Saving cancer-treating yew trees from extinction in Nepal – An opinion piece by Kumar Paudel, MPhil in Conservation Leadership Alumni
27th January 2021
This opinion piece has been written by MPhil in Conservation Leadership Alumni, Kumar Paudel. Kumar is the Co-Founder & Director of Greenhood Nepal.
Maire’s yew is a globally threatened tree with cancer-treating properties. In Nepal, the species is critically endangered nationally, with only a few hundred left in the wild. My team and I at Greenhood Nepal are on a mission to safeguard the future of this very special tree.
Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei) is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and is critically endangered in Nepal, with only a few hundred left in the wild © Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal
The bark, leaves and trunk of Maire’s yew contain a compound called Taxol that has proven cancer-treating properties, but this discovery has been both a blessing and a curse for the species. Locals have learned of its commercial value and are overexploiting it with little consideration of its conservation status or sustainable harvesting.
The problems facing Maire’s yew are of particular interest to Greenhood Nepal, an NGO I founded in 2012 with six other friends while we were doing our undergraduate studies at Tribhuvan University, Nepal. From the beginning, our goal was to focus on the human dimensions of nature conservation and empower people across Nepal to respond to emerging conservation challenges to better protect and manage our natural resources.
In 2018, with The Conservation Leadership Programme support, Greenhood Nepal began the first-ever population survey of Maire’s yew tree in Central Nepal, which revealed very sparse numbers across its rugged mid-hill forest range. We also spoke to local communities to try to understand harvesting practices—a difficult challenge considering most people here know very little about the yew.
There’s no doubt that Maire’s yew tree is facing a bleak future in Nepal. As a dioecious species (meaning the male and female reproductive structures are on separate trees), its natural regeneration relies on ‘males’ and ‘females’ being in close proximity so that pollinators can do their work. However, cross-pollination is now becoming increasingly unlikely given the sparse remaining population and uncontrolled overharvesting across the species’ range.
Sadly, this very special tree is being driven to extinction in our country, by our hands.
Not to say that the long-term destruction of our forests has been ignored. Quite the contrary, in fact. Over the last 40 years or so, collaborative community forestry initiatives have helped protect our diminishing forests and even increased forest cover in some areas.
A typical forest area in Nepal. Community forest initiatives have helped protect Nepal’s diminishing forests since the late 1970s © Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal
These initiatives aimed to empower local communities to manage and use forest resources for their own benefit. Decision-making has been handed over to local users (under the supervision of government authorities), giving them an incentive to ensure sustainable forest use and be responsible for its management.
What still concerns me is that these community forests – in Nepal, at least – focus more on forest management than on biodiversity conservation, and their contribution to the livelihoods of local people is still questionable in many areas.
Central to the issue is that Nepalese community forest users prepare management plans only every five to 10 years. These are often just a formality and are usually developed without consulting biodiversity experts, so they rarely address biodiversity conservation or conform to sustainable use policies.
In the case of Maire’s yew, our 2018 CLP project found that local people were illegally harvesting the trees from community forests – some of which had been standing for hundreds of years – and they were not taking account of the health of the trees. Outside community forests, private cultivators were being encouraged by local authorities to grow seedlings obtained from stem cutting a single tree – a practice that could reduce the genetic diversity of the subsequent yew population.
Considering the urgency to save our few remaining Maire’s yew trees, Greenhood Nepal is working hard to sensitize local communities about the conservation importance of the species and the potential benefits they could gain in the future from its trade. I’m happy to say that the communities have already started to save the trees from stone mining and road construction.
CLP project lead Reshu Bashyal (left) and Kumar Paudel (second from left) talking with the local yew harvester communities in Kavrepalnchok, Nepal © Prakash Poudel/Greenhood Nepal
Apart from saving what remains right now, we are also working closely with local governments to restore the historically exploited population across its range in Central Nepal. We are in conversations with local nurseries and regeneration experts to enable its artificial propagation, to produce sex-balanced seedlings, and establish plantations.
The success of community-based conservation can be retained only if it benefits the people who are protecting it. Communities should be aware of the species population, distribution, and sustainable harvesting techniques so they are engaged in its long-term conservation. As such, with the support of the Kate Stokes Memorial Trust, we have been developing sustainable harvesting guidelines for community forest users and testing these with experts and harvester communities.
Our dream is to ensure the long-term survival of Maire’s yews in Nepalese forests, while ensuring communities can benefit from sustainable harvesting and trade of the yew’s potentially life-saving properties. This will surely be a win-win for both yews and people.