Tajikistan’s fruit-and-nut forests harbour the wild ancestors of numerous types of pear, apple, walnut, almond and cherry that we take for granted today, but this vital genetic storehouse is under severe pressure. Unsustainable grazing, cutting and firewood collection are degrading and fragmenting the forests, threatening the important ecological services and economic benefits that they provide.
Fauna & Flora International (FFI) works closely with Forest Service Units and local communities to promote the sustainable use of Tajikistan’s forest resources and, in particular, the country’s regionally important populations of critically endangered pear species.
Many local communities rely heavily upon the forests for their bountiful harvest. Credit: Rasima Sabzalieva/Fauna & Flora International
Since 2011, Safarbi Davlatova has been working as a Forest Protection Inspector for the Forest Service Unit in Dashtijum Nature Reserve, a vast, mountainous World Heritage Site and biodiversity hotspot in south-west Tajikistan, close to the border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan is home to a range of unique habitats, from dry deserts to frozen mountains. Credit: Rasima Sabzalieva/Fauna & Flora International
Why did you choose this line of work?
Actually, that was a natural decision for me. I was born here and I have had a close relationship to nature ever since my childhood and youth.
Can you describe a typical working day?
Every work day starts very early in the morning. This is the specific point of our work. We start patrolling our area very early for two reasons: first, we boost our chance to see more wild animals, and second, those who come to forest for something also arrive early. So, patrolling our area we check every single plot, especially learning the wild animals’ footprints. We also note the condition of trees looking for damage points. We assess whether that damage was natural or man-made. All of this lasts whole day up to the evening because our area is big. So, in general every day we try to do our best to prevent damage to forest, wild animals and plants.
Safarbi on patrol. Credit: Shosafed Taibov/Fauna & Flora International
That’s a long day
Actually, things go so fast that you lose the sense of time. Every day we patrol the forest and are always surprised how fast the evening came. This job demands all your attention and is totally absorbing, but the positive thing is that by the end of the day you stay absolutely clear-minded due to walking and staying in the fresh air for such a long time.
How do you deal with people who are engaged in illegal activities such as poaching or tree-cutting?
Actually, we prefer to work with people through raising awareness and talking with them, warning them not to practise any kind of actions violating nature. But if we catch them in the act, there can’t be any indulgence towards these people when it comes to protecting the forest. My response to such moments is unambiguous. We document each event, preparing all data to forward to the relevant institution to determine appropriate measures such as fines.
Safarbi is working tirelessly to protect Tajikistan’s natural resources. Credit: Shosafed Taibov/Fauna & Flora International
You are the only woman on your team – why are there so few female FSU staff?
In my opinion, this is because this type of job is generally hard for women. Especially while dealing with the wild animals. Frankly, some women are scared of the forest. Plus, being a Wildlife Protection Inspector requires enough physical fitness for hiking, and for climbing the high and dangerous peaks in the area. It is not that easy.
The mountainous landscape of the Dashtijum Nature Reserve. Credit: Rasima Sabzalieva/Fauna & Flora International
Would you encourage other women to consider this kind of job?
Of course. It all comes from being fearless of the forest and wildlife in general. This job is also convenient to keep yourself in shape. Clean and fresh air, watching wildlife are especially good for mood and health.
I am encouraging women to join institutions like ours and apply for these positions. They shouldn’t hesitate or be scared. As a woman, throughout my whole career here I have never felt threatened or belittled, either by male colleagues or other people I’ve encountered in my job.
Have you had any scary moments in the course of your work?
I can recall a few, but the most significant one happened a couple of years ago. We were patrolling our area. Suddenly, a female bear appeared out of nowhere. The scary thing was that she was with a couple of her cubs. A wild predator can be very dangerous at a moment like this if she feels there is a threat to her, or especially towards her offspring. Fortunately for all of us – humans and wild animals alike – this moment passed peacefully.
What are your favourite species in the area you patrol?
My favourite plants are the pistachio tree and the rosehip bush. These two are the best for health. Pistachio nuts contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. Due to the nature of this tree it has a positive effect on people’s health. For instance, I don’t remember using medicine for me or my family. Pistachio consumption strengthens the immune system. And my favourite wild animal is the markhor [a large wild goat with impressive spiral horns]. It looks so magnificent. Especially the way it carries itself when it walks. Absolutely beautiful.
Markhors inhabit the rugged mountainous terrain that makes up over 90% of Tajikistan. Credit: Nick Sokolov
What does the future hold for you and your work?
Well, all of our present and future efforts will be directly focused on forest regeneration and recovery, multiplying the number of wild fruit and nut trees, especially the two critically endangered wild pear species, Bukharan pear (Pyrus korshinskyi) and Tajik pear (P. tadshikistanica). We grow the plants from seeds until they reach the size where we can plant them out in the wild.
Why is forest recovery so important?
Forest recovery is not just crucial for our local biodiversity. Enlarging the area of forest cover also leads to a regional increase in wildlife numbers. It is positively affecting the whole wider ecosystem.
An apple tree nursery in Dashtijum Nature Reserve. Credit: Rasima Sabzalieva/Fauna & Flora International
The long-term survival of Tajikistan’s precious and irreplaceable natural resources ultimately lies in the hands of dedicated people like Safarbi and her fellow forest rangers. It’s reassuring to know that their vital work is helping to set the country’s fruit-and-nut forests on the road to recovery, safeguarding Tajikistan’s threatened biodiversity while simultaneously improving the well-being and resilience of forest-dependent communities.
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Credit: Mario Boboev