21 March 2017

For the love of trees

Kew celebrates International Day of Forests and reveals what is being done to protect trees for future generations.

Aerial view of woodland in Sussex

Our love of trees

Unsurprisingly, we love trees at Kew. They are the lungs of the planet. Not only are trees wonderfully varied, they also provide us with vital commodities such as food, timber, fuel and medicines. As forests in their natural state, they supply us with regulating and supporting 'services' such as soil formation, water catchment, erosion control and climate regulation. They are beautiful too, and across our gardens in West London and at Wakehurst in Sussex, we proudly show off some of the world’s most stunning and precious trees to our visitors.

Trees under threat

But trees and forests are constantly under threat. In the words of Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum at Kew:

“Trees everywhere are under threat. They face so many enemies - animals, weather, disease and, especially, humans. It is so important that we educate future generations about trees, starting in school. Trees give us oxygen, they clean the air we breathe, they are beautiful and they give us shade. They are truly amazing things, giving us so much pleasure and so many benefits, yet we present them with so many challenges.”

Kew's role in protecting trees

So what is Kew’s role in forest conservation in modern times? 

Here are four of the ways that RBG Kew is involved in tackling some of the more pressing issues:

1) DATA: Botanical scientists record what is out there, map what is endangered and inform practices. Sharing scientific knowledge is a critical piece of the conservation puzzle. Among the many online databases open to all is the Plants of the World Online portal which launches later this month, containing a wealth of information about the tree species that populate forests all over the world. The portal is a one stop shop that can, and should, inform decisions on land use.

We are also discovering and naming new tree species every year. Last year one of the new discoveries was Allophylus samoritourei discovered in Guinea, West Africa. This big spiny-branched tree is in the same family as the litchi (lychee). Now that it has a scientific name we can publish a formal conservation assessment for this threatened species (according to IUCN Red List criteria). We are also working with our local colleagues to collect evidence that will enable the Guinean authorities to protect these trees in the wild, together with their pollinators, seed dispersing birds, mycorrhizal fungi and associated species, by creating new national parks as part of Kew’s new TIPAs (Tropical Important Plant Area) initiative.

2) EXPERTISE: Kew’s plant expertise can be of real practical use to farmers, NGOs, environmentalists and governments on the ground. We are actively involved in forest projects in Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Mozambique.

Converting natural habitat to unsustainable agricultural land is seen as one of the greatest threats to the survival of rare plant species, and a major global contributor of climate-change gases.

Kew is doing exciting work in the tropics to identify concentrations of threatened species, in designating them as Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs), and enabling national authorities to prioritise their protection. Many tropical countries lack the data and resources to demarcate their TIPAs, so Kew is trying to remedy this on a global basis, initially in selected countries where we have strong partnerships and robust data sets. 

By 2020, Kew and our local partners will have completed the first phase of TIPA analysis: delimitation and mapping in seven countries throughout the tropics, with information on the component species available through the Plants of the World Online Portal. Information from this output will feed directly into conservation prioritisation for delivery of on-the-ground conservation actions by our partners.

3) SEED BANKING: Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) now includes millions of important tree seeds, many of which are duplicated in storage in their native regions. These are the back-up plan, the critical insurance policy against extinction risk. Closer to home, this takes the form of the UK National Tree Seed project, which collects genetically diverse native seeds that are banked in the underground vaults of the MSB. These seeds play a vital role in protecting UK trees and tackling the threats facing our woodlands today. The threats from ash dieback, now widespread across the UK, led to that species being prioritised, with the team close to collecting ash in its entirety across Great Britain. The project as a whole has already gathered 5.8 million individual seeds from 6,500 trees across the country.

4) SHAPING POLICY: One of the clearest new global goals signed by UN member states in 2015 includes one on protecting forests for the future. Kew can link with national governments through our established partnerships in over 100 countries to help reach these ambitious targets by 2030. In Mozambique for example, Kew has been working with local partners and the government to help protect mountains in the north of the country, and other areas of high biodiversity value such as coastal forests. 

We also lead by ensuring that timber from endangered species listed on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) imported into the UK does not have an impact on the species themselves or the forests they live in. CITES is a global agreement signed by 183 countries that protects plants and animals, from orchids to elephants. CITES monitors some 30,000 plants threatened by overexploitation through unsustainable practices. Kew acts as the CITES scientific authority (SA) for plant trade in the UK. We can provide training and information on CITES to all levels and users. See our CITES and timbers guide and some of our other CITES resources on the Kew website.

Trees are a vital resource

Kew knows one thing to be true: the Earth's biological resources are vital to the future of humanity, and what an incredible resource trees are. We are pleased to see that we are not alone – there is growing recognition of forests as a global asset of tremendous value, to both present and future generations. But the threat to species and ecosystems has never been so great. We need to do more. Together, and quickly.