Fauna & Flora International’s Dave Gill explains why a breakthrough by Guangxi Institute of Botany scientists could help save one of China’s most threatened tree species.
In a ramshackle restaurant in Ziyuan town, Guangxi, three botanists wait patiently for me to finish my breakfast.
Ignoring the noodles slipping between my chopsticks and splattering the table around me, Gu Yu – project officer for Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in China – tactfully switches conversation topics to the Ziyuan fir, Abies ziyuanensis.
Found a few hours’ drive from here, this tree has demanded an even greater level of their patience and perseverance.
At the time of its scientific discovery in 1980, several thousand Ziyuan firs dotted numerous mountains in Guangxi, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Most of these trees are now gone, falling one by one to logging, with fewer than 600 now hanging on in four separate sites.
As we drive up the mountain past golden rice paddies, white bubbling streams and hillsides of windswept bamboo, our conversation moves to the Ziyuan fir’s uncertain future.
Although the last trees are found mostly within protected areas, the species is by no means safe from extinction. Like their compatriot, the giant panda, the remaining Ziyuan firs are struggling with the sensitive issue of breeding – badly needed if the species is one day to return to safe numbers.
Dr Hu Xinghua and Dr Ding Tao, two experts from Guangxi Institute of Botany (GIB) studying the species in the wild, believe the problem comes down to bad timing.
Perhaps due to climate change, male and female Ziyuan firs now rarely flower in synchrony (and thus cannot give and receive pollen). Like two frustrated lovers, never able to chance an intimate moment, these last trees are failing to take their close acquaintance to the next level.
At Yinzhulaoshan Nature Reserve – our final destination – only one Ziyuan fir sapling is known to have survived over the past 15 years. The other 70 trees, middle aged, appear to be trapped in time, looking on as the world changes around them.
Restarting the regeneration game
As part of a project to help Yinzhulaoshan Nature Reserve work with local communities to save the Ziyuan fir from extinction, GIB has been playing cupid – carrying out an experiment to help the species share pollen, produce healthy seeds and restart the slow process of recovery in the wild.
Platforms have been erected in the canopy, up which Dr Hu and Dr Ding scaled last year to collect pollen from male trees before transferring it with paintbrushes onto the flowers of female trees.
Into the Ziyuan fir’s mountain home
As we made our way up the mountain and into the nature reserve, we paused only briefly to admire a beautiful wild relative of tea, Schima superba, with flowers egg white and yolk in colour and to sidestep around a small red venomous snake.
It felt both humbling and disturbing to reach our final destination: a small core population of Ziyuan firs huddled together in a valley no larger than a basketball court. This was one of their last stands.
Moving from tree to tree, Dr Hu and Dr Ding were eager to show the results of last year’s experiment.
Carefully watching their steps, they pointed to hundreds of minute Ziyuan fir seedlings poking their heads above the leaf litter across the forest floor – a phenomenon not seen at this scale during more than a decade of research.
A long road to recovery
Parachuted far and wide by wind, it is our hope that the renewed dispersal of Ziyuan fir seed will help the species to slowly recolonise parts of its former range.
However, setting the species on a steady course to recovery will take time.
Each thread-thin fir seedling will face intense competition from a range of faster growing plants which, aided by a warming climate, are gradually moving up the mountain into the Ziyuan fir’s habitat.
Those seedlings that patiently fight their corner and take hold throughout the reserve will then take decades to reach full maturity.
Crucially, FFI’s China Programme is also working with the reserve and local communities to improve long-term management of the species’ habitat, helping to ensure that the remaining fir trees – and the seedlings now joining them – are monitored and protected.
Lessons learned for other trees
The problems faced by the Ziyuan fir are not unique to this species. Around the world, 9,600 tree species are threatened with extinction, and many of these have been reduced to tiny populations, often failing to share pollen, disperse seed and establish new populations.
Helping these species to survive and also keep pace with expected climate change is a major challenge for the conservation community.
Facing this challenge requires not only a long-term commitment to protect adult trees in situ but also – with the technical support of people like Dr Hu and Dr Ding – finding ways to help these trees regenerate, establish and persist in a changing world.