The walnut forests of southern Kyrgyzstan sprawl along the tops of steep hills. They are believed to be the largest natural walnut forest on earth.

Kyrgyzstan’s walnut forests dwindle with increased cattle farming, climate change

Climate change and increased cattle farming have created intense pressure on Kyrgyzstan’s walnut forest — the largest one on Earth. A new app helps herders to better monitor and manage their pastures in an effort to protect the walnut forests.

The World

The walnut forests of southern Kyrgyzstan sprawl along the tops of steep hills. They are believed to be the largest natural walnut forest on earth.

Levi Bridges/The World

On a crisp October afternoon, Bakhadir Fazilov approached a tall walnut tree, wrapped his legs and arms around the trunk and began climbing toward the top — more than 40 feet above ground.

At the top of the tree, Fazilov nimbly stepped out onto a flimsy branch and began shaking the limbs until the walnuts came crashing down to the ground.

Kyrgyzstan is home to the largest natural walnut forest on Earth. It’s a unique ecosystem with more than 30,000 acres that rises above the bustling town of Arslanbob, not far from the Uzbekistan border. But climate change and increased cattle farming have created intense pressure on the walnut forest.

Bakhadir Fazilov, 44, climbs a walnut tree and shakes the nuts off the branches.

Bakhadir Fazilov, 44, climbs a walnut tree and shakes the nuts off the branches. In southern Kyrgyzstan, locals harvest walnuts by climbing the trees themselves or waiting until storms blow the precious nuts onto the ground.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

Every fall, locals like Fazilov camp out in the ancient, shadowy walnut forest in southwestern Kyrgyzstan for up to two months. In a good year, harvesters can pick literally a ton of nuts, and buyers come from as far away as Turkey and Russia to purchase the crop. But this year, the harvest was so poor that few locals even bothered to lug their tents up into the mountains to pick the walnuts. 

“Last summer, the weather was really hot, so all the nuts fell off,” Fazilov said.

The walnut forest where Fazilov sets up camp with his wife and four children each fall is government land. Fazilov rents about 10 acres for about $80. In a good year, he can earn more than $1,200 for the season. But this year, he might only make of half that.

Bakhadir Fazilov and Nuribat Fazilova spend up to two months camped out in the walnut forests of southern Kyrgyzstan each fall harvesting the nuts with their four children.

Bakhadir Fazilov and Nuribat Fazilova spend up to two months camped out in the walnut forests of southern Kyrgyzstan each fall harvesting the nuts with their four children. They shell the nuts during the cold winter months when work becomes scarce and sell them to wholesalers.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

Livestock present an even more pressing challenge to the walnut forests than climate change. 

Many Kyrgyz make a living herding cows and sheep that graze on pastures in the nearby mountains that rise above the walnut trees. Most of those pastures also belong to the government, but authorities don’t put many limits on livestock grazing.

In the region surrounding the walnut forest, livestock numbers have been increasing by 3% to 4% annually, and the pastures are getting depleted. Now, herders let animals roam the walnut forests in search of food.

The thick forest also provides a shade for animals and herders during the sweltering summer months. Cows eat the little walnut saplings, which means there’s no new growth. And horses roaming through the forests also eat the bark, which kills the old trees.

“Just look at all the wounds on this tree,” Fazilov said, pointing at the yellow wood where a horse had stripped the bark. “We can’t pick a good harvest because of this [damage].”

A cow searches for food in the walnut forests of southern Kyrgyzstan.

A cow searches for food in the walnut forests of southern Kyrgyzstan. As the summers become hotter because of climate change, herders increasingly spend the hot months in the shade of the walnut forests with their cattle. The cows eat up the new saplings so the forests no longer rejuvenate. 

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

Fazilov said he would like to put up fencing in this stretch of forest that he rents to keep the animals out, but he said that he can’t afford it.

In rural Kyrgyzstan, many have few economic opportunities besides migrating to Russia or staying at home and working the land — which often means herding animals.

Environmental workers there say that many Kyrgyz are distrustful of banks, so people invest what savings they have in animals. The idea is that selling animals for meat is a better investment than the meager interest earned in a savings account.

But herding animals has led to severe environmental problems, such as increasing desertification and a loss of plant diversity.

On a hill in the pastureland high above the walnut forest, livestock have eaten all the plant life down to the dirt. The only vegetation that remains is bits of dry chaff and grass lying on the ground above black dust.

“This hill is naked, the animals ate everything,” said Nurgazy Nurbaev, a manager at the Kyrgyz environmental organization CAMP Alatoo, as he gazed out at the desiccated pasture. “There’s 2 ½  times more animals grazing here than the pasture can support,” Nurbaev said.

Dust trails up behind a line of cattle.

Dust trails up behind a line of cattle. In some parts of Kyrgyzstan, cattle have overgrazed the land so much researchers believe they are contributing to desertification.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

At the top of the hill, CAMP Alatoo has installed two big metal cages secured with padlocks. Inside there’s grass and shrubs growing.

“This is what the pasture would look like if there were no animals,” Nurbaev said, gesturing toward the cages. 

CAMP Alatoo’s researchers collect data in these cages to gauge how much grazing the land can actually support. They make recommendations to herders about how to better manage the land. But CAMP Alatoo’s project manager, Jyrgal Kozhomberdiev, said that not enough herders are following their advice. 

“Many people are just continuing [on], [with] business as usual,” Kozhomberdiev said.

The environmental organization CAMP Alatoo uses cages to monitor Kyrgyzstan's pastureland.

The environmental organization CAMP Alatoo uses cages to monitor Kyrgyzstan's pastureland. Livestock can't graze inside the cages, allowing researchers to monitor plant life and form plans to better manage the pastures.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

Kozhomberdiev hopes that technology can be part of the solution. CAMP Alatoo helped to digitize different pasture management programs around the country. Local pasture committees can use this information to figure out where to move herds to less congested pastures and gauge their environmental impact. 

And this year, CAMP Alatoo helped develop a new smartphone app called Pasture Monitoring that herders and researchers can use to document the changing environment.

Available in Kyrgyz, Russian and English, the app requires users to take a picture of the landscape they see and then select from checklists that describe characteristics, such as plant species and soil quality. Users also tag their location and can choose to link the information they collect to a server that scientists can access.

“This type of information was not collected since the Soviet Union collapsed, due to a lack of funding, so we think that this mobile app can facilitate the process [of data collection],”  Kozhomberdiev said.

Scientific research on Kyrgyzstan’s pastureland has been virtually nonexistent for several decades. It's the herders who have some of the most in-depth knowledge about how the changing climate is affecting local ecosystems. While they have exacerbated recent environmental problems, they can now be a key part of the solution.

During harvest time in southern Kyrgyzstan, walnuts are served in dishes alongside most meals.

During harvest time in southern Kyrgyzstan, walnuts are served in dishes alongside most meals.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

There are actually two ways to harvest a walnut in Kyrgyzstan — some may wait until a strong storm blows through and knocks the nuts to the ground. But many locals hope to continue to camp out in the walnut forest, climbing up the trees to shake the nuts free each fall.

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?