The UN, Turkish officials and local villagers have joined forces in southeastern Turkey’s Şanlıurfa province to combat poachers targeting an endangered species of gazelle.
The Arabian sand gazelle, or gazella marica, is native to parts of the Middle East and southern Turkey. The elegant creatures with curved horns – that in males can grow up to 42cm long – are particularly sought after as pets. Although it is legal to sell the young gazelles within a managed, official scheme, conservationists say that illegal hunters snatching babies from their mothers endanger both the individual animal’s health and the species as a whole.
“Gazelles facing extinction in Urfa are being ruthlessly stolen,” said Nihan Yenilmez Arpa, director of a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) project on the sustainable management of moor ecosystems in Turkey. Arpa said that the babies were in demand as fashionable pets to be kept in people’s gardens in large cities.
“Villagers and volunteers help our teams. Baby gazelles can easily survive with their mothers. They belong on the moors, not in people’s gardens,” Arpa said.
The UN is working with the Turkish agriculture and forestry ministry to run a breeding program for the gazelles in the 75th Year Ceylan Breeding Station in Şanlıurfa. There, the animals are made to breed annually during their nine to 12 year lifetime. The breeding station currently hosts around 250 gazelles.
“The baby gazelles are stolen from among those let into the wild at Kızılkuyu wildlife expansion field,” explained Şükrü Gürler, a professor at Harran University veterinary school. “This is an area that includes four or five villages and spans 15,000 hectares. Of course there’s security in the area, but the thieves come at night with bright lights and snatch the babies who haven’t yet learned how to run.”
The project aims to return the endangered gazelles back to the wild, which will hopefully help restore a self-sustaining population in nature. Gürler thinks that the project is a success, all things considered.
“However, despite all our protection efforts, we can’t prevent babies from being torn from their mothers, this field, or even from life itself,” Gürler said. “A group of people who have turned gazelle theft into a lifestyle and who have become rather successful at it, arrive on the lot each year after the mothers give birth and steal these baby gazelles.”
Hacı Ahmet Çiçek, a regional director of Turkey’s Natural Protection and National Parks service said, “The moors of Urfa are the gazelles’ natural habitat, and the Kızılkuyu Wildlife Expansion Field is their last resort for shelter.”
The species often give birth in April and May, said Ziya Atcı, an employee of the National Parks service.
“When a baby gazelle is stolen, the mother is stressed out. Then, she’s unable to feed her remaining babies who eventually die,” Atcı said. “I love my job and volunteering is a huge part of that. We run 3 am patrols when we have to, just so that our gazelles are safe.”
“We try to protect the area with three teams of ten to 15 people,” added Mehmet Gürkaynak, Şanlıurfa chair of the Natural Protection and National Parks. “We issue large fines to anyone we find selling baby gazelles they stole.”
Theft of baby gazelles is only one among a long list of reasons why the species is endangered, with the expansion of urban areas, the conversion of moorland into farmland and the increase in mining activities all additional contributing factors.
For those who want to buy a young gazelle legally, the only route is via the Ceylanpınar Agricultural Management Directorate (TIGEM). Private customers must be officially approved as buyers, according to Gökhan Tükenmez, a vet and a director at TIGEM. He told Inside Turkey that Urfa’s gazelles are adept at adjusting to the extremely hot climate in the area, and are more easily frightened than other related species.
“Our real motive in selling them is to encourage a love of gazelles among the public, as well as to help spread their population in the country,” Tükenmez said, adding that sales take place every year in September and October.
“We collect requests via written petition during the year, and make a priority list of buyers. The sales are done after the animal is captured with special contraptions designed to not scare them. They are placed in special crates with their eyes closed and they are handed over to the buyers. But we don’t track them after the sales,” Tükenmez noted.
Atlantis Private Education, a special needs school that brings children into contact with animals, has bought gazelles in the past. Mehmet Ali Kaşka, one of the school’s founders, told Inside Turkey that the project was the first of its kind in the world.
“We set up our education institution in nature. We want to use animals to help with the growth of special needs children,” Kaşka said. “We’ve noticed incredible changes in our kids who engage with the animals. We are getting more diversity among the animals every day, and it touches the kids.”
The school bought a gazelle after positive feedback from families who sent their children to the school.
“We want to help the kids adapt to life. We want them to be in close contact with the gazelles, hand feeding them. This will increase their attention span and make their schooling easier, we hope,” Kaşka said.