Published: 16:59, November 20, 2023 | Updated: 16:59, November 20, 2023
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Treasured natural wonders
By Li Hongyang

Climate, criminals and aging are threatening the country's ancient trees

Liu Liping (first from right), a professor from Yangtze University, guides students under an ancient walnut tree, over 1,800 years old, in Gyatsa county, Tibet autonomous region, on July 27. The county is rich in walnut resources, with more than 500 trees that are over 1,000 years old. Liu is part of a research team sent by the university to help upgrade the local walnut industry. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

In recent years China has increased efforts to protect ancient trees, including by revising laws, conducting surveys, and undertaking various conservation measures.

In order to protect and revitalize aging and endangered ancient trees, the Beijing Institute of Landscape Architecture has also initiated a gene preservation project.

Wang Yongge, a chief expert at the institute, said that with about 5 percent of ancient trees becoming weak, endangered, or even dying each year because of aging and changed surrounding environment, this program aims to safeguard the historical and cultural resources as well as the genetic resources.

"The cloning technique is employed to preserve living plants with the exact genetic makeup as the original tree, ensuring the continuity of the historical, cultural and genetic value of these ancient treasures," she said.

The project, which began in 2009, has focused on prominent ancient trees found in various areas, such as temples, imperial tombs, parks and villages.

In Beijing, the old ginkgo tree in Tanzhe Temple and the lacebark pine in Jietai Temple have successfully reproduced through grafting, cuttings, and tissue culture, Wang said.

It has been observed that the cloned plants thrive and exhibit robust growth, with abundant foliage and vibrant blossoms. For instance, the cloned progenies of the ancient magnolia trees in Beijing's Summer Palace showcase luxurious white flowers with larger petals than the ordinary variants, Wang said.

"Old trees, as living cultural relics, follow the natural course of life, including aging and demise. The goal of preserving ancient tree genes is to perpetuate a bloodline that is identical to the parent tree," she said.

Workers measure the circumference of an ancient tree for information collection and protection in Weining, Guizhou province. (HE HUAN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Law revision

To better preserve the ancient trees, the country revised the law and conducted national surveys.

In 2019, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress revised the Forest Law, specifically including the protection of ancient trees as a separate provision.

In 2020, a nationwide survey of ancient trees revealed that there were 5.08 million ancient trees in the surveyed area, with about 5 percent in urban areas and 95 percent in rural areas. The survey excluded ancient trees in nature reserves and State-owned primeval forest areas.

Wang said that the surveys helped identify and protect ancient trees within urban and rural areas. However, in rural areas, the challenge lies in accessing the trees in remote locations, such as mountainous regions or within villages.

"This poses commuting difficulties and requires additional efforts to ensure conservation. However, there is a positive trend where local communities are increasingly recognizing the importance of protecting these ancient trees," she said.

In May, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration launched a project worth 10 million yuan ($1.37 million) to recruit capable teams for the "Identification Technology and System Research and Development of Wild Fauna and Ancient Famous Trees". An important task of this project is to establish a technical system for calculating the age of trees.

Tourists visit an ancient ginkgo tree in Enshi, Hubei province. (WANG GUANZHENG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Awareness promoted

Ancient trees play a vital role in understanding historical climate patterns and studying the evolution of natural geographical environments. By analyzing tree rings, scientists can deduce past climatic conditions. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has conducted extensive research across large regions, utilizing tree rings to authenticate climate changes.

Ancient trees, which are over a hundred or even a thousand years old, serve not only as living history books but also contribute to the environmental health of their surroundings, Wang said. "Their large crowns and extensive size provide shade, help regulate temperature, and increase humidity, making them more environmentally valuable than other trees," she said.

Efforts to promote awareness and participation in the protection of ancient trees are also underway.

According to the Measures for the Protection and Management of Ancient and Well-known Trees Regulations, which the municipal landscaping and greening bureau implemented last year, Beijing, with over 40,000 ancient trees, encourages both organizations and individuals to adopt and sponsor the care and protection of these trees.

The cost of caring for ancient and famous trees will be covered by the organizations or individuals. According to the measures, when they have difficulties in covering the cost of rescue and revitalization, they should promptly seek help from the landscaping department, which will send professionals to conduct the work.

Wang, the chief expert, said that some endangered and weak ancient trees whose insides are empty need repair and some trees require support.

"By working together and fostering a shared responsibility, the protection of ancient trees can be achieved. It is hoped that through these efforts, the love and care for these natural wonders will spread, ensuring their survival for generations to come," she said.

Beijing has been exploring new models for the protection of ancient trees, including building ancient tree-themed parks, communities and villages.

Workers rescue a 700-year-old locust tree by welding a support for it in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. (HU YUGUANG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Crimes targeted

Ancient trees hold cultural and environmental value, providing habitats for various species and preserving biodiversity. However, these priceless natural treasures are targeted by criminal groups for financial gains.

According to the Changsha Public Security Bureau in Hunan province, Chinese authorities apprehended seven individuals involved in poisoning of ancient trees and their illegal sale last year.

The group was found guilty of causing the death of two ancient camphor trees in Jingang town, Liuyang city of Hunan province.

Investigations show that the suspects engaged in illegal trade of dead ancient trees. They would purchase decaying or hollow trees from different regions across the country and those trees would then be sold in the Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, primarily for use in carving handicrafts.

A special operation to combat illegal activities that destroy ancient and famous trees launched last year had cracked 135 criminal cases and rescued 530 ancient and famous trees by May.