Tag Archives: forests

Forests just exist out there somewhere.

Don’t they? They just grow and will go on growing forever.

We all know that animals go extinct.

Think of the thylacine, whose species died out in New Zealand toward the middle of the twentieth century. This incredible dog-like marsupial with the jaw of a crocodile was hunted out of existence, and the last one spent its final days in a cage.

Or the passenger pigeon, in the nineteenth century. They flew in clouds so gigantic that they blocked out the light of the sun. But their numbers were ultimately decimated for food and sport.

Or the elephant bird, a flightless wonder 10 feet tall that disappeared from Madagascar, the island where it made its home, around 1,000 AD. Think mega-ostrich.

When fauna die off, we mourn their loss  — at least I do. And now people are taking steps to ensure the survival of some, like the mountain gorilla, and the leatherback turtle. Only two northern white rhinos remain on earth, and they are kept carefully fenced in a Kenyan nature preserve. A third rhino, a male, died a few years back and so these two females have no way of continuing the line of succession. It’s over. Actually, not if some crazy Italian scientists have their way — they developed 12 embryos of the northern white rhino and we’ll see what happens.

It might come as a surprise to learn that certain trees also stand in danger of extinction. To be precise, as science has been on this point, one in three of the world’s tree species are now at risk of becoming extinct. A consortium of experts called The Global Tree Assessment has done its homework and found that In fact there are twice as many threatened tree species as there are mammals,  birds, amphibeans and reptiles combined.

It is crushing to learn that more than 400 tree species have less than 50 individuals left in the wild. Some are familiar, say the members of the Global Tree Assessment – even magnolias, oaks and maples, surprisingly, are at risk.

 But a lot of these endangered species grow far away, in tropical forests, and it’s more or less out of sight, out of mind. These forested areas have been logged out, cleared for farming, or invaded by various pests and diseases. When the trees go, habitat for birds and animals goes too. It’s devastating.

Forests cover approximately 31%of the world’s land surface and their total economic value has been estimated at around $150 trillion.  They contain around 50% of the world’s terrestrial carbon and help provide 75% of its accessible freshwater. These benefits could be lost if tree species go extinct.

Here are a few examples of trees in trouble. Blink and they may disappear.

Mahogany might be the best known threatened tree. Swietenia macrophylla is one of the most valuable hardwoods, used for furniture and musical instruments, cherished for its beauty. One tree alone can be worth many thousands of dollars. Native to the tropics of the Americas, it was one of the first to be called out as endangered, due to illegal logging.

African Cherry’s bark contains a compound that has proven useful in treating medical disorders such as prostrate problems, malaria and kidney disease. The international trade in the bark of Prunus africana is fully $200 million. Overharvesting has led to its demise.

Highly fragrant Agarwood produces a resin that is used in perfume and incense. Aquilaria malaccensis has a global trade value of $32 billion. The production of the resin is stimulated when it suffers the attack of a dangerous fungus. Overharvesting, again, has led to as many as 20 species being threatened..

Dipterocarps can be found in Southeast Asia – 680 species grow there. Often the most abundant trees in the forest canopy, it produces high quality timber. From the island of Borneo alone come $3.5 billion worth of exports each year, and 182 species face extinction. The tallest known tropical tree, Shorea faguetiana, may ultimately disappear.

Closer to home is the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, the source of the anti-cancer drug Paclitaxel. Logging threatens to wipe the tree out.

What can a person do? Well, don’t take forests for granted. Don’t take trees for granted. If we do that, some may go the way of the thylacine. Also, develop alternatives. Different medicines. Different flooring. A guitar made with a different type of wood. Or learn to play the banjo.

It’s a change of mindset. By the time we start feeling bad about it, it will be too late.

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