The Kaçkar Mountains are heaven for butterflies, as Ahmet Baytaş, economist by trade, ecologist by nature, discovered when he returned to Yaylalar, the village of his birth
On July 15, 1999, I woke early, just before sunrise, with a sense of excitement. That evening I would be leaving my apartment in Montclair, New Jersey, for northeastern Turkey in search of butterflies. I would spend a few days around Yusufeli, in Artvin province, and a week in my birthplace, Yaylalar, a nearby village in the foothills of the Kaçkar Mountains. We had left in 1959, when I was three, for a better life in Istanbul, and I had never returned.
It was an unforgettable trip. I was swept away by the area’s breathtaking beauty, its imposing mountains, magnificent alpine meadows and, above all, the extraordinary diversity of its wild flowers, insects and birds. The butterfly numbers were astonishing. In some areas, particularly by streams and on damp ground, the density reached several hundred a square metre. Around one small, muddy footbridge, I found a thousand individuals of a couple of dozen species mud-puddling. I watched large numbers of ringlets and graylings gracefully bob and weave among the grasses, noted half a dozen species of brilliantly coloured coppers along the streams and a remarkable number of fritillaries on the flowery slopes. Especially abundant were the Silver-studded Blue, Chelmos Blue, Ripart’s Anomalous Blue, Damon Blue, Caucasian Spotted Fritallary, Dusky Meadow Brown And Black-veined White; I saw hundreds of the threatened Marsh Fritillary.
At the base of Bulut Mountain, at the village’s northern edge (around 2500m), a small, wet meadow yielded excellent mountain species: the Mountain Argus, Clouded Apollo, Balkan Copper and the very rare Caucasian Skipper. Higher hillsides offered specialities like the subspecies modestus of the gorgeous Geranium Argus. I was captivated by the Apollo, one of Eurasia’s showiest butterflies, which gracefully patrolled the flowery hillsides. In many areas this species is extinct: in addition to habitat loss, the biggest threat has been its collection for trade, despite its being the first insect to come under the protection of Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Nowhere else in the temperate zone had I seen so many butterflies in such a small area: not in the great wildernesses of the American West, the Canadian Rockies or the Swiss Alps. On my first visit, in 1999, in one week and within an area of two square kilometres, I saw over 100 of the roughly 375 species found in Turkey. If you consider that barely 60 species have ever been recorded in the UK, that just over 700 are found in the US and Canada combined, and that Europe has under 500 regularly occurring species, you see how special Yaylalar is.
After that trip I determined to return as often as possible and produce a photographic field guide. No such guide to Turkey’s butterflies was then available; even the most comprehensive European guides were inadequate in the field. After nine more trips, in October 2007, the English version of the field guide was published, followed by an expanded Turkish version in May 2008…
Ahmet Baytaş is professor of economics at Mountclair State University, and author of A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Turkey (NTV Istanbul).
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