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With wildlife corridor, Turkey tackles an ecological crisis

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New plants and animals are found at a rate faster than one a week. The Taurus ground squirrel was first discovered only in 2007. But as the economy booms – growing an estimated 8.3 percent last year – housing and roads are taking precedence over conservation.

Ecologists accuse the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of striking down environmental safeguards whenever they conflict with its development plans.

Last August, the AKP abolished a network of independent protection committees, casting into doubt the future of 1,261 smaller nature reserves.

National and international environment groups have condemned a draft conservation law that they say aims to pave the way for development in other protected lands. And ecologists are concerned about a government irrigation and hydropower plan to create 4,000 dams, diversions, and hydroelectric power plants by 2023.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Forestry and Water Works said the government is more alert than ever to environmental issues. "Biological diversity is always endangered where there are human activities and climate change," he said. "But, compared with the past, sensitivity to this problem has increased."

Many Turkish scientists disagree. "Turkey's environmental law and conservation efforts are eroding...," some warned in the December issue of Science. "This has precipitated a conservation crisis that has accelerated over the past decade."

About half of 61 endemic fish species are critically endangered, and 83 of 319 native breeding birds are threatened. In February, Turkey was ranked 121 out of 132 countries for biodiversity and habitat preservation in an annual environmental performance index by Yale University.

Delicate negotiation process

But ecologists must tread carefully. "To pursue projects at protected sites, all NGOs need the permission of the ministry," says Engin Yilmaz, director general of Doga Dernegi, one of Turkey's largest wildlife research charities. "If permission isn't given, you have no legal grounds to carry on activities in nature conservation."

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