Conservation of vultures will improve nature tourism in Iğdır
KuzeyDoğa Society inaugurated the first Vulture Restaurant of Turkey in the Iğdır City Green Zone Forest, in cooperation with Turkey’s Directorate of Nature Conservation and National Parks (DKMP) and Iğdır Environment and Forestry Directorate. The directorate staff leaves butcher leftovers, roadkill and animal carcasses at the selected area, distant from settlements and near the restricted-access Aras and Arpaçay Canyons where vultures breed. The carcasses are left at irregular intervals, to mimic the random availability of carcasses vultures experience in nature. Many vulture species worldwide are threatened with extinction, often due to dying from feeding on carcasses of drugged or poisoned animals. Under the supervision of the DKMP, the vulture restaurant will be an important, chemical-free food resource for the vultures threatened with of extinction and attract nature tourists who will witness up-close the amazing spectacle of Turkey’s four vulture species feeding on carcasses.
We timed the inauguration of Turkey’s first Vulture Restaurant to coincide with our Kars-Iğdır Nature Festival and the 2009 World Birdwatching Day, which created a major surprise and excitement for the ecotourists and birdwatchers who visited the Iğdır Forest during the festival. Breeding in Arpaçay and Aras canyons, the Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus), a globally Endangered species in peril of extinction, and two migratory steppe eagles (Aquila nipalensis) feeding on the discarded carcasses excited the birdwatchers. The İZ TV team making a documentary of KuzeyDoğa’s conservation work filmed the inauguration of the vulture restaurant.
Yaşar Türkleş, DKMP Wildlife Department Director and Cemal Akcan, DKMP Wildlife Management Branch Director visited the vulture restaurant in the company of Taner Tazegün, head of the Iğdır Environment and Forest Directorate. They were pleased with the realization of such an important first for Turkey’s wildlife and stated that the needed government support would be made available.
The valleys of Aras and Arpaçay that accommodate a large number of Turkey’s all four vulture species (egyptian, bearded, griffon and black vultures) are ideal for establishing Turkey’s first vulture restaurant, a concept that has been operative in many countries such as South Africa and Mexico for years. A secret hide will be constructed for the ecotourists who will visit the area to marvel at and photograph the vultures and other predators attracted by the carcasses left, observing a spectacle of feeding vultures similar to the documentaries filmed in Africa. Ironically, nature tours from Turkey that visit the Bulgarian vulture restaurant provide Bulgaria with foreign currency. However, the Eastern Anatolia region hosts a greater number of vultures and nature tourism can be an important source of income for local communities in Eastern Anatolia. We have been monitoring Turkey’s four vulture species in this region and have recorded up to 66 vultures of 3 species simultaneously at the Tuzluca garbage dump in Iğdır. It is necessary in Iğdır to establish a Vulture Restaurant and to introduce this area to wildlife photographers. Even better, this is the first vulture restaurant with the view of the Mt. Ağrı (5137 m) in the world.
KuzeyDoğa Society conducted a vulture restaurant pilot project since 2008. We have monitored the carcasses we left on the banks of the Aras River, Tekealtı Mountain and Tuzluca garbage dump and these carcasses were quickly consumed by vultures. Iğdır is an ideal spot for the first vulture restaurant in Turkey. Such an initiative will make our province an important nature tourism center, which will contribute to the local economy, and will demonstrate Turkey’s nature conservation sensitivity in taking care of vultures threatened with extinction. With Mr. Taner Tazegün, head of the Iğdır Environment and Forest City Directorate, we chose an area within the Iğdır Green Zone City Forest that is ideal for the vulture restaurant. We hope that the vultures will get used to it rapidly. Once the birdwatching hide is constructed at the vulture restaurant, all nature enthusiasts, and especially the people of Iğdır, will be able to observe the vultures closely in this area.
Vultures are nature’s scavengers and they provide critical ecological services, but vulture species are threatened throughout the world. Some veterinary medications cause kidney collapse in vultures that feed on the carcasses of the animals on which the medications are used. For example, vulture populations in India declined 20-100 times since early 1990s due to poisoning from veterinary medications. Because KuzeyDoğa is apprehensive about experiencing the same crisis in Turkey, the vulture restaurant provides the vultures with a source of food that is free from chemicals. Because lead poisons vultures, we are also lobbying for the use of copper bullets in the region. Lead has toxic effects on both people and animals, which has led some countries to ban lead bullets in hunting. Using copper bullets is also important for human health because game meat, regardless of how thoroughly cleaned, has been shown to contain residual lead. Even fragments that are impossible to see can be toxic for people, especially children.
Vultures are at the top of the food chain and have an important ecological function. They reduce the spread of harmful bacteria and microorganisms to the environment, by rapidly consuming decomposing organisms. Vultures can cover 400-500 kilometers daily in search of carcasses. They generally glide making use of their large wingspan (up to 3 meters) and thermals of heated air and thus do not consume much energy. The most striking example of what would happen if vultures went extinct comes from India. Diclofenac, a painkiller used in the treatment of cattle (and people) in India, causes the collapse of the kidneys of vultures that feed such cattle carcasses with Diclofenac. This has resulted in a 95 % to 99 % decline in the populations of the three most common vulture species in India. As a result, carcasses started decomposing for a longer period, and the number of stray dogs that feed on carcasses increased by 20 in some areas. Majority of the world fatalities from rabies happen in India and many stray dogs carry rabies. It has been estimated that the extinction of the vultures in India has led to 50,000 additional deaths from rabies until up to 2006. In addition, the extinction of vultures has inflicted a spiritual crisis on the Zarathustran sect of Parsis, who leave their dead to the vultures. Now, there are no vultures to consume the Parsi dead, and the Parsi does not know what to do. Presently, there are vulture restaurants in India and Nepal for providing these scavengers with chemical free food, obtained from butchers and villagers. These restaurants also attract nature tourists.
Because our preliminary investigation has shown that Diclofenac is being produced in Turkey and is now being used for veterinary purposes as well, and because many vultures feed on the carcasses of hunted wild boars that are not consumed by the large majority of the Turkish population due to religious reasons, KuzeyDoğa decided to proactively provide a clean food source for vultures before their numbers started declining like in other places. In addition, as animal husbandry becomes less traditional in Turkey, as more animals are kept indoors, as open garbage dumps are closed, and as slaughterhouses become modernized, many traditional food sources for vultures are disappearing. In fact, the European Union recently reversed its ban to leave animal carcasses outside. This ban resulted in the loss of a critical vulture food resource and now, once again animal carcasses in Europe are left outside to provide food for declining vultures.
Even though our primary motivation in creating the vulture restaurant is vulture conservation, birdwatchers, nature photographers, and nature lovers who visit these restaurants contribute to the local economy via nature tourism. Local people in countries like Bulgaria, Mexico, South Africa, Nepal and Spain earn income from vulture restaurants and we hope that the presence of the vulture restaurant will attract nature tourists to Iğdır.