In May 2017, Imperial College London master’s student Brett Wilson undertook Global Trees Campaign sponsored fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan’s fruit and nut forest to find one of the rarest wild apples on the planet. In this blog, he shares his experiences and describes what his research means for a species on the edge.
A forgotten world
Apples are one of the world’s most recognised fruits and in today’s age are harvested extensively across the world. However, historically, wild apples originated in Central Asia and western China.
These apples grew within a unique community which included other native fruit species such as pear, apricot, and cherries as well as many nut species including common walnuts and pistachio nuts. These vast fruit and nut forests once grew across large areas in the foothills of southwest facing mountains across this region of the world.
Today, only remnants of these ecosystems and their historical populations continue to survive due to human disturbance. Recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, these fragmented populations are important stores of genetic diversity for domesticated species, and therefore it is critical to protect them.
The largest area of walnut-fruit forest still surviving in the world is found in the country of Kyrgyzstan. This much-overlooked country harbours the greatest hope for protecting this ecosystem and therefore wild apples, and so it is here that I focused my research.
The origin of apples
The species Malus sieversii, the wild relative of most apples, is considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and originates in Central Asia but is not the rarest apple species in the region. Niedzwetzky’s apple (Malus niedzwetzkyana) is a close relative of M. sieversii, and is classified as Endangered – one step closer towards extinction.
Niedzwetzky’s apple is unique as it has a distinct red pigment that is evident in the leaves, flowers, and fruit of this species. Little is known about its ecology or the threats that are driving it towards extinction, making it a genuinely mysterious species. It is one of the hidden gems of this region and a real biodiversity treasure which is why I went in search of it.
My first task was to locate as many M. niedzwetzkyana as possible within the four largest areas of fruit and nut forest (based on data previously collected by the University of Bournemouth) so I could begin to explore the ecology of the species and the prevalence of threats within the habitat. This required extensive hiking within the foothills of the remarkable mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and many metaphorical and literal ups and downs.
Into the wild
Driving from the capital city of Bishkek in the north to the Jalal-Abad region in the south took ten hours. Ten hours in our mini-van in the sweltering 30-degree heat beginning at 7 am and arriving at 5 pm – a difficult start to life in the field.
Finally, we reached the south where the snow-capped mountains clung to the horizon, and the thick green carpet of trees that I was aiming to explore was spread out in front of me. The challenge of what I had undertaken started to hit home, but the beauty of the landscape was truly breath-taking.
After meeting my two colleagues, Bolot and Bakai, we began our work in Dashman reserve. This reserve is relatively new and sits between two inhabited valleys, both of which I visited. The forest was extremely damaged by livestock grazing and firewood collection; it looked to be struggling to survive.
We covered an extraordinary distance; not only did we scramble from 1300 meters to 2000 meters on our longest day, but we also managed to walk over 22 km through the forest. The long treks really reinforced my passion for conservation, as I realized that if I can overcome challenging days like these, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other conservationists out there who will do the same meaning there truly is hope for species like this.
Gava forestry unit was the next stop. We settled in quickly and worked very hard to complete this site promptly as there were no shops for us to buy morale-boosting treats and the hiking was difficult.
It became apparent very quickly that much of the area was fenced to prevent livestock grazing and these areas were privately owned so could not be sampled. However, we did find our first wild M. niedzwetzkyana trees, with the guidance of FFI staff member, Bolot, and a local. This was a great moment as I finally got to see the species I had travelled halfway across the world to help conserve.
We arrived at the village of Kara-Alma which was to be our third site and located over twenty trees with the help of Bolot. After our initial days of searching, Bolot had to leave us. Our bags felt a little heavier after we had lost our tree guide, inspiration, and humorous walking companion.
On one of the longest and toughest days in the field, we summited Kara Alma’s highest peak and the incredible views cleared my hangover (the result of a regrettable an attempt at cultural bonding over local vodka) – what a moment!
Bakai, my translator, and I worked relentlessly for ten days surveying the threats of the area. On the penultimate day, I fell ill with food poisoning bringing the work to a standstill even after attempting to head into the field. After finally reaching the remaining sites, we had collected the data we needed after climbing countless hills, a laptop breaking, a visit to the village doctor, and many rain showers.
The days were now all blurring together into one endless stream of hiking and sleeping. I decided we needed a holiday so we headed to Kyrgyzstan’s second city, Osh, for a few days.
After Osh, we headed back towards the north. Arriving in Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve, we realised why this reserve was famous across the country. The incredible gorges stretching out covered in trees, and the winding whitewater of the racing river cutting down the central valley provided a constant rumble in this serene corner of Kyrgyzstan.
We met with the rangers to ask for help locating the apple trees and were provided with a friendly guide. He took us to see over eighty trees during our ten days at the reserve This took us up to the lakes at the foothills of the mountains as well as to the orchards and pastures in the valley bottoms surrounding the village of Arkyt where we were staying.
After just over a week and a half in the reserve I had to say goodbye to Bakai, and this is when it sunk in that I was going home and had succeeded in collecting enough data to make a difference.
Saving a species
Our work provides essential data to create maps of threats across the four sites highlighting sites where planted Niedzwetsky’s apple saplings have a better chance of surviving, based on areas we now know populations exist and where threats are less intense and more manageable. The work is now being used to inform planting strategies for Malus niedzwetzkyana, which will be carried out by Fauna & Flora International in the near future.
All in all this experience provided an eye-opening view into the world of tree conservation and the challenges that must be overcome when working on endangered species in very difficult locations. However, I would not have had it any other way.
This apple species now has a greater chance of survival and this opportunity has allowed me to develop not only my research skills and reignite my passion for conservation, but also allowed me to make friends with a diverse range of people who will forever remain as an important reminder of this expedition into the unknown.
P.S The apples don’t taste very nice
If you would like to follow in Brett’s footsteps, GTC makes grants available annually for masters research projects. For more information on the grant and how to apply, click here.