10 Most Endangered Trees and the Effects of Deforestation is the sixth in my 10 Most Endangered Conservation Series and is about some of the world’s most endangered trees and the devastating effects deforestation has had on them.
They live in almost every corner of the world, from temperate and tropical areas to arid deserts and frozen lands. Areas like vast jungles, forests, and woodlands are home to millions, but they also have a significant urban presence, lining metropolitan streets, filling parks, and decorating gardens. Geologists have even uncovered their fossils in Antarctica, suggesting that millions of years ago they thrived there too.
Broadly defined as perennial plants with elongated stems or trunks that support branches and leaves, there are over 60,000 species of trees worldwide, and they live in a magnitude of shapes and forms with unique qualities, characteristics, and intricacies.
Trees evolved around 380 million years ago and have since become essential to life on Earth. They provide habitat for wildlife and insects and supply pollen, fruit, and food. They also regulate the water cycle, help with the fertilisation of soil, and create microclimates. They can reduce noise and provide shade from solar radiation, and some have medicinal qualities.
Most importantly, trees are the lungs of the world, providing us with oxygen. They employ the process of photosynthesis to generate their own energy using water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide and expel oxygen back into the air. By absorbing harmful carbon dioxide (CO2), trees help to regulate the earth’s climate, removing it from the atmosphere and thus improving air quality.
In addition to this amazing feat, scientists are just beginning to understand the incredible biology of trees, with studies conducted in forests around the world showing that they actually communicate with one another via underground networks of fungi called mycorrhizas that act as extensions of the trees’ root systems.
The fungi networks allow trees to share water and nutrients with other trees, so, for example, young saplings in areas without sunlight can receive the nutrients they need to grow from other trees in the network. But it also goes further, with trees sending chemical, hormonal, and slow-pulsing electrical signals through the network to protect themselves from dangers such as drought, disease, or even insect attacks. If a tree is under attack, it will communicate with the other surrounding trees so that they can adapt and prepare their defence mechanisms.
The phenomenon has been dubbed the “wood wide web,” and scientists are learning that the fungi network allows trees to form social circles and communities between both the same and different species.
Unfortunately, there are not enough trees to offset the air pollution on earth right now. Excess carbon dioxide and pollutants are entering the atmosphere every second, and the extreme removal of trees across the planet is one of the reasons the world’s climate is changing at an unprecedented rate.
There are many factors and threats to global tree populations, like logging for wood, paper production, and invasive pests, but, by far, the most damaging and consequential is deforestation.
Deforestation occurs due to both natural and human-caused events. Natural events, such as droughts, hurricanes, and fires, can destroy forests. However, human activities are the major cause of deforestation.
Deforestation takes place at an alarming rate around the world and accounts for nearly 5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions that are pumped into the atmosphere every year, the equivalent of nearly 10% of all annual human CO2 emissions.
Since 1990, it is estimated that over 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses. In the 1990s, 16 million hectares were lost every year, and although it has slowed down somewhat in the last two decades, it’s estimated that around 10 million hectares continue to be lost annually. In 2019, the tropics lost close to 30 football pitches worth of trees every single minute.
Agriculture expansion is the main human driver of deforestation. Large-scale commercial agriculture accounts for 40% of deforestation.
The global demand for meat drives the expansion of grazing space required for livestock farming. Large-scale feed crops, like soy, are also planted to feed cattle which accounts for further forest clearance. The world’s ecosystems are under a great deal of stress as a result of the rise in meat consumption, especially those in the Amazon Rainforest, one of the most valuable but endangered habitats on earth.
To keep up with global demand for palm oil, which is used in over two-thirds of food and household products, 600 acres of forest land are cleared every hour to make room for palm plantations, destroying important habitats for critically endangered species.
Deforestation has heavily contributed to the loss of biodiversity globally, with species such as the Formosan clouded leopard, the Mount Glorious Torrent frog, and birds like the Paradise parrot and the Hawaiian crow all being declared extinct within the last century. Other majestic species, such as the Sumatran tiger, Javan rhinoceros, and Borneo orangutan, are not thought to be far behind.
Continued destruction of forests could eventually prove fatal for the human race too, leading to suffocating levels of CO2 and a catastrophic climate crisis.
The simple solution to counteracting the devastation caused by deforestation is to plant more trees. It has been calculated that by planting 1.2 trillion trees on available open land, two-thirds of the excess carbon already produced by human activity could be removed from the atmosphere.
Conservation efforts to help save the planet’s trees are more urgent than ever, with the IUCN Red List declaring that there are more than 7,400 trees listed as globally threatened. To learn about some of these incredible species, their qualities, and their plights, read on for my list of 10 Most Endangered: Trees.
1. Grandidier’s Baobab
Grandidier’s baobab is native to western Madagascar. Locals refer to it as the “renala,” while at other times they call her the “mother of the forest.” Grandidier’s baobabs have enormous, round trunks that can reach a circumference of 10 feet (3 m) and are covered in smooth, grey bark. It’s reported that only 99 of the trees are known to remain in the wild and it is listed as endangered.
Deforestation of the unusual tree takes place to make space for agriculture and live-stock farming, and they are also felled for their bark, which is used to produce rope, baskets, and other items.
2. Paraná Pine
The Paraná Pine is native to the mountains of southern Brazil and adjacent areas of Paraguay and Argentina. The Paraná is an evergreen tree that belongs to the conifer genus; it can grow up to 130 feet (40 m) tall and has an uncommonly thick bark.
The species is listed as critically endangered and has lost an estimated 97% of its habitat to logging, agriculture, and silviculture (timber production) in the last century. The softwood of the tree is commonly used in stair treads and joinery.
3. Honduran Rosewood
The Honduran rosewood is from the swamp forests of southern Belize and adjacent Guatemala and Mexico. The rare tree is prized for its dark pink and rich purple-brown heartwood, which has been widely used to make instruments, furniture, and sculptures around the world.
Due to its scarcity, the tree’s value has substantially increased, and now the species is illegally logged and smuggled across borders. It is currently without a conservation status, making population monitoring tricky.
4. Loulu tree
The Loulu tree primarily lives in the mixed mesic forests on the south-western part of the island of Hawai’i. The beautiful palms often grow at elevations of 2,000 to 3,000 feet, and they come in a variety of sizes, from tiny plants that cling to an incline to giants that tower 80 feet (24 m) over the forest canopy.
The critically endangered tree was felled over centuries and used to produce spears by native Hawaiians. Invasive rats that consume tree seeds before they can germinate are currently the main dangers to the species, and because the plant matures slowly, conservation efforts are challenging.
5. Leys Whitebeam
The Ley’s Whitebeam tree is found at two sites in South Wales, UK. Mature Ley’s Whitebeam trees can grow to a height of 50 feet (15 m), and the bark is smooth and grey. When blooming, the tree produces delicate bunches of small white flowers. The species is the UK’s most critically endangered, with only 17 remaining in the wild, each clinging to steep cliff sides in the Brecon Beacons.
The main threat to the species is the erosion and degradation of its rocky, cliffside habitats, and it’s also believed that overgrazing of the land has contributed to their decline.
6. Maple-Leaf Oak
The Maple Leaf Oak tree only grows in Arkansas and southeast Oklahoma, USA, in the rocky and steep forests of the Ouachita Mountains. The maple-leaf oak can grow as a single-trunked tree up to 50 feet (15 m) tall or as short, stunted, multi-trunked shrubs. It can be identified by its upper leaves, which resemble sugar maple leaves in terms of shape.
According to the ICUN, the maple-leaf oak is endangered and there are now fewer than 600 specimens left. The main threat to their existence is habitat degradation through agricultural practices and commercial expansion.
7. Dragon’s Blood Tree
The Dragon’s Blood tree is endemic to the Socotra archipelago, part of Yemen, located in the Arabian Sea. Referred to by the ancients as “cinnabar”, it was well known in trade before 60 AD, and its red sap gave it its name, “dragon’s blood.” The sap is thought to have been used as a dye for the intense colour of Stradivarius violins.
The Dragon’s Blood tree is listed as vulnerable and faces several threats, including infrastructure development, overgrazing, logging, harvesting, and the drying out of the land.
8. Californian Redwood
The Californian redwood originates from coastal California and the south-western corner of coastal Oregon, USA. The iconic trees are characterised by their long, straight trunks that reach up to heights of 379 feet (115.5 m) and 29 feet (8.9 m) in circumference. They are widely believed to be the tallest trees in the world.
Endangered Californian redwoods have been logged for many years, to the point that their existence is severely threatened. There are few regeneration efforts underway to conserve the species, and many are dying from natural, over-mature deaths.
9. Star Magnolia
Star Magnolias are native to Honshu, Japan’s largest island, at elevations of 50 to 600 m. The small trees, which grow up to 8 feet (2.5 m) in height, are distinguishable by their small pinkish-white flowers that blossom in spring before their leaves open in summer. The species is highly popular in gardens across the world.
In the wild, the species is classified as endangered due to human development of land and illegal collection to be sold as garden commodities.
10. Horse Chestnut
Horse chestnut trees are found across Great Britain. It is a large deciduous tree that can reach heights of 128 feet (39 m). In Britain, they are famously known as conker trees, which is a reference to their smooth, solid, chestnut-coloured “conker” seeds that fall to the ground in spiky green casings and are then attached to string for the popular children’s game conkers.
Although the species is protected and conservation efforts are taking place, the trees are classified as vulnerable, with their populations declining due to the invasive leaf miner moth. The moth creates ‘mines’ in the leaves, impairing growth and seed production.
I wanted to write about trees in this latest 10 Most Endangered post because I’ve had a huge appreciation for them since a young age. Whenever I’m immersed in the soothing green of woodlands or forests, I feel calm, connected, and grounded. Research shows that within minutes of being surrounded by trees and green space, your blood pressure drops, your heart rate slows, and your stress levels come down.
Wherever there are trees, there is an abundance of life and energy that can be felt that’s almost spiritual. I’ve found these sensations to be overwhelming when deep in a tropical jungle. The fact that forests are devastated every day due to human population growth and the increased need for resources is, to me, soul-destroying because, ultimately, how and where does it all end?
But there are organisations on local and global levels that are combating deforestation with numerous tree planting and reforestation initiatives. In the case of some of the trees featured on my list, conservation is focused on breeding and planting saplings and lobbying for better management and legal protection of forests.
It’s also possible to contribute to the issue at home, including by trying to consume less paper, cardboard, red meat, and palm oil consumables in everyday life and utilising recycling facilities and recycled products. There are also options to sponsor tree-planting programmes or donate to reputable causes.
One of my personal favourite home efforts is using the Ecosia search engine instead of Google; for roughly every 45 searches you make, Ecosia plants a tree. Of course, if you have the space, planting your own trees is also a positive gesture.
Call me a tree-hugger, but I believe that the protection of trees should be a top priority for every government and nation around the world. The basic reason that without them we simply wouldn’t be able to breathe should be enough to persuade anyone of their importance. If that’s not convincing enough, I would prescribe time alone in a forest or tropical jungle so that the real power of trees can be appreciated.
Did you know of some of the trees in this 10 Most Endangered blog? Which are your favourites? If you enjoyed this post please feel free to share or comment down below!
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All text ©J. Thomson, 2023
Catch up on the previous blogs in the 10 Most Endangered series here: