In the next instalment of our interview series we meet another dedicated conservationist working with GTC to save the world’s most threatened trees from extinction.
Introducing Pablo Hoffmann and Elivelton Gurski. Pablo is a founding member and the Executive Director of Sociedade Chauá, a tree conservation NGO based in southern Brazil. Elivelton grew up next door to the nursery, has been engaged with their activities from an early age as a junior assistant and has been a Chauá technician for the past three years.
How did you get into tree conservation?
Pablo: Good question, I’ve always loved plants since I was a boy. This eventually led to me to a degree in forestry which really ignited my passion for plants and trees and where my focus was on their conservation and botanical study as this is something that has always extremely attracted me.
When I started my plant conservation career, it was natural for me to work with trees so I became a freelance forestry consultant working with botanical conservation. After that, I started to work with a regional NGO the Wildlife Research and Environmental Education Society (SPVS). This project focussed on avoiding deforestation and was related directly to Araucaria forest conservation, paying farmers to conserve the forest. I helped with management plans and everyday activities.
When I left SPVS, I started to work with the recently created Sociedade Chauá where we started to do conservation more directly with trees including nursery construction, seed collection, tree mapping and planting activities.
Elivelton: I started working with tree conservation very early on in my life because I lived in the neighbouring farm to Chauá and I’ve always loved the forest and the rural landscape. I played and spent a lot of time in the forest – half my childhood was in the forest, the other half was on the farm. I started working with Chauá when I was around 12, planting seedlings, assisting with nursery construction. My passion and enjoyment for the work grew, I studied forestry and now here I am!
How do you contribute to the Global Trees Campaign (GTC)?
Pablo: The whole project aims to save species from extinction. We are not focussing on one or two species but more than 40 threatened and rare species from the Araucaria forest. We try to do the best we can – mapping the trees and collecting the seed from a good diversity of individuals to conserve the gene pool. Sharing our research results and learnings is another a big part of our job based on the species specific information produced from our fieldwork, species germination and growth in the nursery and the reintroductions and subsequent monitoring of planting sites. We also influence other partner nurseries and institutions to use a greater number of native species and a higher diversity of native species on their projects leading to higher quality restoration projects and eventually a more biodiverse landscape. We have done this with the GTC since 2011.
Which conservation achievement are you most proud of?
Pablo: I think in technical terms, we are proud of the fact that we are producing the highest number of Araucaria-associated species of any nurseries in southern Brazil. It is really important to be this example of how a conservation project can work and have impactful results and to be a source of technical information for threatened species seed orchards.
I do not think I am proud of just one thing though. The improvement in the number of seedlings produced by Chauá and our partners is extremely important and satisfying. The amount of information we have produced on a wide range of species since we began only 9 years ago, is also a huge achievement. For some species very little was known – no one knew how to produce, grow or plant them back to the forest and we now we have this crucial information. Following on from this, the fact that we have become a reference point for native and threatened species conservation and a source of this knowledge is very important for the future of Araucaria restoration. Before us, there was nobody that could share or disseminate this information and it could have been lost.
Finally, it’s not exactly conservation, but I am proud of how the institution has grown, is now financially balanced and can keep doing our work in a country like Brazil where one has almost no support for conservation – I think this is a very nice achievement.
Best story from the field?
Pablo: So there are a lot of stories, but I think the best ones relate to when you repeatedly go to the field to search for a species. You spend 8 hours walking every day and on the third day you find the species and you say ah ha! It’s an amazing feeling when you find a big healthy tree or when you’ve never collected seeds or fruits from a species that you’ve looked 5 years for. Then you find a tree or many trees with lots of seeds or fruits and it’s a miracle, it’s like you’ve just won the lottery.
But, there are also some funny stories from the lab. For example, when we first built the lab, everything was very new and we started to use ethanol from a dispenser to clean the experimental germination boxes. Soon after we found a very rare species in the field so we wanted to do substrate and light condition experiments. When the seeds started to germinate on the second day they all started to die which we thought was very strange, what could have caused this? It turns out my colleague mixed up the dispensers he had been watering the seedlings with ethanol rather than water!
Elivelton: I’ll admit to after cleaning the germination box, I mistakenly turned the temperate from 25° Celsius to 67° and the germination box melted. It was funny but not funny because the species inside was extremely threatened and we had only collected a small amount of seeds and all of these seeds were inside the box. So we lost all the seeds from that year for that species. But in science mistakes happen.
The last story is a funny one. There is a species with very sparse distribution, Agonandra excelsa, which we found three individuals about 100km from our nursery. We tried to collect seeds from these individuals for about 4 years but we never found seeds or fruits when we visited. Then one year, we collected 4 fruits but they never germinated. The next year, we found four kilos of seeds and we were very very happy!
We did all the biometric measurements but we didn’t know how to clean the seeds so we were very careful. It was a hot summers day so before lunch, a colleague put the seeds in the shade because we didn’t want to damage them. After lunch, the sun had moved, the seeds were in full sunlight and had all dried and cracked. We were devastated, we had destroyed all the seeds! And we’d have to wait until next year to collect more.
We decided to test these seeds anyway and compare them to the non-cracked seeds. We ended up discovering the best germination protocol with this species is to leave them in the sun. Almost 100% of the seeds that cracked germinated compared to around 10% of those that were out of the sun. Again, that’s science…
What is your favourite threatened tree?
Elivelton: The Araucaria, Araucaria angustifolia (featured in the header image). It has beautiful branches, it towers above all other trees and the seeds are eaten as a delicious snack called pinhões – similar to the pine nut.
Pablo: It is so difficult to pick one! I very much like Ocotea odorifera, in the Laurel or Sassafras family. It is a very nice species. It is a climax species and it depends on the whole system to be there. The tree smells like toothpaste and the wood is beautiful which can be used for furniture and can be used in alcohol brewing as an infusion. If you have 100 year old furniture, the wood still retains its lovely smell. It’s also very difficult to collect the seeds. Either something is not allowing them to produce fruits or they are very seasonal. We haven’t collected seeds from it in about 4 years. The tree always occurs in groups, almost never alone but in groups – which I like.
What are easy things people can do to support tree conservation?
Pablo: So many things! From a broad standpoint we all must think about what we use, what we buy and where the products come from and whether we are actually supporting deforestation through the choices we make. Think about the conservation you can do in your everyday life.
Another thing is to help institutions. Every kind of help is welcome such as funds yes but also voluntary work and sharing the work of NGOs. What else? What may also help would be to put some pressure on your governments to care about your threatened species and to support their NGOs and institutions. For very rare species, ex-situ conservation is something everyone can help with by planting these species on your land, helping to secure their future.
The final question – which tree product could you not live without?
Pablo: If I think about ecosystem services, then it’s the function of nature that allows us to live. So for example in Brazil we must be mindful of watershed, soil, air, mountain, microclimate, urban and landscape conservation – all crucial for a healthy thriving life. Directly though, I don’t think I could live without timber. I like it very much for houses and furniture, it is a very nice material to work with.
Postscript: For more information, Chauá has a very active Instagram page and website with lots of wonderful content to peruse to learn more about the organisation, how you could volunteer there and Brazilian tree conservation. If you would like to find out more about those working with GTC to save threatened tree species, our last interview can be found here. Header image credit: David Gill.