Turkish authorities ban hunting of animals sacred to Alevis

A petition for Turkish authorities to restrict hunting activities in the eastern province of Tunceli, home to many endangered species also considered sacred by locals, has finally borne fruit.

The governor of Tunceli, also known as Dersim, late last month banned the hunting of several rare species including wild goats, caracal, otters, brown bears and wolves. Locals welcomed the decision that prevents endangered species from falling victim to hunting.

Deep in the rugged heart of eastern Anatolia, Dersim is a province where most of the inhabitants belong to the country’s biggest ethnic minority – the Kurds – and its biggest religious minority – the Alevis, a heterodox Muslim sect that sees nature and humanity as part of a whole. Alevis and Kurds have for years been sidelined and often persecuted in Turkey.

In his research on Dersim Alevis’ relationship to nature, sociologist Ercan Geçgin said they had great respect for animals and plants, and view all creatures as sacred. Even the water is holy for Dersim Alevis, Geçgin said.

Dersim's Munzur River flows from the base of a limestone cliff, wending its way into a grassy valley cradled between sharp peaks and forested hills. Geçgin said Alevi people do not swear while passing through bodies of water and never pollute water sources.

This respect for water has led Alevis to protest the construction of dams and hydroelectric plants along the Munzur, according to Geçgin. Similarly, Alevi beliefs are the driving force behind the hunting ban.

A local Alevi leader defined the wild goat as a divine creature that has lived on earth since the 'Kalubela' – a pre-historic period when God created spirits of all natural beings before sending them to Earth.

"It is a big sin to kill these animals. Whoever broke their hearts, whoever killed them had not been well, eventually, they had faced trouble," said Zeynel Dede.

There is no difference between murder and hunting in Dersim, according to Haydar Çetinkaya and İsmail Ateş, two nature activists from the province who initiated the petition campaign. The two said they were detained and subjected to police violence, but never stopped their struggle.  

"By the petition and press statements, we strived for the preservation of natural life and prohibition of hunting that has become uncontrollable," said Çetinkaya.

Still, the ban is inadequate as it does not include some other rare species, the nature activist said.

"We welcome the governor's decision, yet we find it insufficient and late. It is insufficient because the species named in the statement are already forbidden for hunting and under preservation. This decision should also include partridge, pig, quail, rabbit and some other species," said Çetinkaya.

Ateş said tourism companies had brought hunters from abroad to Dersim. The foreign hunters pay 7,000 euros per hunted animal, according to Ateş.

The ongoing conflict between security forces and rebels belonging to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the forests and mountains of Dersim has also led to the destruction of natural habitats. Several forest fires have broken out in the area during military operations.

Animals that survive forest fires and dam construction are often killed by hunters with the help of Turkish soldiers, said Ali Haydar Ben, president of the Federation of Dersim Associations (DEDEF). Turkish soldiers have been allowing hunters to kill Alevis' sacred animals, even as the locals are forbidden to enter forests, according to Ben.

"The hunters have all facilities available while villagers cannot walk in the woods due to bans,” he said. “Hunters are able to go to forbidden places that only soldiers are allowed to enter and they slaughter mountain goats. Then they take pictures of themselves standing with the massacred mountain goats, which are sacred to locals, and post them on social media."

In some cases, special forces soldiers introduce themselves to villagers as hunters and go hunting before the military operations, according to Ben. 

Despite all these difficulties, local activists said they would continue to fight for their sacred animals, recalling the words of local Alevi leader Firik Dede.

"Here, people who hunt mountain goats are called vicious, fallen ... Now, hunting of these animals is due to ignorance, due to disbelief. Therefore, we are deteriorating, we are going into the darkness."