Mounting a rescue to save world’s trees

A third of the world's conifer species could disappear unless action is taken. Picture: TSPL
A third of the world's conifer species could disappear unless action is taken. Picture: TSPL
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Scottish conservationists are helping co-ordinate projects which will safeguard the future of threatened conifers, says Philip Thomas

Living in a country with such rich and diverse arboreta and gardens as Scotland, it can be easy to take for granted the sheer range of conifers with which we are acquainted. So, it can come as a revelation to hear that more than a third of the world’s conifer species are now listed as threatened with extinction. That’s an alarming statistic as conifers are one of the most important groups of plants on the Earth. We rely on them for timber, paper, fuel and medicines. They also help regulate climate, control erosion and provide many other essential ecosystem services. So, can anything be done to resolve the situation?

On a positive note, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) appoints Redlist Authorities for plants and animals. These are voluntary groups of experts who collate information about the conservation status of species then determine if, and to what extent, they are threatened. The degree of threat to any species is decided on the amount of reduction in either the size of the population or the extent of its distribution. Each assessment is independently reviewed and, if approved, added to the Global Redlist.

The Global Redlist is used to inform national and international conservation policies and legislation. It is also employed to inform the design of protected area networks, to support environmental monitoring and reporting, and to prioritise areas for conservation action. Increasingly, it is being used to develop local, national and regional lists of threatened species.

At the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), the International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP) has been involved in producing global conservation assessments since 1991 and we are now responsible for co-ordinating the Redlist Authority. Over the last 20 years, we have worked with local partners in more than 50 countries, from the remotest parts of China to the highlands of Bolivia and little-known islands of the southwest Pacific.

On occasion the work has involved looking for new conifer species in the pristine forests of Laos and the remote Solomon Islands. More often it has been a case of assessing the status of what remains after logging and deforestation have taken their toll, then helping decide what action is most appropriate. In certain circumstances this may be the establishment of a protected area or the development of programmes to ensure a more sustainable or alternative use for the conifers concerned. It may require very practical steps such as developing propagation methods so threatened species can be grown for replanting and reforestation projects. Or, it can include producing authoritative reports, resulting in national and international statutes prohibiting or limiting over-exploitation of threatened species.

The combination of training, education and capacity building is a major component of the ICCP’s work. It involves basic teaching of fieldwork techniques, plant identification and sophisticated genetic analysis, as well as the development of national herbaria and local botanic gardens. Graduate and post-graduate university students, protected area workers and local people have all been involved with training programmes within their own countries or at the RBGE in Scotland. The aim is always to ensure that the people involved can carry on the work independently.

But, while the emphasis is always on in-situ conservation, ex-situ conservation also forms a major part of the ICCP’s work. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to protect natural habitats or species in the wild, so ex-situ conservation can act as a kind of long-term insurance policy. When conditions do improve, re-introductions can be undertaken. If they don’t improve, then at least the species will not be totally extinct. Seed banking is one option but there are many species that have short-lived seed and cannot be stored for any length of time. An alternative strategy, therefore, is to establish collections of living plants on safe sites. To date, over 100 of these sites have been established in the UK, particularly in Scotland. Key partners include the Forestry Commission, the iCONic project and the National Trust.

The focus of Redlisting and the associated conservation work isn’t only on those species that have already declined, however. More common species are also being monitored. Around the world, a combination of more prolonged droughts, increases in the number and severity of wildfires and widespread outbreaks of pests and diseases are having an ever greater impact on the world’s remaining conifer forests and the species they harbour. The potential seriousness of the impacts of climate change is another looming threat and it’s likely that many more species will become threatened in the near future. It remains to be seen if we can stem the tide.

• Philip Thomas is conifer redlist authority co-ordinator at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh


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