Environment teams: Trapping the poachers
by Süha UMAR (*)
Some 70% of Europes mammals, birds and plants can be found in Turkey. But conservation has not always been the countrys strong point. A number of the countrys diplomats are among those actively struggling to protect the rich natural heritage. One of these is Foreign Ministry Director General of Bilateral Political Relations Süha Umar. Here he explains the efforts which the fourteen year-old Game and Wildlife Conservation, Development and Promotion Foundation of Turkey has been making in conjunction with the Gendarmerie to counter illegal hunting and fishing.
Back in 1999 we were desperate. The populations of bears, deer, rabbits, wildcats and many other species were diminishing rapidly. Poaching and illegal fishing were widespread, and neither the then Ministry of Forestry nor the Ministry of Agriculture and Village Affairs were willing to do their duty and stop it. For all its valiant efforts, the Game and Wildlife Conservation, Development and Promotion Foundation of Turkey was unable to counter the threat alone. So we decided to talk to General Rasim Betir, Commander in Chief of the Gendarmerie.
General Betir was quick to grasp the situation and instructed two close aides to do everything to help us. Jointly, we launched a large-scale campaign against illegal fishing and hunting. First results were encouraging but these early achievements still needed to be consolidated. The next step was to be taken, in response to our discreet prodding, by another Gendarmerie Commander-in-Chief, General M. Şener Eruygur.
Imagine my excitement when I received the following message from friend and close collaborator Staff Colonel Metin Coşkun in 2002: Keep it to yourself for the time being... but we will soon be setting up Gendarmerie Environment Protection Teams and Nature Conservation Units. These will be solely responsible for nature conservation and the prevention of poaching and illegal fishing.
The decision filled an important vacuum for specialized units. The next job was to train them. The first field training exercise took place in the mountains around Çatak, in Van, in October 2002. Within two days, around 40 poachers and five illegal fishermen were apprehended and brought to justice. Among them were members of the Police Special Forces.
Since then the Foundation has field-trained about 40 teams from Van and Bitlis in the East to Çanakkale and Tekirdağ in the West. The teams are taken to areas where illegal activity is most likely to take place - mountains, stubble fields, forests, lakes and river banks - and shown where to look and what to look for. They learn how poaching and illegal fishing are conducted, and how to identify the equipment used. Foundation members take part on an entirely voluntary basis, and generally contribute out of their own pockets to the work of the Foundation.
As if by magic, the success rate of the Gendarmerie increased more than tenfold. This spectacular success has had a major deterrent effect. Within the space of 2-3 years, the number of illegal hunters has decreased by more than 80% and illegal fishing in inland waters has become a very risky business. Meanwhile, surveys and anecdotal evidence indicate that the numbers of most hunted game species have begun to rise again. We can be quite sure about this, since we have a colleague or contact in almost every village in the country.
The training programme continues. During a recent field training activity in Zonguldak, Foundation members shared their knowledge and experience of the precious trout creeks and rivers of the western Black Sea region. Gendarmerie Environment Protection teams from Bolu, Düzce, Bartın and Karabük also took part. Among those caught red-handed: not only illegal trout fishermen, but also accomplices from the local Forest Department, whose job it is to protect those very streams!
Hunting and fishing are governed by law and subject to licence. Restrictions are announced each year by the Central Hunting Committee with respect to the species to be hunted, the locations and seasons in which hunting is permitted, the instruments that may be used and the numbers of animals that may be taken.
Nowadays, those contravening the rules are increasingly encountering an unfamiliar driver in an unmarked vehicle, or another fisherman or hunter whom they have never seen before. Trouble is coming their way, for it is almost certainly a disguised gendarmerie officer, accompanied by a member of the Game and Wildlife Foundation, who both happen to be experts on poaching and who have been trained to make a clean catch.
(*) Ambassador Süha Umar is a member of the Board of Governors of the Game and Wildlife Conservation, Development and Promotion Foundation of Turkey.
(DIPLOMAT - June 2005 - Ankara)