As humans flee Turkey’s devastating fires, brave volunteers save the animals left behind

The group enter burning forests and towns to mount daring wildlife rescue missions

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In Antalya’s fire-damaged forests, blackened remains lie almost unrecognisable among the soot: a hoof, a bone, what was probably a stomach.

They are the remains of some of the thousands of animals thought to have died in Turkey’s most deadly and destructive fires in living memory, which have ripped through 100,000 hectares of land along the country’s southern coast.

Despite the arrival of water-dropping planes from the EU on Monday – adding to those from Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine and Iran – the fires continue for the eighth day straight. Once the call comes to say your village is next, there is no time to take anything, not even your pets.

“When the fire comes, it comes really quickly, so people panic and forget about everything,” said Erkin Erdogdu, 35, a computer programmer from Ankara who founded animal rescue community Paw Guard with vet Doruk Demirci.

Mr Erdogdu said the group is mobilising its network of more than 100,000 volunteers to rescue dogs, cats, livestock and strays left behind when humans flee.

“People try to evacuate the animals, but sometimes it’s very difficult when things are on fire,” he said.

Videos of anguished farmers trying to direct their flocks towards beaches for safety have been shared widely on social media as others appeal for help to rescue them by road.

A woman holds up animals ready for transport

With fire-fighting resources scarce, water bottles and garden hoses have become weapons to try to keep the flames off. Anger has grown over the government’s handling of the bushfires, which happen annually but have not been this intense before.

Eight people, including two firefighters, have been killed. Thousands have fled their homes, and holiday resorts – already harmed by the pandemic – have been evacuated.

Strong winds, months of severe drought and temperatures well above the average means the country is struggling to contain the problem, which many believe will become increasingly common in Turkey as the effects of climate change become hard to ignore.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said on Friday that 3,320 cattle have died in the fires, but no data has been given on the number of forest animals killed. Images of charred tortoises stirred emotions online.

In Manavgat, the most fire-stricken district of the holiday hub Antalya, Paw Group braves the lines of fire that snake nearby hillsides to drive from village to village, sweeping for animals that could starve, or even be burnt alive. But moving panicked pets is tricky in heat of well over 40°C, as chaotic scenes unfold and smoke thickens the air.

As they arrive at the remote village of Gondulmus, rescuers head for a scared, skinny donkey tied to a tree. They move on to a family of stray dogs whose mother has a hurt foot. As the echo of sirens over the hills grows, a kitten is found with a badly infected eye.

Paw Guard has been running for only eight months, and already has more than 400,000 followers on Instagram. Mr Erdogdu, who has seven dogs himself, said he realised there was a lot of help made available for humans who were suffering through lockdown, but nothing for animals.

Usually feeding strays in cities around the country, this is the first time it has provided help during a disaster.

“On Monday, I posted on Instagram to say ‘We are here. Do you need any help with your animals?’ It had 7,000 shares and now, whenever a village is burning people call and say ‘Come, help us’.”

The group has attracted so much interest that it was contacted by a group of vets from Brazil who wanted to come and help.

“We message Paris Hilton with our posts and she shares them,” said Mr Erdogdu. He showed The National a trail of private messages with the hotel heiress.

He posts videos of animals volunteers pick up as they travel between rescues – a box of three unbearably cute puppies found in a ditch, a small boy with a smug-looking black cat – and shows, proudly, that one image has received 232 likes in only seven seconds.

Activists as well as volunteers, Mr Erdogdu and Dr Demirci have campaigned for years for Turkish law to offer stronger protection for animals. They started a campaign and went to Parliament, and in early July a new law was approved that made animal abuse a crime punishable by six months to four years in prison.

The team move on as the fires begin to grow and close in and there is a risk they could get cut off. The nearby forests glow a ghastly orange as the ground ignites by the side of the road, and a call comes in about a dog with severe burns to its leg. A rescuer’s work is never done.

Updated: August 04, 2021, 1:50 PM