Çağan Şekercioğlu grew up in the suburbs of Istanbul completely obsessed by animals and whose first lesson in conservation left him devastated, when the wetlands where he played as a small child were built upon in his early teens. It was this early experience that would shape his life’s work and whose many achievements since then to safeguard Turkey’s threatened wildlife habitats have been inspired by an innate desire to save them from suffering the same fate as the wetland of his childhood recollections.
Turkey is the only country covered almost entirely by three of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots: the Caucasus, Irano-Anatolian, and Mediterranean, yet it also faces one of the worst environmental crises in its history, threatened by new development projects, such as the construction of dams and highways, especially as a result of the opening up of the borders with neighbouring Georgia and Armenia. Turkey‘s rank in the Yale Environmental Performance Index dropped from 49th to 109th since 2006. It ranks 121st out of 132 countries in Biodiversity and Habitat Conservation.
Against this backdrop, Turkish conservationist professor Çağan Şekercioğlu, 37, initiated the Kars Biodiversity Project in 2003. Under the umbrella of the NGO that he founded in 2007, Kuzeydoga Society, Çağan played a key role in gaining international Ramsar recognition for Lake Kuyucuk – home to over 40,000 birds of 227 species, a key habitat for globally Endangered White-headed Duck and Egyptian Vulture and a mecca for international birdwatchers. He also succeeded in getting Turkey’s first bird nesting island built on the lake.
Winning a first Whitley Award in 2008, his unique holistic approach, aims to protect wetland ecosystems whilst bringing real benefits to local people. Tackling issues including illegal hunting and poaching and overgrazing by livestock, this community-based conservation approach combines biodiversity monitoring, raising awareness in the media, as well as through environmental education programmes for schools and young people and promoting wildlife and nature tourism initiatives to support the local economy.
After three years of persistent lobbying backed by camera trapping, wolf satellite-tracking and other scientific data collected for the first time in Turkey, Şekercioğlu convinced the government in December 2011 to create Turkey’s First Wildlife Corridor and a lifelong dream became reality through one man’s perseverance against huge challenges.
The largest active conservation project in Turkey will see 4.5 million native tree species being planted, reforesting approximately 2500 hectares to connect the Sarıkamış-Allahuekber National Park and other forest fragments to the extensive forests along the Black Sea coast and the Caucasus mountains in neighbouring Georgia . The corridor will create a new protected area of 28,543 hectares, larger than 70% of Turkey’s 41 existing national parks The wildlife corridor will achieve landscape-scale conservation objectives, connecting fragmented patches of forest through reforestation; preventing soil erosion; and increasing the safe movement of large carnivores (wolf, brown bear and Caucasian lynx), thereby ensuring the long-term habitat connectivity and viability of their populations.
In the same year as being nominated as one of National Geographic Magazine’s Risk Takers, Çağan Şekercioğlu receives the 20th Anniversary Whitley Gold Award, which recognises outstanding members of WFN’s winner alumni network and is awarded to an individual who since winning their initial Whitley Award have made a significant contribution to conservation. Joining the Judging Panel to assist in the selection process, the Gold winner also acts as mentor to Whitley Award winners receiving their Awards in the same year. Turkey’s first Whitley Award winner, Çağan Şekercioğlu also becomes the first conservationist in world to win two Whitley Gold Awards.
Never one to rest on such laurels, Çağan Şekercioğlu has his next mission in sight: to halt the construction of the Tuzluca Dam that will destroy the Aras Valley Bird Paradise Prof. Şekercioğlu discovered and studied since 2006. One of the world’s most important wetlands, home to most of Turkey’s 470 bird species, and over 100 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, this important ecotourism center’s best chance for survival is Çağan Şekercioğlu and his dedicated team.