Changing Planet

Discovering the Endangered Cypress Trees of Laos

It’s nice to have a subject you can look up to. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)

Come with us to one of the last truly wild places in Southeast Asia: the Annamite Mountains of central Laos. Here, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, among hill-tribe villages, grows the majestic—and critically endangered—Chinese Swamp Cypress (Glyptostrobus pensilis).

I stumbled (literally!) upon the hidden Lao population of Chinese Swamp Cypress in 2007, while surveying wetland wildlife habitat. After tripping over a cypress knee, I looked up at a red-barked giant, and saw something wonderfully strange and familiar. It looked to me like a cross between a Bald Cypress and a Coastal Redwood (trees I knew well from growing up in coastal Georgia and going to grad school in Northern California).

Later, IUCN conifer expert, Philip Thomas, told me its nearest relative is the very same Bald Cypress I knew from the swamps of the Southeastern U.S.! Moreover, in 2007, the conservation science community was aware of only 250 individuals of this species in the wild. Most were just spindly young things poking their way out of coffee plantations. Due to its rot-resistant wood (similar to rosewood), the Chinese Swamp Cypress is highly sought after for a variety of structural and boat-building uses, and is threatened (like so many endangered species) by poaching.

On New Year’s Day, 2015, we began documenting the Laos population of this unique tree, and over the coming weeks we will try to conserve, and even restore, a bit of its ancient grandeur.

Here are some of the Chinese Swamp Cypress knees I tripped over in 2007 that resemble those of the Bald Cypress from the swamps of Georgia. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)
Here are some of the Chinese Swamp Cypress knees I tripped over in 2007 that resemble those of the Bald Cypress from the swamps of Georgia. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)
More knees. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)
More knees. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)
Really, they are very common, and excellent at tripping someone gazing up at the tree tops. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)
Really, they are very common, and excellent at tripping someone gazing up at the tree tops. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)

On my earlier foray, we found hundreds of large trees still in their natural habitat in the Laos’ Nam Theun National Protected Area. Today, with the help of Laos’ Nam Theun 2 Watershed Management Protection Agency, the Department of Forest Resource Management (Ministry of National Resources of Laos), the Laos Wildlife Conservation Association, and National Geographic, we are returning to document, sample, and learn a lot more about this once-hidden, still-flourishing population.

Our biggest challenge is to find and document all these trees, and at the same time, work together with wildlife patrols and local villagers to help protect this crucial old-growth forested wetland ecosystem. We have very high hopes that we can preserve existing tree stands, find more of them, and bring new populations to suitable environs. There is a fascinating array of other species of flora and fauna, which we’ll cover on this expedition, whose lives are intertwined with that of this giant tree. We are so grateful to be starting off our New Year with such a vital new project.

Here's my team from the 2007 season. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)
Here’s my team from the 2007 season. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Coffman)

We’ll visit very remote, mountainous areas for most of our trek. In future blog posts, you’ll meet the team traveling from the U.S. and Scotland, and the team we’ll be working with drawn from government agencies and local hill-tribe people of the Annamite Mountains of central Laos. There will be posts on Laotian (Laos) people and cultures, as well as on the rich collection of beautiful plants and animals of this region. Because we’ll spend the majority of our time in the wilderness, internet access will be intermittent at best; but we’ll just keep photographing and writing, and it’ll get through when it does!

Happy New Year, and join us in 2015 in the Annamite Mountains of central Laos for exploration and conservation of the beautiful and rare Chinese Swamp Cypress.

Read All Posts by Gretchen Coffman

Dr. Coffman is an Assistant Professor in the Environmental Science Department at University of San Francisco. Dr. Coffman’s current research focuses on scientific questions with high relevance to management problems, mainly related to riparian plant ecology, restoration, and invasive plant biology in river and wetland systems of mediterranean-type and tropical climates. She has on-going research projects along rivers in coastal southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley of California, and Central Laos and coastal Cambodia. She teaches courses at USF in applied ecology, environmental science, restoration ecology, wetland delineation, field botany, and ecosystem ecology in both the undergraduate Environmental Science Department and Environmental Management masters program. She received funding from National Geographic Conservation Trust to document the critically endangered swamp cypress of Laos in 2014-2015.

  • Zendi

    Since the end of the Vietnam war. Many Vietnamese poacher has cut down these endanger trees illegally, and turn it into a valuable furnish and exporting them else where made in Vietnam. Most of the natural resources coming from Vietnam has come from Laos illegally for the longest time. Do not buy made in Vietnam!

  • Zendi

    Since the end of the Vietnam war. Many Vietnamese poacher has cut down these endanger trees illegally, and turn it into a valuable furnish and exporting them else where made in Vietnam. Most of the natural resources coming from Vietnam has come from Laos illegally for the longest time. Do not buy made in Vietnam!

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