USF Ecologist Races to Save Endangered Cypress from Extinction
Discovery of a lifetime in remote Laos
USF’s Gretchen Coffman is leading an international rescue effort to save an endangered cypress tree on the verge of extinction. Coffman, a restoration ecologist, compares the Southeast Asia cypress to California’s majestic redwoods, and National Geographic is funding her campaign.
The swamp cypress and California redwoods are close relatives. And like its West Coast cousin, the cypress is a vital part of the forest canopy system where it grows, reaching heights above 100 feet, said Coffman, an assistant professor of environmental science and environmental management. She’s hired Robin Hunter MSEM ’15, a USF master’s in environmental science student as a research assistant, and partnered with renowned international scientists.
Chance to save an endangered species
Only about 250 of the swamp cypress were known to live in the wild, all of them in Vietnam, until Coffman and Hunter tripled that number on an expedition to Laos last month. The discovery included an ancient stand estimated at more than 500 years old with trees 145 feet tall and more than three meters in diameter. Coffman first discovered the swamp cypress in Laos on a trek to explore the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area in 2007, stunning the scientific community who had no idea it grew there.
“I literally tripped over the trees’ roots. And when I stood up to look, I knew it instantly,” Coffman said. A DNA sample confirmed it was Glyptostrobus pensilis.
The species is listed as critically endangered, one step from extinct in the wild, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. It’s thought to be extinct in China, where it once flourished. The 200-plus trees in Vietnam are in decline and no longer bear viable seeds. So, Coffman’s rescue mission, seven years in the making, may be the species a last chance at survival.
National Geographic joins the effort
It’s a race against time and a growing list of threats. An unknown number of the cypress trees recently drowned in Laos under a newly constructed reservoir built to generate hydroelectric power. Others have been cut down by villagers to build homes and expand rice paddies as well as poachers who sell the wood at exorbitant prices.
“The wood is treasured for its unique scent and for constructing high-end furniture because it is resistant to water, weather, and rot,” Coffman said.
With early-stage research funding from National Geographic, Coffman, Hunter, and their team just returned from Laos where they mapped, measured, and gathered data on about 500 previously unknown cypress trees and seedlings and began to implement a national conservation plan to educate locals about the cypress and propagate the tree in nurseries so that a new generation can carry the species forward.
“The trip was fantastic and a great learning experience!” said Hunter, who mapped the trees using GPS and created a geographic information system (GIS) database. “I learned a lot about the steps involved in planning and carrying out a large field expedition.”
"Opportunity of a lifetime"
It took four days travel from San Francisco to reach the swamp, an unforgiving environment infested with leeches. The team had to be on alert for roaming elephants, Bengal tigers, cobras, and poachers. Worse, there were unexploded landmines along the nearby border, which was part of Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.
None of that phased Coffman and Hunter. “We worked with scientists from the Laos federal government, the National University of Laos, and the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, as well as local villagers,” Coffman said. “This was an opportunity of a lifetime.”
The team’s work could take a decade or more to see measurable conservation results, but it has already achieved an important milestone — successfully propagating a handful of the cypress trees from seedlings to saplings, something no one else has done, Coffman said.