Making Biodiversity Accessible in Tajikistan

Anneleen Kool (36), Senior lecturer, Natural History Museum, University of Oslo

Hugo de Boer (38), Researcher, Natural History Museum, University of Oslo

Jan Wieringa (49), Associate professor, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden

Abdolbaset Ghorbani (37), Postdoc, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University


Civil war affects museum collections too

The former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan is celebrating 25 years of independence, but in terms of biodiversity research it is still very isolated.

Botanists Anneleen Kool and Hugo de Boer at the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo and Jan Wieringa from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands are working with their colleagues of the Botanical Institute at the National Herbarium of Tajikistan on helping them digitize their collections and make these available online for research as well as conducting fieldwork together to make collections for both institutes.

Hugo: ‘I first visited Tajikistan and the national herbarium in 2012 to explore possibilities for a collaborative research project on DNA based identification of plants. When visiting the herbarium with the curator at that time, Kurbonali Partoev, I was struck by the civil war damage and the state of the building and collections: shattered window panes littered the floor, broken bottles with chemicals lying in the stairwell, herbarium cabinets with their doors missing leaving the material exposed to the elements, and everywhere old papers and dusty books. At the time I was not able to do anything except offer my support and use my network to highlight their cause.’

Funds bring renovation but research is needed to revive the collections

Hugo: ‘In 2015 I was asked to help support an application to raise funds to initiate a Herbarium Fund, and this was funded by The Christensen Fund. These funds have made it possible to repair the roof, replace the windows, fix the cabinets and paint the inside of the building. Vines that keep the building cool in the sweltering summer heat charmingly cover the outside of this Soviet edifice. When the project leader, Mukhabbat Mamadalieva of Zan ve Zamin, asked me come to Tajikistan to teach a course on herbarium databases and digitization, I didn’t need to think twice before I asked Anneleen Kool and Jan Wieringa, two users and developers of BRAHMS, the most widely used herbarium database software, to help me.' 

'A déjà vu of spending two hours at a restaurant in Dushanbe in 2012 in the company of an elderly professor who spoke only Tajik and Russian, quickly convinced me to also invite my Swedish-Iranian colleague, Abdolbaset Ghorbani, who gets along in Tajik better than most.’

Jan: ‘Hugo is one of these persons that is always arranging everything with everybody, and when he contacted me I had no idea he had contacts in Tajikistan. All I really knew about the country was that my former supervisor, Prof Jos van der Maesen, identified it as a centre of diversity of the genus of chick pea (Cicer); it is the country with the largest number of species of that genus. Teaching a BRAHMS workshop in Tajikistan is not part of my curation tasks at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, so this was going to be a holiday, and what better way to make a working holiday then by adding a weeklong collection trip to it in the Zeravshan range, foothills of the Pamir mountains reaching only a mere 5000 meters above sea level?’

Central Asia is important for Arctic plant biodiversity

Anneleen: ‘As curator of the Botanic Garden of the Natural History Museum the Central Asian mountain ranges fascinate me. They form a source area for living plants for our Rock Garden, but more importantly they play an interesting biogeographic role for Arctic biodiversity .Many plant groups occur in both the Arctic and in Central Asia and the Himalaya. Whether plants move more commonly form Asia to the Arctic or the other way around is the topic of an ongoing research project at NHM that benefits from the living plants in the Garden. During an earlier expedition to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2013 funded by the National Geographic Foundation I was able to collect many new species for the Central Asia section in our Rock Garden, and a new expedition but now to Tajikistan expanded these collections as well as our network of collaborators.’

Planes, trains and mashrutkas

Hugo: ‘Having a strong team together was essential for me to sacrifice part of my summer, but being able to help my colleagues in Tajikistan work with their herbarium, as well as the eagerness, hospitality and motivation of our colleagues, made it very worthwhile to do. Our trip took us via Moscow to Dushanbe with unfamiliar airlines, but this turned out to be a wise last minute decision, as the alternative via Istanbul would have left us stranded in the middle of a military coup. Dushanbe was experiencing a heat wave when we arrived and teaching in a building without airconditioning seemed like a daunting task. Jan led the teaching, and the course went very smoothly.

Jan: ‘We used an intensive format with lectures and computer exercises from 9-17. Building up from day 1, I went through the basics of databases, the uses of herbarium databases, the contribution of digital collection data to big science and biodiversity mapping, as well as more practical aspects such as installing and running BRAHMS, filtering data and creating queries, using barcodes and barcode scanners, and photography of vouchers and voucher labels. I am used to teaching in English, but not all participants could follow it that easily, so Baset would translate everything to Tajik and answer and respond to questions in Tajik. This made the teaching quite slow, but very rigorous with plenty of repetition. BRAHMS is a database program and like any software it becomes intuitive only after knowing it, so we spent a lot of time playing around with the program to let people become familiar with its functions through trial and error.'

'Transliterating the older Russian and newer Tajik voucher labels from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet was a bit of a challenge, but important to address as information is most useful if it is entered consistently. Since none of us could read the Cyrillic, and were not able to understand the transcribed text that was entered in the database, it was really hard to figure out if they entered the data correctly or not. Now the data is entered in roman characters, it becomes more readily available for the rest of the world, and since of all sheets also photos are being taken, the original Cyrillic text is still available as well on the image.’

Anneleen: ‘Now that the herbarium is using BRAHMS it will be important to keep supporting our colleagues if questions pop up, so that they can get more experience using it and digitize their most important collections. The database will also facilitate access to the collections for students in Tajikistan and researchers abroad.’

Exploring the Zeravshan Mountains

Hugo: ‘Exploring the mountains was really a novel experience. We set out from Panjakent near the Uzbek border with 17 people and 6 donkeys, including 2 guides, 3 donkey drivers and a cook. The first area we explored was around the bright blue Seven Lakes. The second area was the Kuli Kalon lakes at nearly 3000 meter asl and here we found an amazing floral biodiversity. To get from there to our next destination we trekked across a pass at 3770 meter asl in mist and snow, and arrived at the breathtaking Alauddin Lakes where we stayed and explored for another two days.’

Hugo: ‘The hospitality and interest of our Tajik collaborators really made this course and field work a great success, and I think we can all recommend working together with partners in Central Asia. The unique biodiversity is poorly studied and many interesting things remain to be discovered.

Anneleen: ‘After identification, the herbarium collections that were made will be a great contribution to the Natural History Museum, and hopefully we will be able to show the first of the living collections to the public in the Botanic Garden’s rock garden next summer, so we can provide the visitors a small peek into Tajikistan’s daunting plant diversity.’

Photo captions:

Exploring the Kuli Kalon Lakes in search of endemic biodiversity.

Research, children and traveling in Tajikistan make a great combination - here at the Seven Lakes.

A stunning Central Asian species of Dracocephalum, meaning Dragon’s head.


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