Wild seedlings of Magnolia grandis, a Critically Endangered tree known only from a handful of sites in southern China and northern Vietnam, have been recorded in their hundreds in an encouraging sign for the threatened species.
This magnolia has declined significantly across its range, due to a combination of threats including habitat loss and degradation, illegal logging and unsustainable local agriculture practices. These combined threats have resulted in fewer than 300 adult trees to be known globally, and the species has therefore been a conservation priority for Fauna & Flora International (FFI) since it was first discovered growing in Vietnam during surveys carried out by the Center for Plant Conservation (Vietnam) and FFI in 2010-12.
In 2020 and 2021, over 735 wild M. grandis seedlings have been found growing successfully in Tung Vai Watershed Protection Area, a key site for the species. These wild seedlings, which were recorded by local community conservation team members and rangers carrying out patrols to deter illegal activity within Tung Vai forest, represent a turning point for the species’ conservation. Until last year, any wild M. grandis seedlings regenerating naturally within Tung Vai forest were vulnerable to being removed or cut back by cardamom growers, to reduce competition for their crop.
Over the past few years however, we have seen greater support and shifts in local behaviours towards the species’ conservation, particularly in less agriculturally productive areas of the forest, where farmers no longer remove magnolia seedlings. This change in practice has enabled new seedlings to survive, and has also given previously cut magnolias a second chance, as shoots defiantly re-grow from stumps, some of which may have been repeatedly cut back for many years.
This re-growth is an encouraging sign of the species’ capacity to recover, when given the chance. Natural regeneration such as this, with new trees growing from seed in situ, is the most sustainable option for species recovery and so where it is occurring, we prioritise it as a means to strengthen populations and increase their long-term resilience. We recognise, however that it is not always possible to rely on natural regeneration for the recovery of tree species, particularly those that are rare or threatened. These species can face barriers preventing successful seedling growth, such as low seed production or dispersal, poor soil condition or – in the case of M. grandis – only a limited area in which seedlings can grow to maturity, with farmers here still reluctant to let the magnolia recover in productive cultivated areas, because they are vital sources of income.
To supplement the natural ability of M. grandis to recover in other parts of Tung Vai Forest, we support local community members to grow and plant out seedlings, and provide ongoing maintenance to increase survival rates. The project’s nurseries employ eight local, trained people to grow M. grandis and other threatened and native tree species, including Burretiodendron hsienmu, a hardwood timber tree and an important food source for the Critically Endangered Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. Since 2016, nearly 13,000 threatened and native tree seedlings, including over 3,500 M. grandis seedlings, have been planted out and cared for in key areas of land managed by villagers across Tung Vai Forest – an impressive boost for a species with such a small adult population.
A holistic approach
An important part of our landscape-level approach to conserving M. grandis within Tung Vai Protection Forest is our ongoing work to upgrade the site to a nature reserve. This would incorporate Tung Vai within neighbouring Bat Sai Don Nature Reserve – another important site for threatened trees in northern Vietnam – and would provide greater protection and government investment for Tung Vai.
The successful M. grandis regeneration seen over the past two years is a testament to the work of FFI’s team in Vietnam to continue engaging with local farmers on the issue for nearly a decade. This ongoing effort is paying off, but demonstrates the importance of long-term investment for tree species conservation, particularly when social or behavioural changes are needed to address the root cause of the threats.