Conifer on the brink

Hidden away in the mountains of southern China, the Ziyuan fir was revealed as a species new to science only as recently as 1980. Here, the species has eked out a living for many thousands of years, sharing its mist-shrouded mountain habitat with beeches, hemlocks and a thick understorey of bamboo.

Ziyuan fir facts

  • Like other members of the family, the Ziyuan fir is a slender, evergreen, cone-bearing tree.
  • The species is confined to just four mountains in south-west China.
  • Ziyuan fir trees grow at altitudes between 1,400 and 1,800 metres.
  • Young trees have smooth, grey bark that becomes scaly with age before slowly decomposing under a thick mat of epiphytes.
At a glance
Abies ziyuanensis
Endangered
China

Family:

Pinaceae

Order:

Pinales

Estimated in the wild:

Fewer than 600

Almost half the world’s 50 known fir species are native to China.

1980

The year when the Ziyuan fir was described as a new species.

Four

The number of known Ziyuan fir sites left on the planet.

Conservation story

Sadly, Ziyuan firs have almost disappeared from their mountain home, with all but the least accessible trees cut down for timber, reducing the overall population to fewer than 600 individuals. Although many of the remaining trees are found within nature reserves, these areas remain under threat from occasional logging, livestock grazing, fuelwood collection and landslides. Under these conditions, very few seedlings are able to survive and establish themselves, meaning that the species simply does not have the new recruits needed to boost its recovery. In Yinzhulaoshan National Nature Reserve, for example, numbers fell from 2,500 in 1980 to only 81 trees in 2015. Although the remaining trees are now well protected by the reserve’s ranger team, the species faces an uphill struggle for survival. To exacerbate the problem, female and male trees have struggled to synchronise their flowering, further undermining the Ziyuan fir’s ability to regenerate naturally.

How FFI is helping to save the Ziyuan fir

To solve this problem, Fauna & Flora International (FFI)’s China programme convened a unique collaboration involving local communities, nature reserve staff and technical experts from the Guangxi Institute of Botany (GIB).

Each group is actively contributing to the survival of the species. The nature reserve rangers have increased patrolling efforts in the Ziyuan fir’s core habitat, helping to reduce disturbance around the adult trees.

Community members are supporting these efforts, carrying out additional patrols around the periphery of the reserve, and alerting staff to illegal encroachment. In turn, the nature reserve management is supporting the livelihoods of local communities, helping them to cultivate and sustainably harvest a number of wild plants.

GIB scientists, meanwhile, are addressing some of the more technical challenges to the species’ survival. By studying the reproductive biology of the adult trees they discovered that, perhaps due to climate change, male and female Ziyuan fir trees were failing to exchange pollen, a vital first step for the regeneration of the species. In response to these results, the GIB team took a more hands-on approach to the species’ recovery, erecting climbing frames that enabled them to reach the canopy and hand-pollinate the last surviving adult trees using paintbrushes.

The results of this tender loving care have been remarkable. In 2015, for the first time in more than a decade, the forest floor in the reserve was covered with tiny Ziyuan fir seedlings, poking their heads above the leaf litter. Although it is early days for these seedlings, their emergence offers new hope for this species. It is also testimony to a successful collaboration between these different groups, where on-the-ground practice is supported by local technical expertise.

This collaborative approach has proved highly successful across a range of FFI’s tree conservation initiatives in China and beyond. For example, through the Global Trees Campaign, FFI’s China programme is supporting the conservation of 18 of the country’s most threatened species – from exceptionally rare magnolias to giant rhododendrons.