Eastern Anatolian Wetland Restoration


Funding: CSUCI, The Christensen Fund, Whitley Fund for Nature, Stanford University, United Nations, Kars Municipality

Collaborators: Stanford University, Kafkas University, Kars-Igdir Biodiversity Project, Kuyucuk Village, University of Utah

Restoring Wetlands to Promote Biodiversity and Sustainable Ecotourism in the Turkey’s Eastern Borderlands


Environmental degradation is a common byproduct of many modern activities of our society.  Unfortunately the true consequences of this deterioration often go unrealized as most degradation occurs over large spatial and temporal scales.  We rarely have a pristine resource or biological community adjacent to our degraded one (which might signal to us the true change from a pre-disturbance state and stimulate altered management of these resources).  Lacking such comparisons or “yardsticks,” existing levels of resource degradation come to erroneously be seen as normal, the way things have always been, or even desirous.  The insidious nature of this so-called “shifting baseline” problem leaves us ignorant of our true impacts (“I always remember it this way”) or as a feeling of powerlessness to improve the condition our natural resources (“we can’t change it”).  We seek to improve the ecological functioning of wetland communities as the first step towards educating and empowering the peoples of eastern Turkey.  After several years of work, we are beginning to see the first signs that healthier wetlands are boosting ecological functioning, translating into healthier places to live and work, and increasing local village income via ecotourism.

Wetland Loss:

Wetland communities have systematically been targeted for elimination across the globe for millennia.  While quantification of most of the world is lacking, detailed examinations of several regions (western Europe, North America, Australia, parts of South America, parts of Africa, parts of Asia) suggest less than half our planet’s historic wetlands (pre-1800) remain, with many densely populated areas such as the American state of California retaining less than 10% of their historic wetland extent.  Traditionally seen as areas of little value or even dangerous areas harboring disease, wetlands have been actively and passively degraded.  As the tremendous reduction in wetland quantity and quality has come to be appreciated in recent decades, a new view of these partly terrestrial, partly aquatic areas has emerged.  They are increasingly seen as relatively rare and valuable communities.  Wetlands are now understood to be among the most productive areas of our planet, provide habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals, and provide valuable ecosystem services such as water purification and erosion control.

No large-scale regional assessment of historic or current wetland extent and health exists for Turkey.  Turkish ratification of the Ramsar Treaty (1994) has stimulated interest the BirdLife Interational consortium’s Important Bird Areas (often associated with wetlands and inland waterbodies).  The European Union’s MedWet initiative next spurred recent examination of some coastal estuaries.  As encouraging as these first steps are, there nevertheless remains a lack of interest and capacity to document existing or historic wetland resources at anything approaching a regional (i.e. eastern Anatolia) scale.  What little data does exist suggest a massive degradation of most biological communities throughout Turkey in favor or infrastructure (e.g. dams and reservoirs), expansive logging, and conversion to agricultural landscapes.  While some Turks are aware of their country’s massive soil erosion problem, few have any idea that the loss of wetland and riparian buffers would mitigate some of the most detrimental consequences of this erosion on streams, lakes, and other water bodies.

Restoration Research

Restoration Overview:

We are engaged in a phased approach to wetland restoration in eastern Anatolia.  Our first phase (begun in 2007) lasted two years and helped us document the existing level of degradation of a subset of regional wetlands.  This phase will included wetland mapping, water quality assessment, assembling species lists, and documenting existing activities in and around these communities.

Our second phase (begun in 2009) focuses on small-scale wetland restoration experiments lasting approximately three years.  Many experiments were suggested from our baseline site descriptions.  However they also drove home the massive problem from simple overgrazing.  The core of our Phase II experiments are built around livestock exclusures that fringe Lake Kuyucuk.  These cages are helping us quantify the impacts of unrestricted access to these areas by cattle and sheep, waterfowl response to increased vegetation height and complexity, insect productivity, and amphibian populations.

Our third phase will be the actual restoration phase itself.  Here we propose to restore two or more wetlands in Kars Province (Kafkas University Wetland and Kuyucuk Lake Wetland).  Key to this phase will be the simultaneous monitoring of several reference wetlands.  Replication of restoration treatments (at both the wetland and sub-wetland levels) and the testing of hypotheses are at the core of our restoration approach.  Comparisons to both pre-restoration and reference sites will allow us to objectively measure the amount of improvement of our restored wetlands and allow us to quantify the degree of system recovery.  This is not the typical (unreplicated, poorly monitored) approach to restoration.

While the following list has already been modified several times over by the realities of working in a developing nation, our restoration efforts primarily focus on improving hydrology and vegetation:

1) Reduce Overgrazing:

Large mammalian grazers have been an integral part of eastern Anatolian ecosystems for millennia.  Indeed, large herds of grazers have inhabited most grassland areas of our planet since glacial retreat.  In recent years, however we have come to realize high density, unlimited grazers access to all areas of such steppe landscapes is not optimal.  Grazer access to riparian corridors and wetlands leads to degraded river and water bodies.  Every wetland we have visited to date (several dozen) in eastern Anatolia show extensive signs of overgrazing.  Overgrazing, bank erosion, soil compaction, and excessive nutrient loading from animal waste are the greatest threats to these areas when large grazers are given unlimited access.  Typically these impacts are greatest in the dry summer months when livestock water needs (and therefore time spent in and around rivers and wetlands) increase, plant cover is scarce, and water levels are reduced.

We generally exclude grazers from the immediate vicinity (5-10m from water’s edge) of our focal wetlands and document the responses of water quality, sediment loading, soil compaction, vegetation diversity and abundance, invertebrate productivity, small vertebrate abundance, and bird visitation and use.  In the long term this may also require providing livestock watering troughs outside the wetland zone.  For larger systems (such as Lake Kuyucuk) we need to assure adequate gaps in fencing to allow for livestock access to water.

2) Reduce Reed Harvesting:

The cutting of large reeds (Phragmites sp.) for use in basketry and for roofing for grain storage piles/silos is extensive throughout eastern Anatolia.  We initially offered local farmers alternatives to reduce their harvesting of reeds in later summer.  Plastic tarping was thought to be a more attractive, durable, and efficacious alternative for protecting harvested grain.  We also explored designating some focal areas as “reed collection areas” and other areas as non-collection regions to allow villagers access to building supplies while simultaneously boosting the structural complexity of at least a subset of a wetland’s fringing vegetation.  While both of these approaches theoretically equate to protected area management, we had problems with both.  Suffice it to say we are well aware of the numerous pitfalls associated with such management efforts.  Ultimately this takes active paid guards (and even this is tenuous at best) to patrol areas where villagers have agreed to not harvest reeds.  We have met with only limited success, but taller stature vegetation does indeed boost all aspects of wetland functioning.

3) Species Planting:

Most residents of Anatolia view these steppe landscapes as treeless and shrubless plains.  While much of this landscape has undoubtedly been grass-dominated for millennia, it is highly unlikely that this region was historically so depauperate in larger-stature woody and bunch grass species.  Indeed, it is our experience from restoration efforts in North and South American that much essential ecological functioning cannot be fully recovered with grazer reductions alone.  We therefore propose to propagate and plant a mix of extirpated or locally rare species (Juniperus excelsa, Juniperus foetidissima, Picea orientalis, Picea sylvestris, Acer nordmanniana, Quercus spp.) into the immediate vicinity of these wetlands.  Plantings should further boost the structural and compositional diversity associated with the reduction of overgrazing.

4) Lost Island Restoration:

In the Spring of 2009, a series of events conspired to afford us the opportunity of remove several sections of a roadway that had been built across the northern section of Lake Kuyucuk (see map above).  In effect we were given the chance to sever this ends of this road and create a de facto island in the middle of the Lake.  In so doing we created the first island restoration in Turkey and (from what we can tell) the first such project in this region of the planet.  The restoration of our so-called Lost Island included reducing bank slope, planting three deciduous tree species at different elevations on the island, and excavating sediment around the shallow water perimeter to prevent access by terrestrial predators in all but the lowest of low water years.  This produced a bird nesting refuge within Lake Kuyucuk that is unparalleled in eastern Anatolian wetlands or lakes. We have seen increasing signs of bird use and breeding success each season post-restoration.

Awards to Date

2008 Whitley Gold Award for International Conservation

2009 Lake Kuyucuk designated Ramsar Wetland of Int’l Importance

2009 European Union EDEN Award for Sustainable Tourism