- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2006

ISTANBUL — When Ahmet Caliskan shot a 143-pound leopard that had attacked his neighbor in the western Turkish village of Bagozu in January 1974, many assumed it was the last of its kind.

Conservation biologist Emre Can thinks that’s not true. But he knows time is short if Turkey’s biggest cat — listed on the World Conservation Union’s “Red List” as critically endangered — is to be documented in the wild.

A specialist on big carnivores, Mr. Can began hearing rumors of Anatolian leopards — slightly bulkier than their African cousins — while working on a countrywide study of the wolf population in 1998.

Since then, he says, the leopard has been driven close to extinction.

“Two wild boar kills I investigated in the Taurus Mountains in 2001 were almost certainly the work of a leopard,” he said. “After that, nothing.”

But that wasn’t the end of sightings. In 2003, one of Mr. Can’s colleagues photographed the pelt of a leopard a hunter had shot near Lake Van, in Turkey’s mountainous southeast. Mr. Can has since received a handful of what he calls “reliable” reports.

The evidence has been enough for Turkey’s foremost nature conservation groups, Doga Dernegi (DD). When it began its campaign in June to halt extinctions in Turkey, one of the world’s most biodiverse temperate countries, a leopard survey was second on its list of 10 priorities.

Budgeted at $56,500, the one-year project is still awaiting funding. DD director Guven Eken hopes Mr. Can will be able to do the feasibility study this fall and start the real work of detailed surveying and placing camera traps in the spring.

“It’s very wild down there, and the area we’ve investigated so far is a negligible part of the animal’s possible range,” he said. “I’m confident we will find something, even if it’s only one pair or two.” Proving the existence of the leopards, he said, “would be a milestone in the history of Turkish wildlife conservation. The animal would be a perfect flagship species for the country.”

Even more than Anatolian lions and tigers, which were wiped out in the 19th century and the 1970s, respectively, leopards have cast a long shadow over Anatolian history.

At Catalhoyuk, a 9000-year-old town in central Anatolia that is considered one of the most sophisticated Neolithic sites uncovered, leopards are by far the most popular subject of murals and sculptures.

Half-buried stone traps near the summits of Turkey’s southern Taurus Mountains attest to the leopard’s popularity in the Roman arena.

Resat Yilmaz, meanwhile, has more personal reasons for hoping that a big cat makes an appearance in southeast Turkey. A former mayor of Bagozu, and a friend of Mr. Caliskan, who died in the 1990s, he was one of the men who beat the leopard up toward the hunter’s waiting gun in 1974.

“It took him eight bullets to bring the beast down, the last one at point-blank range,” Mr. Yilmaz remembers, standing in the scrubby oak forest where the animal was brought down.

“When I reached him, he was stroking the dead beast’s head, petrified. Neither of us knew what it was. He regretted shooting it for the rest of his life.”

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