The topographically complex and extensive system of mountains and closed basins that make up the Irano-Anatolian Hotspot form a natural barrier between the ecosystems and indigenous cultures of the Mediterranean Basin and the dry plateaus of Western Asia. For many centuries, the Silk Road crossed east to west through this hotspot, connecting the two regions. The hotspot covers 899,773 km2, including major parts of central and eastern Turkey, a small part of southern Georgia, the Nahçevan Province of Azerbaijan, much of Armenia, northeastern Iraq, northern and western Iran, and the Northern Kopet Dagh Range in Turkmenistan. Elevations in the Irano-Anatolian Hotspot range from as low as 300 meters, in the foothills of the Kopet Dagh and western Zagros Mountains, to more than 5,000 meters, including the dormant volcanoes of Mt. Ararat in Turkey (5,165 meters) and Mt. Damavand in Iran (5,671 meters). The plateaus of Anatolia, Armenia, and western Iran range between 800 and 2,000 meters. Historically, the mountains have served as both a refuge and a corridor between the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia, resulting in many patches of local endemism throughout the region.
The climate is continental, with hot summers and very cold winters. Annual rainfall varies from 100 to over 1,000 millimeters, most of it falling in winter and spring. The principal habitat in the hotspot is mountainous forest steppe, supporting oak-dominant (Quercus spp.) deciduous forests in the west and south (Anatolia and Zagros mountains) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) forests in the east (southern slopes of the Elburz mountains and the Kopet Dagh). A wide zone of subalpine and alpine vegetation covers the mountain peaks above the timberline, and thorn-cushion formations are found in the subalpine zone. There are permanent glaciers in the alpine zone of Turkey’s Cilo and Hakkâri mountains.
Unique and Threatened Biodiversity
The Irano-Anatolian Hotspot is home to at least 6,000 plant species, about 2,500 of which are endemic. This includes several smaller areas of endemism, including the Kopet Dagh, which has 332 endemic species, and the Zagros Mountains, which have at least 500 endemics.
The remarkable Anatolian Diagonal is a floristic line crossing Inner Anatolia. The line starts in the southern foothills of the Eastern Black Sea Mountains in Turkey, crosses through Turkey, and then splits into two branches toward the Mediterranean, one through the Amanus Mountains and the other via the Bolkar Mountains. Nearly 400 plant species have distributions largely confined to this line, and many of Turkey’s 1,200 endemic species occur only to the immediate east or west of it.
Some of the most interesting plant species in the hotspot are the extremely localized salt plants of Anatolia and Iran. These plants grow in the remaining salt steppes of the Irano-Anatolian closed basins and have adapted to extreme conditions of dry, saline soils with high temperatures and little water. Only these physiologically specialized species, characterized by the halophytes of the families Chenopodiaceae and Plumbaginaceae, can survive in saline soils.
Hundreds of single-locality endemic plants occur in Turkey, most of them threatened, including many orchids, which are illegally collected in large quantities for the production of a popular traditional drink called sahlep. Because of the rapid decline of orchid species in Turkey, orchid collection has expanded to Iran.
There are more than 360 species of birds regularly occurring in Irano-Anatolian, although none are endemic. Nevertheless, several globally threatened birds have important breeding populations in the hotspot, including the white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala, EN), great bustard (Otis tarda, VU), marbled duck (Marmaronetta angustirostris, VU), and imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca, VU). A quarter of the world population of the sociable plover (Vanellus gregarious, CR) stops over in the plateaus of Eastern Anatolia in autumn. Furthermore, a large proportion of the world population of crimson-winged finch (Rhodopechys sanguinea), Finsch’s wheatear (Oenanthe finschii), rufous-tailed wheatear (O. xanthoprymna), Upcher’s warbler (Hippolais languida), white-throated robin (Irania gutturalis), and eastern rock-nuthatch (Sitta tephronata) occur in the hotspot.
The wetlands of the Tuz, Van and Urumiyeh basins in Turkey and Iran support important breeding colonies of waterfowl, notably the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus rubber), great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), and glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus). These wetlands are also important for shorebirds migrating along the African-Eurasian Flyway, and in mild winters may hold over 100,000 wintering geese and ducks.
While up to 40,000 pairs of greater flamingos have been known to breed in Iran and Turkey, mainly in Tuz Lake in Turkey and Lake Urumiyeh in Iran, there has been no breeding in Lake Urumiyeh since 2000 because of drought. These lakes are the only major breeding site for this species between Camargue in France and the Rann of Kutch in India.
More than 140 mammals are found in the hotspot, including roughly 10 endemics. Most of these endemics are rodents, including Dahl’s jird (Meriones dahli, EN) and the recently described Microtus quzvinensis, a vole from northern Iran.
The Irano-Anatolian Region was once inhabited by several subspecies of Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus, VU). Today, only a few hundred individuals of the Persian wild ass subpsecies (E. h. onager) persist in Bahram-e-Goor in the Iranian portion of the hotspot, while another subspecies of wild ass, known as the kulan or Turkmenian wild ass (E. h. kulan, CR), survives only in a single population in and around the Badkhyz Nature Reserve in south Turkmenistan, just marginally outside the hotspot.
Among the most important flagship species in this hotspot is the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, CR). Only about 60 Asiatic cheetahs survive, all of them to the south of the Kopet Dagh in Iran’s Great Salt Desert, the Dasht-e-Kavir. Another feline, the Caspian subspecies of the tiger (Panthera tigris virgata, EX) was recently reported from the northern Zagros Mountains in Turkey. However, this report requires further investigation, as the last confirmed individual of this subspecies was shot in 1970.
Reptiles are represented by more than 115 species in the hotspot, including about a dozen endemics. This includes four endemic and threatened vipers with very restricted ranges: Darevsky’s viper (Vipera darevskii, CR) from the Djavakhk Mountains in northern Armenia; mountain viper (Vipera albizona, EN), found in only 20 km2 of rocky slope in the Kulmaç Da?i of central Anatolia; Wagner’s viper (Vipera wagneri, EN), from near Lake Urumiyeh in Iran and in Eastern Turkey; and Latifi’s viper (Vipera latifi, VU), from the Elburz Mountains.
Roughly 20 amphibian species occur in the hotspot, including two endemic and threatened salamanders in the genus Neurergus: N. microspilotus (VU), restricted to the Avroman Mountains on the Iraq-Iran-Turkey border; and N. kaiseri (EN), found only in Iran. Both species have undergone declines in recent years as a result of habitat destruction, pollution and drought.
About a third of the roughly 90 freshwater fish species in the hotspot are endemic, mainly in closed-basin lakes (such as the Konya Closed Basin, Tuz Lake Basin, Van Lake Basin, and Urumiyeh Lake) and rivers. Several of these species are globally threatened, including Salmo platycephalus (CR).
One endemic fish species, Chalcalburnus tarichi, has been used effectively as a flagship species by local conservation NGOs in the Van Province to trigger interest in conservation of the Van Lake Basin in Eastern Turkey. The rapid decline in the population of the species, which also has local commercial value, has directed the attention of local and national stakeholders towards the wider environmental problems of Van Lake. A number of conservation projects were initiated since then in the area to protect the basin.
Although the invertebrate fauna of Irano-Anatolian is not well studied, it is known to be particularly rich in butterfly species, with at least 350 species. At least 240 of these are found in Turkey, nearly 20 of them endemic. Several globally threatened species occur in this hotspot, including the single-site endemic Polyommatus dama (EN). The hotspot is also known to be the richest part of the Palearctic region for scorpions, with more than 40 described species, at least half of which are thought to be endemic.
The greatest threat to the Turkish part of the Irano-Anatolian Hotspot is the development of irrigation schemes for agriculture and associated infrastructure, such as dams. For example, in the Konya Closed Basin, the excessive use of water for sugar-beet agriculture has led to the loss of many large steppe areas and closed-basin lakes. Lake Sevan in Armenia and the Javakheti mountain wetlands in Georgia are also largely destroyed. And in the Ararat Valley alone, 1,500 km2 of swamps have been drained for agricultural development.
Other threats that have led to extensive loss of habitat in the hotspot, include overgrazing, overharvesting of woody plants for fuelwood, and mining. Political tensions and military operations in Iraq, Iran and Turkey have also resulted in the loss of forests and wetlands. Today, more than 90 percent of natural steppes in the region have disappeared, although the alpine meadows covering higher parts of the mountains area largely intact. In Iraq, only four percent of natural forests remain. The only pristine forested areas are on the inaccessible mountains of southeastern Turkey and in the neighboring territories of Iran. In total, no more than 15 percent of the original native vegetation of this habitat remains intact.
The impacts of increased deforestation and overgrazing, exacerbated by a doubling of the human population since the early 1970s, has led to a noticeable decline in many species. Many steppe species, such as the great bustard, have declined dramatically as a result of agricultural expansion and crop-improvement projects.
Conservation Action and Protected Areas
About seven percent of the land area of the hotspot is under some form of protection today. However, less than half of that land – roughly three percent – is included in IUCN protected area categories I to IV. Among the most important protected areas in the region are the Tuz Lake Specially Protected Area in central Turkey, which, at 7,000 km2, is the hotspot’s largest protected area; the 4,000 km2 Alborz-e-Markazi Reserve in the central Elburz Mountains; the 4,640 km2 Urumiyeh Lake National Park in Iran; and Sevan National Park in Armenia. All countries in the hotspot, except Iraq, are parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of Global Importance, and there are nine Ramsar sites in the hotspot: two in Turkey, five in Iran and two in Armenia.
A new concept being tested in the area is the development of Key Biodiversity Areas representing the most important sites for biodiversity conservation worldwide. Turkey is one of the first countries in the world to identify both Important Bird Areas and Key Biodiversity Areas. Although 85 percent of these Key Biodiversity Areas are not yet well protected, a national conservation program has been initiated by the Turkish Nature Society in collaboration with governmental institutions and NGOs to promote the protection of these areas. Turkey’s 18 different categories of protected areas and nine different laws will be harmonized by the end of 2005 through a new Nature Conservation Law.
In Iran, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (1974) is the main law dealing with nature conservation. The country’s four main kinds of protected areas provide good coverage to all its major habitat types. IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy is based in Iran at the environmental Organization Cenesta. A number of NGOs are working in Iran to conserve flagship species, including the Persian subspecies of the fallow deer (Dama dama mesopotamica), which was on the verge of extinction in the late 1980s.
There is currently no legislation for biodiversity conservation or protection in Iraq. Several wild animal breeding stations exist, and a number of nature parks are managed for public recreation, but not wildlife conservation. A National Forest Foundation has been established, in part to protect the remaining forests in the Zagros region.
Turkmenistan, a relatively new independent state, is still developing its environmental laws. Although some existing nature reserves contribute to the protection of the Kopet Dagh’s diverse woodlands, they often lack effective management.
Overall, lack of expertise and political instability are the major obstacle to biodiversity conservation in the Irano-Anatolian region. Existing protected areas networks should be expanded, and individual protected areas should be better managed. Unfortunately, the most intact and endemic-rich part of the hotspot – the northern part of the Zagros Mountains, where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet – has also been the site of several military operations for many years. Biodiversity conservation goals for this area might offer an option for international collaboration on poverty alleviation and achieving a lasting peace.
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