Tales of tree conservation

Fifteen years ago the world’s tree species received their first, long overdue, health check-up by the conservation community. Trees proved to be awkward patients: close to 100,000 species were on the waiting list, most without reliable data on their condition in the wild.

Undeterred, a network of global experts began assessing the conservation status for as many species as possible. The result – The World List of Threatened Trees – painted a troubling picture: out of more than 10,000 species reviewed, over 7,000 were deemed to be at risk of global extinction.

Ever since, the Global Trees Campaign (GTC), a partnership between Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), has been taking action for the world’s threatened trees, and encouraging others to do the same. Looking back at our achievements over this period, we share some of the lessons learned through six short stories…

Helping to solve the monkey puzzle: a tale of species conservation success

Once upon a time, monkey puzzles (now well-known and grown by gardeners around the world) were common in their native Chile and revered by the Pehuenche people. But in modern times fire, logging and grazing have led to their decline.

The evocatively-named monkey puzzle tree. Credit: Dan Luscombe.

The evocatively-named monkey puzzle tree. Credit: Dan Luscombe.

Yet all was not lost. Concerted efforts to save the species have helped to control logging and raise national awareness of the monkey puzzle’s plight. In 2003, GTC and our in-country partner in Chile planted 2,000 trees back into the wild, 90% of which are still standing strong today. This work has inspired local landowners to emulate the success by carrying out planting of their own.

Learning from the past: an old tree in need of a helping hand

Our next tale begins in the Tertiary Period, which began 65 million years ago. The main characters – six relict species from the Zelkova genus – have lived through a time of great climatic and environmental change. Their story teaches us how other trees may or may not adapt to climate change in our times. They, however, have left us on an unfortunate cliff-hanger.

The mossy bark of a Zelkova tree. Credit: BGCI.

The mossy bark of a Zelkova tree. Credit: BGCI.

All six species have an uncertain future and require help from the conservation world. GTC has responded by publishing an action plan for their survival and in 2014 will undertake practical conservation work to ensure this epic story has more chapters to come.

Notable absences: an unfinished masterpiece on the world’s tree species

A full account of the world’s trees cannot be properly told without a better description of the entire supporting cast. Despite continued efforts to add more trees to the first conservation assessment, it is thought that a shocking total of 80,000 species are waiting for their first check-up. We risk losing these species before we understand how they live and what can be done to save them.

A team carries out a field survey and assessment in China. Credit: GTC.

A team carries out a field survey and assessment in China. Credit: GTC.

GTC is helping to build this picture by undertaking Red List assessments of threatened species and sharing provisional results on our website. Look out for upcoming assessments featuring the world’s timber trees, birches, camellias and hydrangeas.

The grand old baobab of Madagascar: an unexpected conservation hero

Every conservation story needs a hero – a species to relate to, empathise with, or be inspired by. You may have read about tigers and gorillas being ambassadors for conservation, but did you ever hear the one about the upside-down tree from Madagascar?

An unlikely flagship? Credit: Cynthia Raveloson/Madagasikara Voakajy.

An unlikely flagship? Credit: Cynthia Raveloson/Madagasikara Voakajy.

Following years of support from GTC, Grandidier’s baobab (known locally as the Renala) has become a conservation pin-up in Madagascar, drawing focus towards the environment, helping communities gain rights for their forests and motivating the next generation of children to connect with nature. Trees can be unexpected heroes and should not be overlooked as focal points for conservation movements.

Low-value trees: an underdog story

Not all trees are as well-known or appreciated as the Grandidier’s baobab. The underdogs – those species that provide no obvious short-term economic returns – are too often excluded from conservation attention. We aim to give these trees their place in the spotlight; through our field projects we are showing why it is so important to conserve them, and demonstrating how this can be done.

Harnessing expertise for trees: offering tools to help along the way

Few good stories are written without advice and encouragement. Our work is informed and supported by experts in the conservation community, including over 600 botanic gardens that are members of a global network managed by BGCI. We depend on these experts to inform the assessments, guidance and technical manuals that we in turn make available for the wider conservation community. Our library of online resources is open to all who want take part in tree conservation.

The full story

Six short stories cannot do justice to the huge body of work carried out by GTC and its partners throughout the world.

As evident in the stories told here, our greatest challenges revolve around encouraging others to embrace tree conservation – not just because they provide a habitat for other species, but because they are important in their own right. We hope that our new website both inspires and informs others to join us in our urgent mission to save the world’s threatened trees.

This article was a team effort, written by Dave Gill, Georgina Magin and Robin Loveridge from Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Kirsty Shaw and Sara Oldfield from Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI).