Monitoring lapwings on the edge of an ISIS war zone

The surveyors take a selfie on their last trip to count Sociable Lapwing close to the Syrian border. Photo: BirdLife International.
The surveyors take a selfie on their last trip to count Sociable Lapwing close to the Syrian border. Photo: BirdLife International.
Turkish conservationists have been surveying for Sociable Lapwing on the Syrian border, right next door to battling civil war factions.

Ceylanpinar, located in the Urfa (or Sanliurfa) province of Turkey, has a border with Syria, and has felt the effects of the ongoing civil war there, which has included skirmishes between the YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units) and ISIS.

The region, which contains one of the single largest pieces of farmland in the world, is also a Key Biodiversity Area monitored by Doga Dernegi (BirdLife in Turkey) staff and volunteers. It holds a population of Sociable Lapwing, one of the most threatened bird species in the world (listed as Critically Endangered on the recently updated IUCN Red List of Birds).

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

BirdLife partners the RSPB, ACBK (BirdLife in Kazakhstan), Doga Dernegi and others have been working since 2005 to research the causes of the species' decline using satellite transmitters to track the birds, and a species recovery plan was put in place in 2009.

The Sociable Lapwing is Critically Endangered according to the IUCN Red List. Photo: Subramanya CC (BirdLife International).

“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 Doga. “Even a single individual means hope for the viability of the species’ population.”

Doga’s 10-person 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 just 18 miles or so from the Syrian border. The team’s immediate goal is to stop illegal bird killing in the area, while they continue to lobby for preventing the shrinkage of rain-fed agricultural lands.

Reaching the local communities in Ceylanpinar is more important than ever to save the Sociable Lapwing, so 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 survey team.

The team says it remians eager to continue the monitoring of the birds in the region.
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