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Turkey’s Wolves Are Texting Their Travels to Scientists

Wolves are being tracked for the first time in Turkey by KuzeyDoga Society and University of Utah, with the support of National Geographic Society, the Christensen Fund, the Whitley Fund, and Turkey’s Directorate of Nature Conservation and National Parks. Since October 2011, cutting edge GPS/GSM/UHF/VHF transmitting collars have been placed on wolves that are among the most difficult animals to be safely caught and released. These transmitters send the GPS co ordinates of the wolves as SMS messages to our cell phones, which means we get text messages from wolves. The data have enabled us to calculate home ranges of wolves for the first time in Turkey. We will also use these data to estimate wolf populations in the region. According to one estimate, Turkey has 7000 wolves, but this is likely to be an overestimate. We are already finding that wolves use much bigger areas than thought, sometimes exceeding 5000 square kilometers. This means that there are fewer wolves in Turkey than previously thought.
Until now, eight remote-tracking collars and three radio collars have been placed on on wolves caught by the KuzeyDoga team in the Sarikamis-Allahuekber Mountains National Park of Kars in eastern Turkey. The first two collared wolves were named “Kuzey” and “Doga”. The transmitters on the collars use a SIM card to regularly send their GPS coordinates as SMS messages to KuzeyDoga’s scientists by using cell phone network coverage. The transmitters have the latest GPS/GSM/UHF/VHF technology, obviating the need for satellite transmitters. The wolves can be tracked “near real-time” with the detailed data obtained from the transmitters. If needed, the transmitters can send the locations of the wolves as SMS messages every hour. If there is no cell phone coverage, the wolves can be tracked with “old-school” VHF antenna and receiver and the data can be downloaded from up to a kilometer away using a UFH or VHF downloading unit. The collars are programmed to fall exactly one year after capture.
One major aim of the project is reducing human-wolf conflict
We have been carrying out wildlife research, nature conservation and ecological research projects in eastern Anatolia since 2001. I have focused on the rich biodiversity of northeastern Turkey in 2003 and established KuzeyDoga Society in 2007. As top predators that control prey populations and also prey on livestock, wolves are very important parts of Anatolian ecosystems. Turkey’s first wolf tracking project is studing the movements and home ranges of these wolves, their habitat use in different seasons throughout the year, th eir behavior and prey base, and how the wolves interact with humans and livestock. With these critical data, collected for the first time in Turkey, we also hope to reduce the ever-present human-wolf conflict in the region. One of the world’s top wolf specialists, Professor Dr. Josip Kusak from the University of Zagreb Department of Veterinary Science came to Kars and worked together with the KuzeyDoga team since 2011. Our team spent five full weeks in the field and succeeded in capturing wolves that fall, not the best season for catching wolves. In addition to, capturing, collaring, and tracking wolves, we also documented footprints, scat samples and other signs of wolves in the national park.
The preparation for this very detailed and labor-intensive project took over two years, the last four months of which were very busy with the purchase, preparation, and practice of the highly specialized equipment needed to catch and collar the wolves. The first two wolves were captured safely on October 7 and October 11 2011, fitted with transmitters and released in excellent health. Since then, each wolf has walked more than 2000 km, covering every corner of Sarikamis-Allahuekber Mountains National Park, and spending much of their time outside the park boundaries in deforested areas. Because of the small size (230 km2) of this national park, its inadequacy for the wide-ranging carnivores (wolves, bears, and lynx) found there and for the long-term viability of their populations, in 2008 I proposed to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (now Forestry and Hydraulic Works) to create Turkey’s first wildlife corridor, in order to connect this isolated national park to the extensive forests of Posof, Georgia, Black Sea and Caucasus mountains. Following the request of Turkey’s Minister of Forestry and Hydraulic Works Dr Veysel Eroglu, in spring 2011, officials from the Directorate of Reforestation and Erosion Control and the KuzeyDoga team together prepared a detailed map of Turkey’s first wildlife corridor. In May 2011, KuzeyDoga team and ministry officials spent two weeks in the field, checking and ground-truthing the corridor route in the provinces of Erzurum, Kars, Ardahan, and Artvin. The tracking data from the wolves firmly convinced the ministry that this forest is too small and has to be connected to the bigger forests of the Black Sea and Caucasus in the north. After seeing the first wolf home range maps, the ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with KuzeyDoga in December 2011 and announced Turkey’s first wildlife corridor in June 2012. By tracking wolves daily, the habitat use, home range size and movement data we are collecting are critical for improving the scientific foundation of Turkey’s first wildlife corridor and will shape its creation.