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By Earl Russell
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Nearly a third of the world’s tree species are threatened with extinction – we need global action to stop them being lost forever

Malin Rivers

Malin Rivers

4 min read

Trees are crucial to tackle the climate crisis, but are facing multifaceted threats. As world leaders consider the needs of the planet at COP26 this autumn, the needs of trees must be on the agenda.

Today, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) published the first ever State of the World’s Trees report, revealing that 30 per cent of global tree species are threatened with extinction. This accounts for 17,500 of the world’s 58,497 tree species, and means there are twice the number of threatened tree species globally than threatened mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles combined.

The State of the World’s Trees report is the first comprehensive analysis of the extinction risk faced by the world’s tree species. It is the culmination of more than five years of research by over 60 worldwide institutional partners, involving more than 500 experts.

As the world prepares for COP26 this November, State of the World’s Trees is a crucial reminder of the importance of trees in tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis. However, the world’s trees are facing multifaceted threats.

Already, planting more trees has been identified by the UK government as one of the cornerstones to achieving net zero by 2030. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also stated ‘‘we want COP26, the UN great summit, to commit to restoring nature … and ending the massacre of the forests…”.

A huge scaling up of tree conservation efforts is needed to protect the world’s most threatened tree species in the wild

The government’s commitment to tree planting, while admirable, isn’t as simple as it sounds. But by working with local partners and planting the right tree in the right place, tree planting can have an even more positive effect on the planet.

Funding the conservation of threatened tree species helps to ensure forests act as a reliable store for carbon, have greater resilience against climate change and are better able to continue to regulate the global climate, water and soil cycles. Supporting native tree planting efforts creates sustainable livelihoods in many communities, protects homes from major weather events (such as flooding) and improves world health.

The State of the World’s Trees provides a roadmap to support and foster conservation actions nationally and globally – but policymakers must listen to the global expertise from those at the forefront of protecting our trees from extinction.

Major threats identified include agriculture, logging and livestock grazing – in fact, one in three of the world's trees currently harvested for timber are threatened with extinction. Although these trees may be supplied from tropical rainforests, the demand for this timber often comes from Europe, the US and China.

And while trees can help the fight against climate change, the climate crisis is also an emerging threat to tree species. As the temperature and weather of the world changes, many trees risk losing areas of suitable habitat, confirming the need to protect existing trees as well as planting new ones. 

A huge scaling up of tree conservation efforts, comprising both diverse planting and preservation, is needed to protect the world’s most threatened tree species in the wild. Information from the report can now better target conservation towards species most in need.

There are at least 440 tree species with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in the wild and are, therefore, on the brink of being lost forever. This includes the Menai Whitebeam found only in North Wales with a population of fewer than 30 individuals.

Another example, is the critically endangered Mulanje Cedar from Malawi, which through a Defra Darwin funded project, has been saved from extinction. By working in partnership with Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust and the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi, BGCI has helped establish eight community nurseries, propagating seedlings for restoration and training local community members.

Over 700,000 seedlings of Mulanje Cedar have been planted on the mountain, and more than 1,000 people have been employed through various project activities.

Expansion of conservation protocols for trees in both their natural habitat (in situ) and in ex situ collections such as in botanic gardens or seed banks is needed. Already, the State of the World’s Trees report finds at least 64 per cent of all tree species are present in at least one in situ protected area but only 30 per cent of tree species are in botanic gardens, arboreta or seed bank collections, with many threatened species not included at all.

Collaboration is now essential to resolve this. As well as contributing to the report, UK institutions such as Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are working alongside BGCI to drive conservation action through developing specialist networks of global botanical institutions and on-the-ground conservation practitioners, working to conserve particular threatened tree groups.

But more needs to be done – and as world leaders consider the needs of the planet this autumn, the needs of trees must be on the agenda.


Malin Rivers is the head of Conservation Prioritisation at Botanic Gardens Conservation International and lead author of the State of the World’s Tree Report. Learn more about the report HERE.

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