wider civil society and the European Commission have opposed this law and succeeded to withdraw the law from the agenda of Turkey’s Parliament over the past two years. Said this, many protection statuses are already weakened through some other regulations and via practical interventions of government authorities. Turkey is by far one of the weakest countries on earth in terms of its nature conservation record over the past seven years, passing through a major biodiversity crisis.
Recent studies in Turkey show that KBAs managed by local communities by using traditional landscape management techniques have more favorable conservation status compared to sites influenced by central policies. Furthermore, community based KBA management is a lot more cost-effective than traditional park management.