New boost to conservation of endangered fruit, nut tree species in Central Asia

Date: 07.09.2013.

An old-growth, natural walnut forest in the western Tian Shan mountains. More needs to be done to understand and conserve unique genetic diversity in forests like this. Photo by Jozef Turok.

A multi-year project has recently got under way to study the diversity of some fruit and nut tree species in Central Asia and threats facing this richness in the region, and to tailor more effective conservation measures.

Central Asia is widely regarded as the center of origin of many fruit and nut tree species. In fact, many of the globally important temperate fruit and nut crops were domesticated here. Among them are almond, apricot, apple, pear, pistachio, cherry, plum, walnut, pomegranate, quince, hazelnut, azarole, Cornelian cherry, Russian olive, grapevine, chestnut and mulberry. But land degradation, over-grazing in forest stands and other adverse human activities are posing threat to this diversity. The region has seen a substantial reduction in biodiversity, including populations of valuable tree and other plant species, in the past few decades. For several years, local and international researchers have been working to reverse the trend. A number of conservation projects have been carried out in the region. And there are some positive results. Researchers and farmers have established better links and work together on in situ and on-farm conservation of fruit and nut tree species. Considerable knowledge gleaned from the previous projects is available on an online database at But more work is needed.

The new initiative 'Conservation for diversified and sustainable use of fruit tree genetic resources in Central Asia' aims to better understand the levels and patterns of genetic diversity and what the threats are. It is a research study involving the Centre de Recherche Public Gabriel Lippmann (CRPGL), based in Luxembourg, Bioversity International, and national research partners in Central Asia. Some preliminary work started in 2012, but the main activities began in 2013 and will continue until 2016. The project aims to advance the conservation of genetic resources of three fruit and nut tree species in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Apple, apricot and walnut were selected for the study because of their value locally and globally. The three species also provide good examples of the domestication gradient from wild populations to local semi-domesticated varieties, to commercial, fully domesticated varieties, all coming from the same wild progenitors that are still found in the region. Moreover, all of the wild resources are locally or globally threatened.

The project will analyze, describe and document nutrient composition of wild populations and selected varieties of apple, apricot and walnut and associate the distribution of phenotypic or chemical characteristics with patterns of genetic diversity using genomic markers associated with those traits. Researchers will carry out nutritional and DNA analyses of varieties of apple, apricot and walnut. They will also use a combination of technologies to understand patterns of phenotypic variability in nutrition and their associated genetic diversity, identify locations of valuable genetic resources and threats to them, and eventually recommend approaches and guidelines for their conservation. Most importantly, scientists will gain a deeper understanding of the current and historic social and cultural factors influencing distribution and use of diversity of fruit tree varieties. Cultural practices and perceptions concerning fruit tree diversity and domestication will be studied to understand how knowledge and actions by rural women and men influence management and maintenance of wild and semi-domesticated populations of these species.

At the end of the study, a catalogue of varieties will be published, which will build on data obtained in previous projects. The catalogue will be made available to farmers, researchers, and other potential users. Conservation approaches and guidelines will be developed, published and disseminated based on knowledge generated by the project through genetic analyses, spatial analyses of diversity and threats, and assessment of traditional knowledge about the target species.

But the ultimate goal is that local researchers and farmers take the lead in improving conservation work and reducing threats to wild populations of the three species. This calls for more interest and capacity among research institutes in the region. And rural people will also take action to sustain and enhance wild populations and semi-domesticated varieties of fruit and nut tree species for the benefit of future generations.

Recently, the project team gathered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to discuss how best to fulfill the project objectives. From 3 to 6 September 2013 some 25 researchers and practitioners, including PhD students from the three project countries, looked at what had been done so far and what measures should be taken to boost conservation efforts in the region. Participants also heard presentations on current status of genetic resources of apple, apricot and walnut in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan respectively. They also reviewed ongoing studies, as well as discussed and approved the project work plan.

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