It was spring 2017. I was in the middle of my master’s programme and was rapidly running out of time to find the perfect thesis research project. My ideas had ranged from the unrealistic – a canopy camera-trapping project in Ecuador, to the extreme – abseiling down Saint Lucia’s Petit Piton mountain to investigate a threatened juniper tree. I was profoundly relieved when I found a suitable project. The plan was to travel to Tajikistan, a country that I would previously have struggled to place on a map, to study the state of its fertile forested valleys.
Tajikistan’s forests are a veritable cornucopia of diversity, harbouring the wild ancestors of numerous fruit and nut species that we generally take for granted. These forest gardens, overflowing with almonds, apples, pears, plums, pistachios, apricots, cherries and walnuts, have been managed for centuries by the communities that depend on them. However, as a result of a combination of intense Soviet exploitation and a six-fold human population increase, only small forest fragments persist and their future is far from certain.
What began as a project to analyse the distribution of threatened pear species evolved into a broader evaluation of community forest management. Monitoring forest management, and the resulting forest health, is important for assessing the impact of conservation actions over time. The site I was to visit had not been previously monitored, so I was looking forward to helping fill important knowledge gaps.
To capture ecological factors as well as community perceptions of forest management, I was going to use a combination of methods – collecting data from forest plots to determine their condition alongside interviews with community members.
With the strong support of leading researchers and practitioners at Imperial College London, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, I felt confident venturing into the field.
After touching down in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, I met Ubayd Gulamadshoev, FFI’s warm, welcoming country director. We spent a couple of days refining my data collection protocols and arranging the necessary fieldwork permissions before we made our way to the field site, Dashtijum Nature Reserve – a vast mountainous World Heritage Site and Important Bird Area in south-west Tajikistan, bordering Afghanistan.
Upon arrival in Dashtijum village, I was introduced to my host and reserve director, Mahmoud Yorahmadov and to Dilovar Sharipov, the English teacher for several schools in the area who would, crucially, act as my translator. Over the next few days, we translated the interview questions into Tajiki, a dialect of Persian written in Cyrillic script, and identified areas of forest to survey.
Our daily schedule began early, aiming to finish fieldwork before the sun climbed too high, followed by lunch and social surveys in the afternoon. I quickly learnt to have a light lunch because – such is the heart-warming generosity of locals – at every household we were offered tea, freshly baked bread and other delights (dried mulberries with walnuts being a personal favourite) and it would have been discourteous to refuse.