Chile’s monkey tree, some dating back to days of Christ, in peril – UN agency

4 August 2003

The United Nations environmental agency today called for urgent action to map and protect the world's wild forests following an “ecological disaster” in Chile, where forests made famous by a television series have been almost destroyed by fire, killing monkey puzzle trees dating from the days of Jesus Christ.

Seeking public and private sector funding for a proposed "World Atlas of Threatened Trees" with an analysis of policy options to prevent extinctions, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said fragmentation of wild forests through logging is threatening the extinction of the charismatic monkey puzzle tree beloved by Victorian gardeners.

Scientifically called Araucaria araucana, the tree is said to have gained its nickname when a nineteenth century Englishman remarked that it would indeed be a puzzle for a monkey to climb. It figured in the forests featured in the TV series "Walking with Dinosaurs."

"New research, such as that on the monkey puzzle, is revealing that fragmentation of wild forest and the re-plantation with potentially invasive foreign species are major threats, demonstrating the urgency of managing forests sustainably," Mark Collins, Director of UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) in Cambridge, England, said in a news release.

The tree – an endemic evergreen conifer that may reach two metres in diameter, 50 metres in height and live over 1,500 years and takes over 200 years to bear seeds – is found only in southern Chile but is among 8,000 tree species under threat of extinction in the wild worldwide. A recent forest fire destroyed 71 per cent of monkey puzzle forest in Malleco National Reserve, where some trees were 2,000 years old, according to Cristian Echeverría, a scholar based at UNEP-WCMC.

In 1990, the tree was declared a protected species and its logging banned. For other species it is possible to gain a licence to exploit dead wood, and as the monkey tree is highly prized for its timber the government is under pressure to permit logging of the burnt forest. But Mr. Echeverría warns that if logging is allowed, man-made fires may increase, as only a small proportion of the native forests are in protected areas.

Tourists know the south of Chile for its amazing landscape and temperate rainforests. Ninety per cent of the trees are only found there. Mr. Echeverría is pioneering a technique for mapping forest fragmentation, using remote sensing from satellite images of the last 25 years to assess the rate at which native forest is being removed. In one of the study areas 64 per cent of wild forest has been lost in 25 years and the continuous forest cover broken. Reconstructed maps show that in 1550, when the Europeans arrived, the entire country would have been forest.


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