Mid-June and I’m back in Caucasus nature—this time in Azerbaijan—to check on our first steps to support the development of the national parks in this country.
This is third in a series of reports on my three-day trip in Azerbaijan. Read part 1 →
People of Shahdag National Park
Elshan Madjidov is the Baku-based inspector in the Ministry’s Department of Biological Diversity & Protected Areas. His job is to monitor conservation efforts in the field, which means that over the last 10 years, Elshan has formed close relationships, even friendships, with local people in the protected areas. He is the perfect guide and driver for this two-day excursion.
On our three-hour drive from Baku to the Ismailli district of Shahdag National Park, Elshan telephones Elnor Ismailov, a local ranger. With typical Caucasus spontaneity and hospitality, Elnor invites us to lunch at his home near the entrance of the park. The walled garden around the house is a veritable Eden with apple trees, chickens roaming freely, goats penned in a corner, and a vegetable patch full of ripening tomatoes, cucumbers and greens.
Elnor, as is the case for all rangers in the Caucasus, has a salary that does not support his family. The garden and probably a small family herding activity on the side are essential supplements. Modest circumstances, however, do not get in the way of entertaining guests. Elnor’s wife serves us tea and a berry jam to refresh ourselves after the drive, while Elnor starts the wood fire that will cook our barbecue. The rest of the lunch party arrives: Afghan Jabarov, who is the head ranger in Elnor’s district, and Arzu Bagadur, the head of all of Shahdag. Both have taken time out of their Sunday to be part of my welcome feast.
Talk around the table centers on nature protection and the local economy’s needs. Arzu and I then review the plans for CNF funding in Shahdag. But business on this sunny afternoon does not preclude pleasure. Platters of grilled beef and minced patties, tomatoes and greens arrive on the table. Azerbaijan’s population is predominantly Muslim, but mountain traditions are also strong and the country is proudly secular. I am not surprised when vodka and wine begin to flow as toasts are made to the land and local people.
After lunch, Afghan, Arzu, Elshan and head up the road for a look at the infrastructure at the park entrance and a walk in the forest. Along our walk we stop for a rest in a shady spot. Wild strawberries abound in the surrounding glade, and before I know it, my hosts have gathered some fruit and presented it to me on a grassy stem.
Late in the afternoon, Elshan and I finally take our leave from Ismailla and our hosts and head back east towards the park’s Pirqulu district. Today, with improved roads and modern cars, Pirqulu is only about a two-hour drive from Baku, which means that wealthy city dwellers have begun constructing large estates in this picturesque landscape. The president’s residence in this region, for example, sits atop a hill overlooking the virgin forests of the Pirqulu reserve. Whether the local population will benefit from this new influx of walled off wealth—and what development’s effect on nature will be—remains to be seen.
We stop for the night at what a sign in English informs us is the “Magic Life” holiday camp. This cluster of bungalows is not, however, a modern post-independence enterprise but a quirky remnant of the Soviet era. Its current operators serve good local food, we have been told, and as night falls we are enjoying another meal at one of the five or six sheltered outdoor eating terraces. Dilapidated as it is, there is indeed something magical about this spot tucked into the mountain forest.
The next day, Monday, is a national holiday, but Hanmusa Calilov, chief inspector of the Pirqulu reserve, willingly joins us for breakfast and our morning excursion into the reserve. Hanmussa oversees the 13 rangers responsible for the 6,000 hectares of forest that form this territory. This is obviously a labor of love, and he guides us through it proudly. Despite his large responsibility, he too must supplement a modest salary by small-scale agriculture; he and his family tend to 10 cows and 23 sheep. As he speaks enthusiastically of the old growth trees in another section of the reserve he wants to show me to on a future trip, I am reminded of how important CNF support can be for these dedicated people.
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This three-day weekend was my first extended foray into Azerbaijan’s nature. Getting to know the third country where CNF works has helped me see that while there are myriad religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences distinguishing and too often dividing the peoples of the Caucasus, there are striking commonalities as well.
The most notable is the gracious hospitality of the people. The delicious barbecue and garden vegetables, and my warm welcome at Elnor’s and by all those who on this holiday weekend gave so generously of their time, remind me of similar kindnesses and outdoor feasts in Georgia and Armenia. The second commonality is the inner strength of these people, the pride and stoicism developed by surviving centuries of adversity and oppression. Properly harnessed and combined, it seems to me that these two characteristics—graciousness and strength— could help form a basis for reconciliation, a way to counteract the pressures that contribute to division.
David Morrison is Executive Director of the Caucasus Nature Fund.