An office without walls

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts”.  The powerful words of Rachel Carson, American biologist and author come into mind as we meet Lale Aktay, a Turkish conservation biologist. Lale Aktay´s contribution to science and nature conservation in Turkey is well documented, and her energy is contageous. With over 20 years of experience in bird watching, bird research, nature conservation and nature education both in Turkey and abroad, she has seen and experienced many sides of nature conservation, and we are eager to chat with her about what drives her. We talked about research and on-site conservation of birds, the importance of knowledge transfer, building a network and being a role model for youth. Moreover, we heard about a successful initiative combining cycling with nature observation and got a glimpse into the field of ethno-ornithology.

A restless conservationist 

We catch Lale in Adana, a major city in southern Turkey, lucky to be in the right place at the right time. As a researcher and consultant in different regions of Turkey and abroad, she is on the road a lot. Turkey is not a small country, and it is safe to say Lale has seen most of it. She has carried out professional and voluntary work in cooperation with NGOs, universities, and public authorities all across the country. Currently, most of her time is split between the Mediterranean Region of Turkey including Mersin, Adana, Burdur and Antalya-where she is conducting her doctoral studies focusing on vulture research and conservation and the rest part of the country.

Being a freelancer in the conservation field comes with many benefits but it also requires a lot of independence, self-management and flexibility, not to mention that one has to become one of the best in the field to be able to make a name for themselves. Undoubtedly not an easy task, but we quickly find out that Lale thrives in this environment. She explains that she is doing exactly what she imagined for herself as a young girl. Growing up on her parents’ farm, Lale developed an appreciation for the wonder and beauty of the natural world. As her curiosity about living beings grew stronger, she knew that she wanted a profession that would allow her to study nature.

“I promised myself that I will have an office without walls” she tells us. This little girl did not picture a large open office. She rather desired an office intertwined with nature, but also without barriers and limitations, where a passionate conservationist can thrive while studying the natural world. 

Conserving nature by cycling

We first got in touch with Lale because of a project she and her friends carried out a couple years ago. The project that was supported by GEF-Small Grant Programme which is named ‘Conserve Nature by Cycling’ where the team carried out exploration and route determination studies around protected areas in Burdur province for about a year and many activities for publicity and awareness. Then they organized a 4 day cycling camping activity with the participation of many nature lovers and cyclists around three lakes in Burdur province: Burdur, Yarışlı and Salda. During the four days of cycling, the core team of five conservationists and cyclists guided the attendees, observed nature, conducted field monitoring, took samples, noted down challenges to the environment and talked with locals about the protection of these lakes and sustainable travelling. The project received such a positive response, that some locals and even the governor joined with on bikes for a stretch, and the activity was repeated in the following three years with the participation of many locals. Furthermore, people became so excited that they founded the Burdur cycling group, which later became an officially established NGO. This initiative was the first in Turkey that combined nature observation with cycling, and the term “nature cycling” was used for the first time in the country.

Studying bird migration

Among the studies that Lale contributed to, she is particularly interested in migratory birds, especially raptors, and their monitoring. Turkey is an important migratory bottleneck, with several important flyways crossing the country between Europe, Asia and Africa. As the environmental conditions of these flyways are increasingly changing, there is a conservation concern for many long-distance migratory bird populations. With her colleagues, Lale aims to understand important threats along the Mediterranean flyway. Moreover, she also coordinates and conducts the Lakes Region mid-winter waterfowl counts for about 20 years as part of the annual mid-winter waterfowl counts of Turkey and takes part in the Endangered Species Project for preparing the documentary of the project and contributing as a bird expert. 

Eventually, we decide to continue our conservation outside four walls, and spend a joint day bird and wildlife watching in the Yumurtalık Lagoons National Park. Lale and her partner Özgün Sözüer, a fellow conservationist, know this area well and regularly support the local National Park Directorate with conservation work. The four of us spend the wonderful day counting birds on the occasion of the World Migratory Bird Day and continue our conservation conversations.

Lale and Özgün both have a wide range of contacts all across the country, and explain that for successful conservation work, maintaining a good relationship with local authorities and stakeholders is crucial. There are passionate conservationists and nature-lovers in all sectors and building friendly relationships with them allows all parties to learn from each other. Lale tells us that when she works in an area, she always calls up her local contacts and gets in touch with local authorities to increase local support. When she can, she takes time to train local rangers and others working on the field. “Unfortunately, some officials of protected areas sometime operate with a lack of specific capacities/sources about how to address certain threats. Instead of criticising, I want to use my expertise to their advantage, and transfer the knowledge I had the chance to gain throughout my years in Turkey and abroad” she adds.

As mutual trust is built, these relationships can truly benefit wildlife, and nowadays Lale often receives phone calls from protected area managers, asking her to help in identifying certain species or advising on how to rehabilitate an injured animal etc. 

Attentive education and outreach

Alongside doing on-site conservation, Lale is passionate about transferring her knowledge to the next generations. She participates and holds various trainings and camps for youth, and takes the time to personally support their paths.

“Following such nature education trainings, I often get asked for career advice. Teenagers or students who recently started their university studies sometimes come to me puzzled about what they should do if they want to study biology but their families want to convince them otherwise, or what they should specialise in to have a good career later. All I do is encourage them to follow their passion and listen to themselves, not the outside voices. I have met many inspiring young people who are passionate about nature and if I can help empower even one person to follow their dream today, I believe our planet will already be a much better place tomorrow.”

Lale Aktay, ornithologist

Lale in action educating children about nature in a playful weight.

As a well-known expert, she also participated in the development of several nature documentaries in Turkey. “When you enjoy being in nature, life is never boring. You will always have something to do. Throughout my career, I got to participate in so many different projects and met such great people who share my passion!”

Ethno-ornithology: a passion project

For Lale and Özgün, working in nature protection doesn’t end on Friday at 5 PM. As we spend time with them, it is clear that they are infinitely curious and as researchers, they translate this curiosity into action. In recent years, they started focusing on ethno-ornithology. 

Ethno-ornithology is a discipline focusing on studying the relationship between people and birds, under the umbrella of ethnobiology. Combining anthropological, cognitive and linguistic perspectives with scientific approaches, ethno-ornithology aims to uncover and interpret people’s knowledge and use of birds. 

In this context, Lale and Özgün have been researching human & raptor interactions within falconry practices in the Turkish Black Sea region. “Falconry culture used to hold a significant status in human history, and studying how birds have been perceived, used and managed in human societies can help us understand the attitude towards birds nowadays“ Özgün explains.

Nature conservation is not a nine-to-five job. Nature provides us with endless questions to answer if we are curious enough. And Lale and Özgün are two extremely passionate, curious conservationists, using their powers to save the planet.

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