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Endangered Gazelles Make a Comeback on the Edge of a War Zone

KIRIKHAN, Turkey — Turkey’s southern border with Syria has become a place of hardship and misery, with tented camps for people displaced by a decade of war on the Syrian side and a concrete wall blocking entrance to Turkey for all but the most determined.

Yet amid the rocky outcrops in one small area on the Turkish side, life is abounding as an endangered species of wild gazelle is recovering its stocks and multiplying.

The mountain gazelle, a dainty antelope with a striped face and spiraling horns, once roamed widely across the Middle East, and as Roman mosaics reveal, across southern Turkey as well. But by the end of the last century, it was hunted almost to extinction, with only a dwindling population of 2,500 left in Israel, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In Turkey, the gazelle was forgotten and thought to no longer exist. The only ones officially recorded were a subspecies, known as goitered gazelles, in Sanliurfa Province in the southeast of the country.

The rediscovery and survival of the mountain gazelle in Turkey has been largely thanks to one man and his love of nature.

Yasar Ergun, a village teacher who became a veterinarian and professor at Hatay Mustafa Kemal University in the city of Antakya, heard in the mid-1990s from an old hunter that there were wild gazelles in the mountains along the border with Syria.

A keen hiker, he set out to try to find them. Barely 25 miles from Antakya — the ancient city of Antioch — Kurdish villagers knew about them and shepherds occasionally saw them. The gazelles live on the rocky hillsides, where their markings and coloring make them almost invisible. But they come down in groups to graze and find water on the surrounding agricultural land.

The professor spotted his first one in 1998 and, after a decade of observing them, estimated that there were about 100 living in the area.

With a small grant for a teaching project, he bought a camera and telephoto lens, which led to a close encounter and a breakthrough discovery.

“It was the mating season,” he recalled. “I ran to the road, and the male ran toward me to defend his females. It was very unusual.”

When he examined the photos, he realized the gazelles differed from those in southeastern Turkey.

“This one was light brown, with some parts white, and the horns were completely different,” he said. He was sure he was looking at the mountain gazelle, but found little interest in his claims in academic circles, he said.

“I sent the photographs around — professors just laughed,” he said.

He drew on the help of Tolga Kankilic, a biologist, who gathered samples of dung, fur and skin from the remains of dead gazelles for genetic testing, and found that the DNA matched that of mountain gazelles.

The discovery presented Mr. Ergun with an altogether more important task: to help the gazelles survive. There were several threats to them — lack of water and habitat especially — but by far the greatest danger was illegal hunting. Hunting is allowed only under license in designated areas in Turkey, but illegal hunting is rife.

The gazelles had disappeared completely from other regions, including Adana, farther west, where American soldiers stationed at Incirlik air base used to hunt them 20 years ago, he said.

“The end of a genetic source is the same as the collapse of Earth,” he said. “Nature needs biodiversity.”

He won a grant from the World Wildlife Fund in Turkey for a grass-roots project with local villagers and bought mountain gear and amateur walkie-talkies for several shepherds, who began monitoring the gazelles. They dug basins in the rock to collect water for the gazelles, though it took the animals months to trust the water source.

With his knowledge of village life, Mr. Ergun began softly, gaining the support of local shepherds, educating children to protect the gazelles and even encouraging a local Kurdish legend of a holy man who lived with the gazelles and milked them.

With the hunters, Mr. Ergun and his helpers adopted an approach of traditional courtesy and respect, drinking tea with them but never mentioning their hunting.

“We never tried to use force to stop them,” he said. “We would say, ‘Hello, we are from the Nature Project.’ Sometimes silence is more powerful than talking.”

The local people were Kurds, a mountain people with their own language and culture — and a history of resistance to the Turkish state.

“If you make an enemy, just one, in 10 years you will have 10 enemies, and in 100 years you will have 1,000,” Mr. Ergun said. But as the shepherds began monitoring the gazelles, the hunters got the message.

Mr. Ergun also needed the cooperation of the Turkish Army, which has a base in the area. The gazelles occupy a narrow strip of territory along the border a few miles wide and less than 20 miles long that is mostly a restricted military zone.

Yet the military restrictions, and the outbreak of war across the border in Syria 10 years ago, helped the gazelles in unexpected ways. Turkey built a cement wall along the border and dismantled an old buffer fence, which opened up more territory for the gazelles and protected them from straying into Syria, where hunting remains a threat.

The project grew, securing government support for a breeding center and sanctuary for orphaned and injured gazelles. The gazelles began to thrive, increasing from about 235 in 2012 to more than 1,100 last year, according to an official count by Turkish government agencies.

In 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey declared a protected area of 50 square miles for the gazelles, and plans for a cement factory and quarries in the area were canceled.

Turkey is enormously rich in flora and fauna, but is industrializing rapidly and lagging in nature conservation, said Sedat Kalem, the conservation director of the World Wildlife Fund Turkey, which gave two small grants to help start the gazelle project. The government did not step in to rescue the gazelles, and it was left to a local initiative, he said.

“But we were happy to be instrumental in this result,” he said. “The locals have done a great job. If everybody can take care of their own environment, that is the key for overall success for protecting biodiversity.”

Not all of the villagers are convinced of the importance of protecting the gazelles.

“It’s actually a pain,” said Nuray Yildirim as she baked flatbread in an outdoor oven in the village of Incirli. “There are too many of them, and they eat the chickpeas and the wheat.”

But others described the gazelles as a blessing, even holy.

“They have been living here since the time of our ancestors,” said Mehmet Hanafi Cayir, a farmer. “The richness they bring will come to our door.”

Mr. Ergun’s attachment is primarily scientific. He said the increase in gazelles had brought wolves and even hyenas back to the region, which reflects a healthy ecosystem.

He also has plans for the future. As the numbers increase, he wants to reintroduce gazelles to other areas of Turkey and beyond.

“The habitat is suitable for these gazelles,” he said.

“Maybe we can reintroduce them in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq,” he added. “They lost them just 30 years ago. The people of the Middle East suffered so much. We should offer them this.”

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The Making of a ‘European Yellowstone’

It was my first visit to Romania’s Southern Carpathian Mountains in 2018, and I was standing beside a derelict sheepfold high above the Dambovita Valley. To the east, the imposing limestone cliffs of Piatra Craiului, or Kings’ Rock, towered overhead. All around me was a panorama of deep valleys, soaring mountains and the ever-present forest.

Beneath a canopy of old-growth trees, an array of animals — wolves, European brown bears, boar, eagles, lynx — were thriving.

Here among the Fagaras Mountains, the highest reaches of the Southern Carpathians, and tucked away in an unlikely corner of the European Union, an immense conservation project was underway. The ultimate aim: the creation of a “European Yellowstone.”

Piatra Craiului National Park, would create a chain of parks and a wide-reaching wildlife reserve.

rewilding initiatives began to gain global momentum, Romania stood out to me as a remarkable example.

While many countries were working to replace what they had once lost, Romania, in many ways, was battling to preserve what it still had.

increasingly threatened.

Instead of simply photographing the landscape and wildlife, I began to embed myself with F.C.C. rangers as they conducted their daily operations: wildlife monitoring, the replanting of forests, patrolling to deter logging.

Since 2018, I’ve conducted around 10 trips to the region. I’ve spent days bundled up in the back of a ranger’s S.U.V., and clutching my large-format camera as we track wolf packs on snowmobiles.

Over time, I was able to establish a camaraderie with many of the rangers. Occasionally, on patrols with the wildlife monitoring teams, they would invite me to assist in their duties — including the collecting of fresh bear scat.

The chief wildlife ranger, Bogdan Sulica, once took me to the site of a bear attack on a small farm just outside the commune of Saticul de Sus. Despite my efforts to assist in ranger duties, he laughingly advised that I stand on a hill and stick to taking pictures.

After the fall of communism, the Romanian government began a restitution program for nationalized land, resulting in a new ownership structure for a significant portion of Romania’s forests. In the years that followed, logging companies bought many of the privately owned forests, leading to large-scale deforestation.

To further complicate matters, wildlife populations in the Fagaras Mountains have been subjected to severe levels of poaching and overhunting. To combat this, F.C.C. has founded its own hunting’s association and has purchased hunting rights for several large tracts, totaling around 160,000 acres. By purchasing the rights and foregoing hunting, they can effectively protect the animals within the tracts.

While there’s a broad consensus in Romania for preserving these areas, tensions have sometimes arisen among the surrounding communities. Some locals feel as though certain land was protected without their input, especially those with strong ties to hunting. Others have seen protected animals — bears, wolves, lynx — damage their property and prey on their livestock.

My documentation of F.C.C.’s work in Romania continues, having organized itself around the three primary facets of their initiative: wildlife monitoring, forest replanting and community outreach programs.

Creating a national park, I’ve learned, takes time. Progress is slow, and there will likely be many more unforeseen roadblocks standing between the foundation and the fully realized dream of a European Yellowstone. But, in time, through the combined efforts of F.C.C. and the people of Romania, a blueprint may emerge that others in the international community might follow.

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For Planet Earth, No Tourism is a Curse and a Blessing

For the planet, the year without tourists was a curse and a blessing.

With flights canceled, cruise ships mothballed and vacations largely scrapped, carbon emissions plummeted. Wildlife that usually kept a low profile amid a crush of tourists in vacation hot spots suddenly emerged. And a lack of cruise ships in places like Alaska meant that humpback whales could hear each other’s calls without the din of engines.

That’s the good news. On the flip side, the disappearance of travelers wreaked its own strange havoc, not only on those who make their living in the tourism industry, but on wildlife itself, especially in developing countries. Many governments pay for conservation and enforcement through fees associated with tourism. As that revenue dried up, budgets were cut, resulting in increased poaching and illegal fishing in some areas. Illicit logging rose too, presenting a double-whammy for the environment. Because trees absorb and store carbon, cutting them down not only hurt wildlife habitats, but contributed to climate change.

“We have seen many financial hits to the protection of nature,” said Joe Walston, executive vice president of global conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “But even where that hasn’t happened, in a lot of places people haven’t been able to get into the field to do their jobs because of Covid.”

From the rise in rhino poaching in Botswana to the waning of noise pollution in Alaska, the lack of tourism has had a profound effect around the world. The question moving forward is which impacts will remain, and which will vanish, in the recovery.

more than 10 percent, as state and local governments imposed lockdowns and people stayed home, according to a report in January by the Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm.

The most dramatic results came from the transportation sector, which posted a 14.7 percent decrease. It’s impossible to tease out how much of that drop is from lost tourism versus business travel. And there is every expectation that as the pandemic loosens its grip, tourism will resume — likely with a vengeance.

Still, the pandemic helped push American emissions below 1990 levels for the first time. Globally, carbon dioxide emissions fell 7 percent, or 2.6 billion metric tons, according to new data from international climate researchers. In terms of output, that is about double the annual emissions of Japan.

“It’s a lot and it’s a little,” said Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Historically, it’s a lot. It’s the largest single reduction percent-wise over the last 100 years. But when you think about the 7 percent in the context of what we need to do to mitigate climate change, it’s a little.”

United Nations Environment Program cautioned that global greenhouse gases would need to drop 7.6 percent every year between 2020 and 2030. That would keep the world on its trajectory of meeting the temperature goals set under the Paris Agreement, the 2016 accord signed by nearly 200 nations.

“The 7 percent drop last year is on par with what we would need to do year after year,” Dr. Smerdon said. “Of course we wouldn’t want to do it the same way. A global pandemic and locking ourselves in our apartments is not the way to go about this.”

Interestingly, the drop in other types of air pollution during the pandemic muddied the climate picture. Industrial aerosols, made up of soot, sulfates, nitrates and mineral dust, reflect sunlight back into space, thus cooling the planet. While their reduction was good for respiratory health, it had the effect of offsetting some of the climate benefits of cascading carbon emissions.

For the climate activist Bill McKibben, one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming in his 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” the pandemic underscored that the climate crisis won’t be averted one plane ride or gallon of gas at a time.

“We’ve come through this pandemic year when our lives changed more than any of us imagined they ever would,” Mr. McKibben said during a Zoom webinar hosted in February by the nonprofit Green Mountain Club of Vermont.

“Everybody stopped flying; everybody stopped commuting,” he added. “Everybody just stayed at home. And emissions did go down, but they didn’t go down that much, maybe 10 percent with that incredible shift in our lifestyles. It means that most of the damage is located in the guts of our systems and we need to reach in and rip out the coal and gas and oil and stick in the efficiency, conservation and sun and wind.”

herd of Great Orme Kashmiri goats was spotted ambling through empty streets in Llandudno, a coastal town in northern Wales. And hundreds of monkeys — normally fed by tourists — were involved in a disturbing brawl outside of Bangkok, apparently fighting over food scraps.

In meaningful ways, however, the pandemic revealed that wildlife will regroup if given the chance. In Thailand, where tourism plummeted after authorities banned international flights, leatherback turtles laid their eggs on the usually mobbed Phuket Beach. It was the first time nests were seen there in years, as the endangered sea turtles, the largest in the world, prefer to nest in seclusion.

Similarly, in Koh Samui, Thailand’s second largest island, hawksbill turtles took over beaches that in 2018 hosted nearly three million tourists. The hatchlings were documented emerging from their nests and furiously moving their flippers toward the sea.

For Petch Manopawitr, a marine conservation manager of the Wildlife Conservation Society Thailand, the sightings were proof that natural landscapes can recover quickly. “Both Ko Samui and Phuket have been overrun with tourists for so many years,” he said in a phone interview. “Many people had written off the turtles and thought they would not return. After Covid, there is talk about sustainability and how it needs to be embedded in tourism, and not just a niche market but all kinds of tourism.”

In addition to the sea turtles, elephants, leaf monkeys and dugongs (related to manatees) all made cameos in unlikely places in Thailand. “Dugongs are more visible because there is less boat traffic,” Mr. Manopawitr said. “The area that we were surprised to see dugongs was the eastern province of Bangkok. We didn’t know dugongs still existed there.”

He and other conservationists believe that countries in the cross hairs of international tourism need to mitigate the myriad effects on the natural world, from plastic pollution to trampled parks.

he told Bloomberg News, is to set the stage so that “nature can rehabilitate itself.”

increased poaching of leopards and tigers in India, an uptick in the smuggling of falcons in Pakistan, and a surge in trafficking of rhino horns in South Africa and Botswana.

Jim Sano, the World Wildlife Fund’s vice president for travel, tourism and conservation, said that in sub-Saharan Africa, the presence of tourists was a powerful deterrent. “It’s not only the game guards,” he said. “It’s the travelers wandering around with the guides that are omnipresent in these game areas. If the guides see poachers with automatic weapons, they report it.”

In the Republic of Congo, the Wildlife Conservation Society has noticed an increase in trapping and hunting in and around protected areas. Emma J. Stokes, regional director of the Central Africa program for the organization, said that in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, monkeys and forest antelopes were being targeted for bushmeat.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Dr. Fournet, a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, observed a threefold decrease in ambient noise in Glacier Bay between 2019 and 2020. “That’s a really big drop in noise,” she said, “and all of that is associated with the cessation of these cruise ships.”

Sound Science Research Collective, a marine conservation nonprofit, had her team lower a hydrophone in the North Pass, a popular whale-watching destination. “In previous years,” she said, “you wouldn’t have been able to hear anything — just boats. This year we heard whales producing feeding calls, whales producing contact calls. We heard sound types that I have never heard before.”

Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, insist that their presence on the water benefits whales since the captains make recreational boaters aware of whale activity and radio them to slow down. Whale-watching companies also donate to conservation groups and report sightings to researchers.

“During the pandemic, there was a huge increase in the number of recreational boats out there,” said Mr. Friedman, who is also president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “It was similar to R.V.s. People decided to buy an R.V. or a boat. The majority of the time, boaters are not aware that the whales are present unless we let them know.”

Two years ago, in a move to protect Puget Sound’s tiny population of Southern Resident killer whales, which number just 75, Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law reducing boat speeds to 7 knots within a half nautical mile of the whales and increasing a buffer zone around them, among other things.

Many cheered the protections. But environmental activists like Catherine W. Kilduff, a senior attorney in the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, believe they did not go far enough. She wants the respite from noise that whales enjoyed during the pandemic to continue.

“The best tourism is whale-watching from shore,” she said.

Debates like this are likely to continue as the world emerges from the pandemic and leisure travel resumes. Already, conservationists and business leaders are sharing their visions for a more sustainable future.

laid out a plan to become carbon neutral by spending $1 billion over 10 years on an assortment of strategies. Only 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions are traced to aviation, but a 2019 study suggested that could triple by midcentury.

In the meantime, climate change activists are calling on the flying public to use their carbon budgets judiciously.

Tom L. Green, a senior climate policy adviser with the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental organization in Canada, said tourists might consider booking a flight only once every few years, saving their carbon footprint (and money) for a special journey. “Instead of taking many short trips, we could occasionally go away for a month or more and really get to know a place,” he said.

For Mr. Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society, tourists would be wise to put more effort into booking their next resort or cruise, looking at the operator’s commitment to sustainability.

“My hope is not that we stop traveling to some of these wonderful places, because they will continue to inspire us to conserve nature globally,” he said. “But I would encourage anyone to do their homework. Spend as much time choosing a tour group or guide as a restaurant. The important thing is to build back the kind of tourism that supports nature.”

Lisa W. Foderaro is a former reporter for The New York Times whose work has also appeared in National Geographic and Audubon Magazine.

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