Anyone even remotely connected with wildlife conservation knows that the race to reverse biodiversity loss is a marathon, not a sprint. But perseverance pays off in the end, as our long-standing partner in Belize has just demonstrated.

It is almost 25 years since Fauna & Flora International (FFI) began working with the embryonic Ya’axché Conservation Trust (now simply known as Ya’axché). That partnership has reaped rich rewards for Belizean biodiversity and for the communities whose livelihoods are inextricably linked with the wider landscape.

The latest success has been a long time in the making. After ten years of trying, Ya’axché have finally managed to collect viable seed and germinate seedlings from the critically endangered Honduran rosewood, Dalbergia stevensonii. This is a huge breakthrough, for reasons that will become clear, and vindicates the tireless efforts of everyone involved. The precious seedlings – all 330 of them – are due to be planted out within the Maya Mountain North Reserve this month.

Honduran rosewood seeds collected by Ya’axché. Credit: Ya’axché Conservation Trust

Ya’axché began life as a handful of environmentally conscious local community members and, with FFI support, has grown into a flourishing and nationally recognised leader in conservation and sustainable development. The trust’s name was developed with the Maya communities it grew from and is centred on the sacred ceiba, or ya’axché (meaning ‘green tree’).

The Maya people are engaged as staff, board members, and through livelihoods activities to establish more sustainable ways of living with the forest. For example, over 100 families have participated in Ya’axché’s agroforestry programme, pioneering novel cropping systems and diversifying income to support conservation.

Today Ya’axché influences the conservation management of an area exceeding one million hectares, from the Maya mountains in the west of Belize to the Caribbean Sea. It owns and manages the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve, a tropical forest jewel that FFI helped save from destruction, and also co-manages Bladen Reserve, one of the most biologically rich areas in Central America.

Golden Stream River, Belize. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

The Golden Stream Corridor Preserve is a critical habitat for many threatened species. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

The breathtaking biodiversity that this vast forested watershed harbours – much of it globally threatened – ranges from charismatic cats, harpy eagles and howler monkeys to tapirs and technicolour toucans, but it’s easy to forget that the green backdrop to this wildlife spectacle includes many plant species that are equally endangered. The iconic Honduran rosewood is a case in point.

Rosewood is the world’s most heavily trafficked wild product, and not only by weight. Trade in this tropical timber species rocketed in the early years of the new millennium. At its peak, the value of illegally traded rosewood was estimated at US$2.25 billion, higher than elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts combined.

Rosewood is extremely valuable and hugely in demand for use in luxury furniture and musical instrument manufacture. Credit: Maximiliano Caal

Rosewood is the world’s most heavily trafficked wild product, and not only by weight. Trade in this tropical timber species rocketed in the early years of the new millennium. At its peak, the value of illegally traded rosewood was estimated at US$2.25 billion, higher than elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts combined.

Many timbers are sold under the ‘rosewood’ name, but only those species belonging to the Dalbergia genus are genuine rosewoods. The insatiable demand for the real deal, particularly from China, led to heavy logging of wild populations, and unsustainable harvesting of these trees for export resulted in devastating forest loss.

In Belize, the number of large Honduran rosewoods was halved. In response to this unbridled exploitation, Ya’axché lobbied for a logging ban, which led to a government-imposed moratorium on harvesting of the species, a nationwide survey and official regulation of international rosewood trade.

Continuous monitoring by Ya’axché has revealed that Honduran rosewoods are extremely slow-growing and produce most of their seeds at over 100 years old. The protection of these huge, centenarian seed-bearing trees is therefore crucial to the species’ survival.

Seedlings ready to be planted in the Maya Mountain North Reserve. Credit: Ya’axché Conservation Trust

Joint patrols by Ya’axché rangers and the Forest Department have effectively deterred logging in their field sites for the past few years. This work has been complemented by successful outreach campaigns, which have included bioblitz days, with children from buffer-zone communities participating in intensive surveys of all the wildlife in their area, as well as radio and television shows highlighting the importance of conserving their valuable natural heritage.

Thanks to the combination of the ban and persistent patrolling, there has been no rosewood logging since 2016 at the two main sites managed by Ya’axché. But there was a need for an insurance policy. With one eye on the long-term future, FFI has also been working with Ya’axché to propagate rosewood seedlings, which local farmers are keen to plant out on their land, helping to restore the wild population to its former glory.

In practice, however, this has proved far from easy, as Elizabeth Dorgay, Science Director at Ya’axché, explains:

In 2014, a small number of seeds were collected from a mature tree on private land. When Ya’axché staff revisited the tree for collections the following year, they found it had been cut down by the landowner. Subsequent efforts focused on 118 trees in two protected areas, but the annual visits merely uncovered a new threat: a species of weevil that consistently destroyed all developing seeds before they ripened for harvest.

The weevil is assumed to be a native species that evolved in tandem with Honduran rosewood and experiences cyclical population growth and decline. It was not until the year 2022 that weevil abundance declined enough to allow some rosewood seeds to ripen unharmed. Continued support from FFI helped us maintain persistent seed monitoring efforts that ultimately paid off in the production of new seedlings for this important timber species.”

Successful germination of these Honduran rosewood seedlings brings new hope for this critically endangered species. Credit: Ya’axché Conservation Trust

Almost 17,000 of the world’s 58,000 known tree species are officially threatened with extinction – more than double the number of threatened bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species combined. Nearly 2,800 of these – including the Honduran rosewood – are listed as critically endangered, meaning that without concerted and coordinated conservation action these trees are doomed to disappear completely.

With Ya’axché and other pioneering, community-led organisations firmly at the helm and playing a convening role at the national level, FFI is embarking on a new programme of work to catalyse action on behalf of the world’s threatened trees – from Honduran rosewoods and Indonesian dipterocarps to magnolias in Vietnam and pears in Tajikistan.