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One in Five Tree Species is on the Brink of Extinction

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By Doris Honold

· 6 min read

Botanic Garden Conservation International (BGCI) tree fund is aiming to save 100 critically endangered tree species from going extinct. This presents a great opportunity for organisations to get involved and to enable them to have a real, practical impact on protecting and restoring Biodiversity.

An extinction crisis

There are a little over 60,000 individual species of trees according to the world’s largest plant conservation organisation, U.K.-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). More than 11,000 of these are at risk of extinction, and 3,300 are critically endangered - meaning that without intervention, they will become extinct. Once a tree is lost, it is gone forever and the world loses a unique organism - the result of millions of years of evolution - with many hundreds of co-dependent species of bugs, plants and fungi disappearing too. And yet it is remarkably cheap to rescue a tree, at an average of just $250,000 per tree species, according to Paul Smith, Secretary General of BGCI.

We are living in the most transformative - and dangerous - period of the last ten million years. While the human race seems to be thriving, our quest for resources is scarring vast tracts of land and sea, and finely balanced ecosystems are upset to the point that wildlife can no longer survive. The past 100 years have seen an 83% decline in the number of wild mammals and a 50% decline in plants outside of farms and other human-managed landscapes. And rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere threaten runaway climate change that will impact every inch of the world’s surface. Many scientists now believe that we are in a new age of mass extinction.

Figure 1: The conservation status of the world’s tree species, by biogeographic realm. Graphical addition by illuminem editorial team (Source: BCGI, State of the World’s Trees, 2021)

The Mulanje cedar - a stunning success

But it is not too late for the vast majority of trees, and there are some stunning success stories where collaboration between botanic gardens, communities, governments and philanthropists have not just rescued a tree, but have reintroduced thriving co-dependent species populations that should survive in perpetuity. One such example is the restoration of the Mulanje cedar (Widdringtonia whytei), Malawi’s national tree, which only a few years ago was reduced to just seven mature trees in its natural habitat, the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve. This case study illustrates not only why trees disappear, but also shows how carefully planned conservation can catalyse support from local communities that should assure the future survival of this charismatic species.

In many ways the Mulanje cedar was a victim of its own success. Its timber is durable and termite resistant and is a highly-valued construction material. But with few other ways to make a living, locals turned to tree-felling, targeting the cedar and precipitating its sudden and drastic decline. The loss was exacerbated by an increase in wildfires that swept cleared areas, preventing natural regeneration. Legislation to protect the tree was ineffective, simply triggering a scramble to grab the last remaining specimens. In just thirty years, the Mulanje cedar was on the verge of extinction.

With funding from the UK government and the Franklinia Foundation, BGCI brought together a coalition of botanical experts from around the world to create a plan that would draw on the support of local communities to restore the tree in its natural habitat.

A conifer expert from the UK’s Bedgebury Pinetum, Dan Luscombe, worked with Forestry Research UK and Chicago Botanic Garden to establish propagation protocols and then delivered training in nursery management to 150 community members. Ten nurseries were set up, which to date have propagated more than half a million seedlings that have been planted on Mulanje Mountain. Training schedules for nursery management have been translated into local languages and an NGO, Starfish Malawi, has launched an education campaign to teach children about the importance of conserving the cedars.

In a few short years the Mulanje cedar has been successfully reintroduced. Along the way, more than a thousand jobs have been created and a new sense of ownership is established among locals. Together with its restoration, the commercial value of the cedar has not been overlooked and a new national market for tree seedlings has been established for plantations. This whole process of reintroducing the cedar cost only $375,000 and the resulting co-benefits have extended far beyond pure conservation. The many new jobs and community-centred enterprises demonstrate that conservation and sustainability can be a win-win for all.

BGCI’s Tree Conservation Fund

There is no technical reason why any tree should become extinct as horticultural techniques can be developed to propagate almost any plant. As we have seen in the case of the Mulanje cedar, a dire situation can be turned around through well-planned conservation effort that coalesces science, community engagement and commercial awareness.

Under the leadership of Smith, a new Tree Conservation Fund is being launched in Q4 2020 to enable businesses and philanthropic organisations to contribute to saving the world’s most threatened tree species. Smith said with an initial target of $25 million, BGCI will restore 100 critically endangered tree species. Over the years to come, BGCI will campaign to raise public awareness of the dangers that trees face, as well as demonstrate how they can be saved. The ultimate goal of the Tree Conservation Fund is to ensure that all of the 3,300 critically endangered tree species are restored in the wild.

BGCI’s network extends to 60,000 plant scientists and horticultural experts and its membership includes 625 botanic gardens in more than 100 countries. BGCI is uniquely situated to coordinate this important work and, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), leads the Global Tree Assessment, which will assess the conservation status of each of the world’s tree species by the end of 2020. More than 570 trees have already been saved, but much more is required.

The time is now

The Tree Conservation Fund is a unique vehicle that will enable organisations to make a clearly articulated and measurable contribution to conserving biodiversity. The time is right to address the crisis facing one in five of the world’s tree species, especially in the context of climate change and the loss of biodiversity that contribute to ever-widening problems.

For the Hyophorbe amaricaulis in Mauritius the Tree Conservation Fund is coming too late, with only one remaining tree of its kind on earth it is too late to save it.

Corporations are increasingly recognising their responsibilities to mitigate the social and environmental impacts of their operations. Large companies, including the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Volkswagen and Bosch, have made ambitious commitments to cut and offset their greenhouse gas footprints. Some, like Italian oil producer, Eni, are sponsoring large-scale tree planting to sequester carbon. Biodiversity and species conservation must be featured in these programs.

A study of Fortune 500 companies found that almost half of the companies mentioned biodiversity in their sustainability reports, but only five set specific targets. Contributing to the Tree Conservation Fund would be a concrete, measurable action that could deliver explicit biodiversity outcomes. Donors can select which native trees and countries interest them. They can benefit from association rights and publicise their contributions. Saving a tree from extinction is an unforgettable and unique gift to a country that will last through generations and create a permanent relationship.

This article is also published by Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Doris Honold is an accomplished strategic leader with over 25 years experience in Finance, Risk and Change Management gained as Chief Risk and Operating Officer with global banks working in Germany, Japan, Singapore and UK, as well as in Non-Executive Director and Advisory appointments with organizations focused on Climate Change, Carbon Markets and Sustainable Development.

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