The lonesome pines: a third of conifer species put on endangered list



More than a third of the world’s conifer species are threatened with extinction as a result of urbanisation, logging, disease and feral goats, according to an alarming new report.

Some 206 of the world’s 606 species of pine, cedar, cypress, fir, yew and other conifer plants could cease to exist in the coming years unless strong measures are taken to conserve them, according to first comprehensive assessment of these cone-bearing plants since 1998.

The so-called Red List of threatened species includes California’s Monterey Pine, the world’s most widely planted pine because it grows quickly and produces good quality pulp to make paper. The species, which is found in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Mexico as well as the US, has gone from a low risk of extinction to being “endangered” in 15 years as a result of disease and feral goats, which eat the seedlings and erode the soil.

“The overall picture is alarming. We must use this knowledge to its fullest – making our conversation efforts well targeted and efficient – if we are serious about stopping the extinction crisis that continues to threaten all life on Earth,” said Jane Smart, global director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which carried out the assessment.

Conifers are the oldest and largest species on the planet. Some Bristlecone Pines can live almost 5,000 years, while the Coast Redwood grows to a height of 110 metres.

The latest assessment by the IUCN, whose Red List is the industry standard, also officially declares three more species to be extinct. They include the Cape Verde Giant Skink, a Cape Verde islands-dwelling lizard driven to extinction by the introduction of rats and cats and the Macrobrachium leptodactylus  freshwater shrimp, wiped out from its home on the Indonesian island of Java by urban development. The Santa Cruz Pupfish of the Santa Cruz River in Arizona has also become extinct because it is dry for much of the year.

Other new entrants to the Red List include the Macrobrachium hirtimanus river prawn, under siege from human consumption, and the White-lipped Peccary, a member of the pig family which has seen its population dive by 89 per cent in Costa Rica in just five years and by 84 per cent in Mexico and Guatemala.

Hunting and habitat loss are likely to account for some of the decline, but they do not explain the extent of the pig’s rapid decline, according to the IUCN’s Craig Hilton-Taylor, who says there is also a “mystery element”.

“It’s been so rapid that we haven’t been able to pinpoint the cause. Usually diseases are involved in these kind of cases of unexplained disappearance and we have a team of people trying to get to the bottom of it,” he said.

Among the conifer species, the Atlas Cedar, native to the Atlas Mountains of Algeria and Morocco, has also become endangered since the last IUCN assessment.

Other species, such as the Lawson’s Cypress, have come back from the almost-dead. Once heavily-traded, this tree has bounced back in the past 15 years as trade restrictions were toughened up and disease-resistant strains planted.

Bringing some relief to the UK, which could see its entire 80m population of Ash trees wiped out as a result of the ash dieback disease, the three conifers that it hosts are all safe – the common yew, the Scottish Pine and the Juniper.

However, Britain’s struggling bumble bee population is likely to see one or more species added to the Red List in the near future, Mr Hilton-Taylor warned. The IUCN needs to do more analysis of its latest data to be sure, he said.

Along with the rest of the world, bees in Britain have suffered from a combination of habitat loss and a series of wet summers, while nerve agent pesticides – known as neonicotinoids – are also thought by many to have played a part.

The latest IUCN update means  the group has now assessed 70,294 of the world’s roughly 2m “described” species – meaning they have been identified and given a name – although millions more are thought to exist but yet to be discovered.

Some 30 per cent, or 20,934, of the species assessed are threatened with extinction, although the IUCN said the relatively small data set could not be used to determine the portion of the world’s total number of species at threat.

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