Celebrating the world’s Critically Endangered trees

When challenged to make a case for tree conservation, it can be all too easy to count on some well used facts and figures.

To set the scene I could refer to the 100,000 tree species thought to inhabit the earth. To underline our desperate need for more research I could tell you that nearly 90% of these species have never been assessed by the IUCN Red List (meaning we have no idea how most tree species are responding to our changing world).

I could then rest my case with the number of Critically Endangered tree species – 1,152 at the latest count – likely to go extinct unless urgent action is taken to save them.

But the use of these figures has one fatal flaw – they tend to turn people off. At a time when the world’s Critically Endangered tree species are very much counting on us; a focus on numbers adds little to an extinction narrative the world has already become hardened to.

I imagine each species would ask us to not dwell on their dwindling numbers, but to instead draw upon the deep emotional connections we often have with particular species of tree.

They would want us to be touched enough by the story of their existence, that we feel compelled to be a part of the story behind their survival.

Relating to the world’s most threatened trees

There are abounding opportunities to relate to the world’s Critically Endangered trees. Some species shape and drive our cultures and patterns of behaviour.

Frosty winters in southern Brazil are to-this-day tempered by the feasting of the Candelabra tree’s (Araucaria angustifolia) roasted nuts – guzzled down with a little honey or salt around an open fire.

Beyond keeping bellies warm in mid-winter, the tree is an emblem for the state and an icon for the conservation of the region’s remaining forests.

The Candelabra tree is an emblem for the state and an icon for the conservation of the region’s remaining forests. Credit: David Gill/FFI
The Candelabra tree is an emblem for the state and an icon for the conservation of the region’s remaining forests. Credit: David Gill/FFI

Other Critically Endangered trees are connected to a global trade that has affected the lives of millions of people for hundreds of years.

Since Ferdinand Magellan’s fateful navigation through Asia’s spice routes, cinnamon trees have flavoured everything from curries to coffees and have mulled our wines and ciders at Christmas time.

The Cebu cinnamon (Cinnamomum cebuense) is one of several threatened cinnamon trees found in the Philippines. Here, local values for the species, supported by the international community’s love of cinnamon, are likely to be key ingredients for securing the future of the species.

Things of beauty are a joy forever

Other species living on the edge enrich our lives in different ways. The beauty of a magnolia tree in flower has long captured the imagination of gardeners and plant collectors.

Our weakness for delicate and beautiful things can play a key role in the survival of several Magnolia species on the brink.

In Southern China, Magnolia sinica, a supermodel amongst trees, has become a cause celebre amongst plant enthusiasts.

Embracing the challenge of its survival, the conservation community in China has protected the remaining 50 wild trees and nurtured over 150 seedlings planted in 2005, now established into young trees in the wild nearly ten years on.

The beauty of the Magnolia sinica has long captured the imagination of gardeners and plant collectors. Credit: Jackson Xu/FFI
The beauty of the Magnolia sinica has long captured the imagination of gardeners and plant collectors. Credit: Jackson Xu/FFI

The power of re-union can also propel efforts to save a species. Not once but twice believed to be extinct, twelve Lake Latumba Coral trees (Erythrina schliebenii) were recently re-discovered in Tanzania.

News of its re-discovery, and the successful growth of subsequent saplings, became a recent focus of Tanzania’s 50th Union day celebrations.

President Kikwete planted a coral tree sapling to mark a double celebration for the country and for the beautiful crimson flowered tree it nearly lost.

Tanzania's President Kikwete plants a coral tree sapling. Credit: Lenin Festo/Head Gardener of the Presidential State House, Tanzania
Tanzania's President Kikwete plants a coral tree sapling. Credit: Lenin Festo/Head Gardener of the Presidential State House, Tanzania

Willing the story to continue

The mighty dipterocarps of Southeast Asia provide an altogether different way of appreciating what it is to be a tree.

I challenge anyone to stand below a giant dipterocarp and not feel dwarfed by its sheer bulk and ‘Jack and the beanstalk-esque’ height.

Different dipterocarp species have played a major role in Southeast Asia’s history, providing a huge quantity and diversity of medicine, resin, essential oils and sturdy timber to shape both culture and industry.

For one newly discovered dipterocarp species – Vatica kanthanensis – there is a need to understand its own story and likely role in our future before it is too late.

The entire distribution of this Critically Endangered species seems set to be quarried by international cement company Lafarge.

With both local and international conservation groups putting pressure on Lafarge, the company now has a unique responsibility to make every effort to either keep the tree’s story going or draw this particular tale to an end.

Without good stories it may be impossible to foster any connection between people and individual species of trees.

The number 1,152 reminds us that there is much to do, but does not capture the subtle and complex histories, ecologies and cultural roles that different tree species play.

Celebrating these finer points and sparking an emotional connection between people and the world’s most threatened trees is key to ensuring their stories have many chapters to come.

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