What can you do when a magical place several thousands of miles away runs into trouble? You buy a chunk of it to conserve. Or that’s what the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh is planning to do.
Apparently some of the world’s oldest trees might just be rescued from a horrible fate if the daring plan involving the Scottish botanic garden goes ahead. They’re busy collaborating with the Rainforest Concern charity to raise funds of as much as £2.6 million to buy a remote 5000 acre area of forest, an area roughly the size of Stirling. It is home to conifers believed to be more than 5000 years old, and that means they’re among the world’s oldest living beings.
The opportunity arose when the land’s Chilean owner put it up for sale. There’s a potential wind farm on the cards, which means this may be the final chance we get to save the ancient trees and the associated wildlife that lives in and around them from extinction. The plan includes a research station for the Gardens’ botanists, created so they can study the age-old Fitzroya cupressoides trees.
It’s thought that the trees, thanks to their sheer age, could provide us with vital information about climate change. The scientists involved should also be able to take samples to create a genetically diverse back-up population of the trees in Scotland, preserving their DNA for the future.
We do like a bit of nominative determinism! The aptly-named Martin Gardner, co-ordinator of the International Conifer Conservation Programme in Edinburgh, says that while time isn’t on their side, he’s hoping the purchase process could be complete within a year to 18 months. All they need is the money.
The initiative is particularly important because about 90% of the plant species in these southern forests are unique to the region. It’s actually surprising there are any of the ancient 70m high Fitzroyas left, since they’ve been widely used for timber over the centuries. Now they’re officially endangered, but their habitat is not… and that’s potentially disastrous.
This forest is probably the oldest in the Andes. It’s extraordinarily precious. It has been a forest since the last Ice Age ended, around 6000 – 10,000 years ago, and some of the trees are not much younger. Their amazing capacity to survive climate change makes them an incredibly important resource, as well as living beings that deserve to be respected and protected.
Sadly, there’s a worst case scenario at the core of all this. If Chile’s magical rainforests die back, ex-situ conservation – in Scotland – should let us conserve the genetic diversity and even restore it one day. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.