We often think about trees as a means: a means to timber or to paper, as providers of oxygen or more recently, as a means to capture carbon. Even within the conservation sector, trees are most often thought about as a means for conserving other species, a habitat for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates – we rarely think about trees for their own inherent value. There are approximately 60,000 species of tree across the world and to mark International Biodiversity Day we look at the work of two of our partners to save three tree species from extinction.
Wild magnolias of the Chocó rainforest, Esmerelda Province, Ecuador
The magnolia family is considered to be one of the most ancient groups of flowering trees. Some fossilised specimens have been dated back 100 million years, a time when dinosaurs roamed the planet. Scientists even think that the very first flower on Earth had a similar structure and resemblance to a modern-day magnolia.
Magnolia dixonii and Magnolia canandeana are two species of this ancient family found only in in the Chocó rainforest, in north-western Ecuador. In a region which has some of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America, both species have experienced declines in their natural range resulting from logging and agricultural expansion. Magnolia dixonii for example had not been seen since 1965 until it was rediscovered in 2017 at Tesoro Escondido, a reserve established to conserve the Critically Endangered Brown-headed spider monkey. Charmingly, the Spanish name for this species is cucharillo, which means teaspoon (presumably referring to the shape of its flowers). Meanwhile Magnolia canandeana was only discovered in 2013, described from Reserva Canandé, another small reserve in Esmerelda Province which borders Tesoro Escondido. This species is so rare that only three remaining trees were found, meaning it is also classified as Critically Endangered.
Our partner, Jocotoco Foundation, is working to restore these endemic magnolia trees to the Chocó rainforest across these two reserves. At Reserva Tesoro Escondido, parabiologists employed from the local community have been collecting seeds from the remaining trees and germinating them in a tree nursery developed as part of the reserve’s wider reforestation programme.
Despite initial fears that they might prove challenging to grow, the team has succeeded in nurturing approximately 250 saplings of each of these species ready to be planted back into the reserve. Some of these saplings have also been provided to local schools and communities to raise awareness about the presence of these species in the Chocó rainforest. Without this conservation intervention, and given existing trends across the region, it is very likely these two species would have been lost.
The Coral Tree, Kilwa District, Tanzania
Erythrina schliebenii is a species of coral tree (a member of the pea and bean family), named after the vivid colouration of its eye-catching flowers and endemic to southern Tanzania. It was first recorded in the 1930s but was then not seen again until 2001 when it was found growing in a small patch of unprotected forest. When this forest was cleared for a biofuel plantation, it was feared the species had been lost forever. But in 2011, it was rediscovered growing in Mchakama Village’s forest reserve in Kilwa District, south-eastern Tanzania. At that time, the global population of the species was estimated to be less than 50.
However, through a project being led by Tanzanian NGO Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (supported by Synchronicity Earth in collaboration with International Tree Foundation), the Village Natural Resource Committee in Mchakama is bringing this species back. They are collecting seeds from remaining trees in their village forest reserve, germinating them in their tree nursery, and replanting them.
In 2018, the village germinated 8,000 seedlings and planted them back into the forest reserve. This reforestation initiative is part of a wider project developed by MCDI to support communities to generate income from sustainable timber production from their lands while restoring and conserving the natural ecosystem. Half the revenue generated by the community goes towards funding development projects in Mchakama such as paying for scholarships for children or improving healthcare facilities.
These two stories demonstrate the potential that exists to recover populations of highly endangered tree species. Even when just a few individuals remain, trees can be brought back to their forests where a concerted effort is made for their conservation. The best part is that even when trees are the ends of our conservation project, the focal point, they just can’t help but serve as a means to providing all the other benefits that come from a healthy forest.