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The loneliest trees: can science save these threatened species from extinction?

Perched among the fronds of the world’s loneliest tree, Viswambharan Sarasan had an important decision to make. Sarasan had worked for years to get access to this palm — the last living member of the species Hyophorbe amaricaulis, which grows in Curepipe Botanic Gardens, Mauritius.

He reached up towards a cluster of its walnut-sized, olive-green fruit. Sarasan, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, near London, had been through sensitive negotiations for permission to take the fruit, each with one crucial seed inside. He then had to wait for the tree, nicknamed the lonesome palm, to produce them. Nine metres up, 50 fruit dangling within his grasp, he had to decide how many to take: enough to give himself a chance of culturing them back at Kew, while leaving enough for local scientists to work with.“It was the only shot I could get,” he says of his visit in June 2006. “But I didn’t want to take all the seeds and then it turns out badly.” He picked ten fruit. It was not his lucky number.

When the plight of trees gets publicity, deforestation is generally the reason, but it is not the only crisis they face. Nearly one-third of trees — more than 17,500 species — are threatened with extinction. This is more than twice the number of threatened mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles combined1. Mass plantings of trees, paradoxically, often add to the problem by using single species. Now, hundreds of plant conservationists globally are fighting to save the trees speeding towards extinction.

“We shouldn’t be giving up on any tree species,” says Paul Smith, head of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), a London-based charity that co-leads the campaign to secure the future of the world’s threatened tree species.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2022