On the wildlife trail...

With two different climates in the north and south, Bolu province in central Turkey is rich in natural life with pristine forests, indigenous plant species and numerous wild animals.

The forest was so quiet that I could hear the sound of a snowflake falling on a dry oak leaf. Hidden in a hollow under a giant beech tree, I had been observing the hill of green brush opposite me for close to two hours. The current of air through the valley wafted my scent away in other directions where no animals would get wind of it. My camouflage outfit kept me from being seen from a distance and I wasn’t making a peep. And yet there was still nothing stirring. I was beginning to get quite cold. As if that weren’t enough, I was also starting to feel sleepy and could have drifted off any minute right where I was sitting, which would of course mean certain death. The place I was observing was teeming with greenery of all kinds, of the sort that stags and roe deer love to eat. But where were the animals? No doubt they were feeding at one of the many similar sites in the vicinity. And they wouldn’t change places either as long as no beasts of prey bothered them. To keep from falling asleep, I decided to have a look around the forest and check out the probable places where animals might be. The 35 cm-thick blanket of snow didn’t impede my walking but it did muffle the sound I made when I stepped on the twigs concealed under it. What’s more, I would be able to reach the animals by following their fresh tracks in the snow. Sure enough, just 100 meters ahead I spotted a wild boar rooting around under the snow. It was a male, its body too covered in snow. The males range separately from the herd in this season. Although I wandered until evening that day, I didn’t encounter a single stag or roe deer. The next day I met my guide, Dursun Dikmen, employed, like me, by the Ministry of Forestry and Environment. He had worked as a wildlife ranger here for years. Together we went to another valley in the Yedigöller National Park, and this time we were blessed with success. We watched a herd of five stags for 45 minutes while the female, lying down, observed the proceedings from a slight elevation. The others were feeding on leaves and the buds at the tips of the beech tree branches. Eventually noticing us, the herd slowly disappeared from view, and my guide gave a sign saying, “That’s it for today.”

I had the opportunity to see the Bolu Mountains in the north and the Köroğlu Mountains in the south, as well as Bolu Plain, Lake Yeniçağa and Gerede Plain and, further south, Seben and Kıbrıscık from above when I flew over Bolu on a plane trip. In the northern, Black Sea climatic region, mixed forests of conifers and deciduous abound with species of beech, fir, Scotch pine, hornbeam, oak, and black pine, and in the south, with its colder, drier climate, the species of Scotch pine, black pine, juniper and oak that make their home here stretched away as far as the eye could see. Directly below us, between the northern and southern mountain ranges, ran the highway, posing an impassable barrier to the migration of mammals. Such barriers not only obstruct the movement of the animals that use different areas in different seasons, but also prevent their mixing with other groups and thus the transfer of genes.
But stags can live in all the forests of Bolu, and roe deer as well exhibit a distribution in the forests of the north where deciduous trees provide the possibility of food. The lower-altitude Seben and Kıbrıscık region further south has been a natural habitat for wildlife since time immemorial. What’s more, all the forests of Bolu are natural aged forests. Turkey is quite  fortunate in this regard compared with Europe, where almost all the natural forests have been irretrievably lost. For even though half the forests in Anatolia are unproductive and degraded in structure, a large portion of them (80-90%) are either still in their natural state or in such condition that they could be restored to it.
According to Prof. Dr. Adil Güner, there is a total of 1183 grassy and woody plants in Bolu, 88 of them indigenous to the region, in other words, growing nowhere on earth except in Turkey. The Ankara crocus (Crocus ancyrensis), for example, whose natural distribution extends from the Aladağlar Mountains as far as Ankara, and the Crocus abantensis, whose natural distribution is limited to the Abant Mountains, are two such indigenous species.

It was the first week in December. Although the sun had set by the time I reached Lake Yeniçağa, the fog over the lake had not yet lifted. There was frost on the ground but no ice on the lake. I stood for several minutes watching a great-crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) ducking for fish. In the distance ibises were searching for food in the mud in a quiet corner. Later they flew away. As I do every time I go to Yeniçağa and Gerede, I saw many birds of prey perched motionlessly in the trees at the side of the road, eyeing the environs. They live by hunting mice and other rodents on Gerede Plain. Meanwhile my eyes sought in the sky for a black vulture, a species observed in the region albeit rarely. The colony that breeds at Kızılcahamam almost certainly uses this region as a feeding area, the 70 km distance meaning a flight of about an hour for them. Them I would find at Kıbrıscık in the early days of January, wheeling high in the sky in pairs of two. As I experienced the thrill of seeing them, two bearded vultures (Gypaetus barbatus), one of them quite young, suddenly appeared in front of our vehicle. We had  done a field study lasting several days during the making of the ‘Black Vulture’ documentary for Turkish Radio and Television, but had only seen this species a few times. They flew up from 10 meters in front of us and perched some 200 meters further ahead. Taking wing from there they soared into the sky and vanished from sight. All along the road we saw the carcases of boar, hunted and shot continuously by the villagers on the grounds that they do harm to the fields. And I believe it is to those boar that we owe the continued existence of vultures and other carnivores in Turkey.
I wander in the mountains of Kıbrıscık and Seben. Along the road I see villages abandoned by migration. Some of the highlands where dozens of families used to spend the summer are deserted now as well, the abandoned fields having reverted to forest. And the wildlife, once threatened by human activity, is reclaiming its lost habitat. We frequently hear reports of stags coming down into the fields and encounters of humans with bears. Yes, they are coming back. But in my mind’s eye it is the Anatolian leopard that I seek. It too lived here once. A lump rises in my throat... If only it could have lasted another thirty years!
But who knows? Maybe...