Europe and Central Asia
11 Nov 2015

What makes birdwatchers want to monitor species in an ISIS warzone?

BirdLife in Turkey's Sociable Lapwing monitoring team. Photo: Burak Özkırlı/Doğa Derneği
By Burak Özkırlı

Ceylanpınar, located in the Urfa (or Şanlıurfa) province of Turkey, is next to the Syrian border. As a result, it has felt the effects of the ongoing civil war in Syria and skirmishes between the YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units) and ISIS.

The Key Biodiversity Area-turned-conflict zone. Photo: Burak Özkırlı/Doğa Derneği

The region, which contains one of the single largest pieces of farmland in the world, is also a Key Biodiversity Area monitored by Doğa Derneği (BirdLife in Turkey) staff and volunteers. It is the home of the Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius), one of the most threatened bird species in the world (listed as Critically Endangered on the updated IUCN Red List of Birds, an assessment of bird species carried out by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species).

The Sociable Lapwing is a strikingly-patterned plover that breeds in parts of Turkey, Egypt, the Middle East, Russia and the former Soviet Union, and spends its winters mainly in Israel, Eritrea, Sudan and north-west India. In northern Kazakhstan, the species declined by 40% during 1930-1960, followed by a further halving of numbers during 1960-1987. Today, there are only 5,600 breeding pairs left in the world. Their decline is likely due to habitat degradation, as well as the pressures of hunting and illegal killing along its migration route and breeding grounds. 

BirdLife partners RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), ACBK (BirdLife in Kazakhstan), Doğa Derneği and others have been working since 2005 to research the causes of the species' population decline (using satellite transmitters to track the birds), and a species recovery plan was put in place in 2009. Read more on BirdLife's work to protect the Sociable Lapwing here.

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The Sociable Lapwing is Critically Endangered, according to the IUCN Red List. Photo: Subramanya CC

“Sociable Lapwing flocks rest and feed in rain-fed arable fields. They stop over for some time, then they leave for further south. The small rain-fed parcels are extremely important as irrigated cultivations have covered a majority of the landscape in recent years. Therefore, the bird flocks tend to congregate in these small areas,” says Turan Çetin, the steppes officer of Doğa.

“Even a single individual means hope for the team in the area and the viability of the species’ population.”

Doğa’s 10-people Sociable Lapwing monitoring team visited the area to survey it in early October 2015, well aware of the dangers of travelling in 4x4 vehicles with binoculars and optical equipment to a place 30 km from the Syrian border.

The team’s immediate goal is to stop illegal killing and taking in the area, while they continue to lobby for preventing the shrinkage of rain-fed agricultural lands. Since in Ceylanpınar, reaching the local communities is more important than ever to save the Sociable Lapwing, the team has been contacting hunters and shepherds and holding regular meetings with them and locally recognised conservationists to inform them about the species.

As a result, many hunters can now successfully identify Sociable Lapwing so that they don’t shoot them, some have exchanged their rifles for cameras and at least one is now a member of the Sociable Lapwing team.

The team says it is still eager to continue the monitoring of the birds in the region. If the loss of the bond between people and nature is one of the drivers behind the extinction of biodiversity, this example shows that the relationship between people and nature is deep, and each time it is revived, it saves the life of at least one plant, bird or animal in some part of the world. 


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.