With the final scoops of earth shoveled away, the last ties are severed between a lake island and the mainland, breaking new ground in the struggle to protect wildlife along the border between Turkey and Armenia.
The group of men and women gathered here are members of the Kuzey Doğa Society, a non-governmental organization that has been working to preserve habitats of birds living on Kuyucuk Lake in northeastern Kars province near the border. As political negotiations continue on the reopening of the border, experts agree many steps remain before the area’s wildlife is protected from the anticipated increase in border traffic.
"Today, it sounds like Turkey is backing away from the Armenian border, which is unfortunate from a peace-movement perspective, but from our selfish Kuyucuk perspective, it might help us," said Sean Anderson, a restoration ecologist and an assistant professor at the California State University at Channel Islands who has been coming to the area twice a year for the past three years to work on the Kuyucuk Project. "It might give us a few more years to put things in order before the road is heavily traveled, so that would be good."
Dr. Çağan Şekercioğlu, a senior research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, and the president of Kuzey Doga, agrees. "The opening of the border is a political decision," he said. "However, as nature conservationists, we are trying to save the [Kuyucuk] lake as much as possible before the border opens."
Şekercioğlu explained that an old dirt road used to run from the town of Akyaka on the Armenian border to the area that was recently turned into an island.
"It used to disturb the ecology of the lake by running through it," he said.
"We took away 50 meters from each side of the road to create the island," which is intended as a safe haven for birds.
The project is a collaboration between Kuzey Doğa, the Kars Governor’s Office, the Kars Environment and Forestry Municipal Directorate, the Kars Special Provincial Administration and the people of Kuyucuk village. Biologist Emrah Çoban, the science coordinator for Kuzey Doğa, said the organization has received a lot of help and support from Kars Governor Mehmet Ufuk Erden. "Erden prefers to work with experts. He is very idealistic," said Çoban.
Overgrazing disturbs bird
The new island sanctuary will protect rare birds in the region, Şekercioğlu said. "For example, there are nine or 10 white-headed ducks in Kuyucuk. They belong to an endangered species; their numbers are few in the world," he said.
"They live in smaller, marshy places. The fact that it is an island means it is a place where birds can grow and take shelter."
The idea for the island has been discussed for more than a year, said Anderson, who calls it "the first actual ecological restoration in eastern Turkey." According to Anderson, there was "massive overgrazing" in the area that the affected bird habitat. "The north part was cut off from the main lake, making it easy for it to go stagnant," he said.
"Making it into an island improves the water quality of the lake." The island location will also keep predators away from the birds’ eggs, Anderson said: "It is unlikely a fox or a cat would swim to the island."
Growing traffic problem
The dirt road that ran to Akyaka through Kuyucuk was replaced some time ago with a larger asphalt highway that still cuts Kuyucuk Lake into two. The presence of this asphalt road, Şekercioğlu says, threatens the rare migratory birds that stop off at the lake in certain seasons, as well as the birds that have chosen it as their year-round home.
"The traffic will increase with the opening of the border," Şekercioğlu said. "Cars crash into birds; gasoline or motor oil that leaks from cars flows into the lake with the first rain. This becomes a bigger problem when there are more cars."
In a survey about road kill that he conducted in the United States, Anderson found that in areas with moderate traffic, collisions with cars were the No. 1 cause of death for wildlife. Traffic also impacts the environment negatively by creating pollution. "Every time you brake, some copper is released from your brakes to the road," Anderson said.
"The first rain rinses that into the lake. And the nitrogen oxide from exhaust gas acts like nitrogen fertilizer, causing weeds to grow near the road."
The American scientist said, "If we manage it right, more traffic brings the opportunity to educate more people, but if it is not done right, it will mean more plastic bags and more ripped truck tires left alongside the road."
On the positive side, Anderson said, the Kuyucuk locals are not interested in hunting birds Ğ but the new people an open border would bring might be. "I am not saying they will, but I have seen that happen many, many times," he said.
Asked if the road to Akyaka could pass further from the lake, Şekercioğlu said: "The road may pass two or three kilometers farther north. There are a number of dirt roads to the north that could be paved; they lead to the same destination."
A lack of data has prevented scientists from determining just how much the increased traffic would affect wildlife in the lake. "No research was made for the longest time. We did the first bird count on Kuyucuk Lake on Sept. 24, 2004," said Şekercioğlu. "At that time, there were around 40,000 birds. The very next year, their number had gone down to less than 10,000."
Since there is no data from before 2004, Şekercioğlu said, scientists cannot be sure whether the high number seen that year was due to a record number of migrating birds, or whether there has been a drop in the region’s bird population.
In addition to increased traffic, opening the border could bring more development to the region, including around the lake, Şekercioğlu said. The lake is on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, designating it as an area that needs to be preserved.
But the Ramsar Area Status does not include any enforcement; responsibility to protect the area rests with the government. "It is under conservation status for being a wetland," Şekercioğlu said. "What is important is that the conservation status continues." The island also received Wildlife Development Area status from the Turkish government on Sept. 7, 2005.
What makes Kuyucuk such a rare gem is that eastern Anatolia is located on the major migratory routes of birds from around the world. "We have been banding birds since 2005, and we found out that a duck that was banded in Kars in 2007 was killed by a French hunter in Kazakhstan in 2008," Şekercioğlu said. "So these birds deal with many problems around the world.
That is why it is important to provide them with a sanctuary in Kuyucuk."Another species that will be negatively affected by the opening of the Armenia-Turkey border is the endangered Egyptian vulture.
The Kuzey Doğa team has realized that these rare birds have made their home in the 88-kilometer-long Arpaçay Canyon. "It is a military zone and people cannot access it," said Şekercioğlu.
"So it is a well-preserved area." Anderson said similar situations have occurred in California where wildlife flourishes in a military zone.
But as is the case with the birds in Kuyucuk, there is no data available about the number of vultures living in the area during the earlier period when the border was open.
"However, common sense and the precautionary principle dictate that as a place becomes more populated, the number of vultures living in the area will decrease," Şekercioğlu said. "They are very sensitive to disturbances. They abandon their nests, never to return, if people approach closer than 100 meters. We need to think about the worst-case scenario because [the vultures] are globally endangered."