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2017-06-21 09:54:45

A tree species prized for its hard wood has nearly died out in its native southern China, and botanists say the country’s outdated legislation for protecting plants is partly to blame.

Euryodendron excelsum, found in and around the city of Yangchun in Guangdong province, is on the verge of extinction, with only six mature trunks and 70 saplings remaining in the wild, prompting conservationists to plant another 300 trees in a last-ditch effort to save the species, Guangzhou Daily reported Tuesday.

According to standards set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, species with fewer than 50 mature members can be classified as “critically endangered.”

Because of its relative hardness, Euryodendron excelsum is highly sought-after as a structural building material. But due to a lack of official regulation, its numbers have been steadily declining.

“Villagers used to cut down these trees to build their homes,” said Wang Ruijiang, a researcher at the South China Botanical Garden at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “They had no idea that it’s a rare species. And when there was roadwork or construction projects, some of these trees were also chopped down to make way.”

Wang told Sixth Tone that the situation has actually improved since Euryodendron excelsum was included in the five-year national protection project for “plant species with extremely small populations” from 2011 to 2015. But to ensure long-term protection for the tree until its numbers can be properly restored, Wang said, it’s imperative that it be added to China’s list of endangered and protected plant species.

The national list, which includes more than 230 species as Grade I or Grade II protected plants, was approved by the State Council, China’s cabinet, in August 1999 and enacted the following month. It has not been updated since.

“It’s necessary that this list be updated at least once every few years because the ecological environment is constantly changing,” said Wang. “It’s unnecessary to invest money in protecting plants that have already been quite adequately restored to the point that they face no threats in the foreseeable future. We should take such plants off the list and add newly observed endangered species in their place.” Otherwise, the government is simply throwing money at problems that may no longer exist, he added.

In addition to Euryodendron excelsum, there’s another plant in Yangchun that’s also on the verge of extinction: Camellia azalea, sometimes referred to as the “panda of the plant scene,” was not included on the endangered flora list back in 1999 either.

In the absence of overarching policy, Yangchun’s Ehuangzhang Nature Reserve is taking steps to preserve what remains of the Euryodendron excelsum population. Lin Xibai, a senior forestry engineer at the reserve, told Guangzhou Daily that the park is collaborating with the local villagers, the South China Botanical Garden, and Yunnan University to erect signs and fences to protect the rare trees.

But advisories and enclosures may not be enough to raise awareness among locals to the extent needed to save the species. “Given that they’re not nationally protected plants,” Lin said, “even if villagers log the mature trees or trample the young ones, these actions aren’t prohibited by law.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Leaves of a ‘Euryodendron excelsum’ specimen in Yangchun, Guangdong province, June 16, 2017. Courtesy of Wang Ruijiang)