A race against extinction: the world’s most trafficked wild species, the rosewood tree.

06 September 2023

Illegal wildlife trafficking often brings to mind images of orangutans, elephants, turtles, or pangolins. However, the rosewood tree (Dalbergia) holds the unfortunate title of being the most trafficked wild species on the planet. Magdalen Biology Lecturer and Postdoctoral Researcher in Forest Science at the Department of Biology, Dr. Tin Hang (Henry) Hung, is the Project Co-Lead in a new Rosewood Conservation Consortium in the race to protect the planet’s most trafficked species: Dalbergia.

Timber harvested from rosewoods has been the world’s most trafficked wild product for the last 18 years, and accounts for almost 40% of the global illegal wildlife trade – more than all animal products put together. This has led to around 90% of wild populations vanishing across their native Southeast Asia. Even those in protected areas are targeted by illegal poaching activities, as well as the very real threat of climate change.

Fortunately, a dedicated team of researchers from the University of Oxford, including Henry, is actively supporting an initiative aimed at restoring rosewood populations. This project unites plant geneticists, forestry experts, conservationists, local communities, and indigenous people in a race against extinction. Their approach combines local knowledge, forestry management techniques, and cutting-edge plant genetics, creating ‘a blueprint for how conservation should be done,’ Henry said, ‘using approaches that restore wild species while empowering local people through sustainable livelihoods.’

Seeing the problem

Henry’s research has always involved a fascination with the connections between trees and people. He said: “Trees are fundamental to our survival and restoring forests will be crucial for both mitigating climate change and conserving biodiversity.” During his DPhil research, Henry became alarmed at the rapid depletion of rosewood forests, prompting his involvement in a new rosewood conservation consortium led by his DPhil Supervisors, Professor John MacKay and Dr David Boshier in partnership with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, the University of Copenhagen, and national research institutions from five countries in the Greater Mekong sub-region.

This conservation consortium strives to address the largest barriers to effective rosewood conservation, creating a network across different stakeholders in order to exchange information, skills, and expertise in order to better take care of this highly trafficked wild species.

Growing a solution

The project aimed to solve two problems with one solution. By engaging local people to collect rosewood seeds and grow seedlings as a source of secondary income the project can generate local sources of rosewood seedlings for conservation while creating sustainable livelihoods. The project supported over 300 people to establish rosewood nurseries, resulting in boosting local incomes, as well as creating new engagement in the sustainable management of natural resources.

But there was a challenge: keeping the new rosewood trees genetically diverse for a secure future. Low diversity hurts seed production, seedling survival, and adaptability to changing climates. To tackle this, the team collected 800 rosewood leaf samples across Southeast Asia, and sent them to Oxford where they were genetically sequenced by Henry. This led to creating the first-ever reference genome for Dalbergia cochinchinensis and Dalbergia oliveri, helping measure genetic variation. By combining this data with location info, they identified coastal areas as top priorities for conservation.

As Henry explains: “the effects of climate change are happening so quickly [that] local rosewood populations will not have time to evolve and adapt by natural selection.”  Therefore, the project is increasingly focusing on assisted migration, moving rosewood trees to new areas where they may thrive.

“the effects of climate change are happening so quickly [that] local rosewood populations will not have time to evolve and adapt by natural selection.”

Seeds of change

With the support of a grant from the National Geographic Society, Henry plans to delve deeper into his research. He aims to confirm the connections between specific genes and how they respond to different environmental conditions. To do this, he’ll grow rosewood seedlings in carefully controlled settings to see which genes behave differently when the trees face challenges.

Ultimately, the aim is to develop genetic markers that can swiftly identify rosewood varieties with advantageous traits, such as drought tolerance. This genetic screening process would replace the traditional method of cultivating trees in the field, which typically takes many years to yield results. By streamlining the identification of optimal rosewood varieties, this approach has the potential to significantly expedite conservation efforts.

What next?

The consortium’s ultimate aim is to make their findings accessible to decision-makers beyond the realm of plant genetics, empowering conservationists, policymakers, and local communities to utilize genetic data as a tool for informed conservation decisions. They have taken a proactive step by developing user-friendly and open-access online tools to support decision-making.

“If we want the impacts of this work to be self-sustaining, we have to empower conservationists, policy makers and local people to use genetic data as a tool to aid conservation decisions. So right from the start, we were committed to developing user-friendly and open-access online tools to support decision making.”

Dr Tin Hang (Henry) Hung – Postdoctoral Researcher in Forest Science at the Department of Biology and a Retained Lecturer in Biology at Magdalen College

While the ultimate success of saving the rosewood tree from extinction remains uncertain, the consortium’s research findings and on-ground efforts in the local community have undoubtedly equipped stakeholders at all levels, from local rosewood foresters to government policymakers, to take effective action against the loss of the rosewood tree.