Zelkova is a relict genus that dates back to the Tertiary period. The six extant species are found in disjunct regions in Eurasia (Sicily: Zelkova sicula, Crete: Z. abelicea, Caucasus: Z. carpinifolia), East Asia (Z. serrata) and China (Z. scheideriana and Z. sinica). Habitat loss, logging, increased periods of drought and limited reproduction represent major threats for these species.
In 2010, an international and interdisciplinary conservation project for the genus Zelkova was launched. The project includes three main components: (1) conservation (2) basic and applied research and (3) public awareness and outreach.
The first phase of the project (2010-2013) has involved developing an a global action plan for the conservation of Zelkova species, in particular the west-Eurasian species. Studies of natural populations, ex situ collections, the phylogenetic relationships among species and genetic diversity have all contributed to the creation of the plan.
Individual species descriptions including: morphology, habit ecology, distribution, threats and recommendations for ex and in situ conservation have also been established and results have been published in scientific journals and as a booklet (Zelkova, an ancient tree – Global status and conservation action).
The second phase of the project (2013-2015) has so far been successful with the launch of a major exhibition on relict woody species, prominently featuring Zelkova spp., in Baku, Azerbaijan. The unique relict Hyrcanian Zelkova forests remaining in south-eastern Azerbaijan are of high conservation value. In addition to this, an integrated in and ex situ conservation programme for Z. abelicea, endemic to Crete, was also initiated in 2014.
Looking forward, we will aim to improve our level of knowledge on the status and phylogeography of the east-Asiatic Zelkova species, up to the level achieved for the west-Asiatic species. A key region to enhance understanding and conservation measures of these species is China, where distribution, phylogeny and threats are poorly understood. Extensive field surveys and tests in laboratories are scheduled to help consolidate this information.
Additionally, an exhibition on the conservation status and management needs of Z. abelicea will be developed and shown across Crete and Greece, aimed at conservationists and scientists as well as the general public. Another exhibition on rare and relict woody species at the Natural History Museum Fribourg (Switzerland), opening on 29th of May 2015, will feature Project Zelkova prominently.