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Between a third and half of the world’s wild tree species are threatened with extinction, posing a risk of collapse of the wider ecosystem, warns the most comprehensive global inventory to date.

Clearance of forests for agriculture is by far the leading cause of death, according to the State of the World’s Trees report, which was released on Wednesday with a call for urgent action to reverse the decline.

The five-year international study found that 17,510 tree species are threatened – double the number of threatened mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles combined.

This was 29.9% of the 58,497 known tree species in the world. But the proportion at risk is likely to be higher because an additional 7.1% were deemed “possibly at risk” and 21.6% were not sufficiently assessed. Only 41.5% were confirmed to be safe.

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The problem was evident around the world. Brazil – home to the most diverse forest on the planet, the Amazon – had the most endangered tree species (1,788), including bigleaf mahogany, rosewood, and eugenia. In China, the sixth most biodiverse nation in the world, magnolia, camellia and maple were among the 890 species at risk.

Tropical island states, notably Madagascar, are disproportionately affected, particularly ebony and rosewood, but even in Europe – which is relatively poor in terms of natural diversity – there has been an alarming decline in the number of garlands and rowan trees. In North America, pests and diseases cause severe losses of ash populations.

Almost half of the world’s wild tree species could be threatened with extinction |  Trees and forests
A freshly cut Madagascan rosewood tree illegally recorded in Masoala National Park in Madagascar. Photograph: Toby Smith / AP

Botanists describe trees as “the backbone of the natural ecosystem”. Although only 0.2% of species have gone extinct so far, the authors say an accelerating decline could have disastrous ripple effects. Humans are directly affected by the loss of carbon sequestration, oxygen production, timber, fuel for fires, ingredients for medicine and food, storm buffers and the well-being that comes from shade and beauty. The indirect impacts on natural survival systems are undoubtedly more important. In many parts of the world, trees are the backbone of a healthy ecosystem. Without them, other plants, insects, birds and mammals struggle to survive.

“Trees are essential… it’s like a Jenga tower. Remove the bad and the ecosystem collapses, ”said lead author of the report Malin Rivers, conservation prioritization manager at Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). “When I look at these numbers, I think we need to act now. “

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The report identifies the main threats to trees. Agriculture (crops 29% and livestock 14%) leads the way, followed by forestry (27%), housing and other commercial developments (13%), fires (13%), mining ( 9%), pulp plantations (6%) and invasive species (3%). Climate change (4%) is low on the list, although that doesn’t include the pressure it adds on fire and agriculture.

Gerard T Donnelly, president of the Morton Arboretum in Illinois, USA, hoped policymakers would use this groundbreaking study as a conservation tool: This report clearly shows that the world’s trees are in danger. It was developed over years of vigorous research and collaboration between the world’s leading tree conservation organizations and will guide other scientifically informed actions to prevent tree extinctions.

Trees by country

BGCI recommended expanding protected area coverage for threatened species, planting campaigns focused on populations most at risk, closer global collaboration, more funding for conservation efforts, and increased efforts to safeguard species in botanical gardens and seed banks.

The group launched the GlobalTree portal, an online database that tracks conservation efforts at the species, country and world levels.

“For the first time, we know which species are threatened, where they are found and how they are threatened so that we can make more informed conservation decisions,” said Rivers. “These species are not yet extinct. There is always hope. There are still ways to get them out of the abyss. “


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