Welcome back to the wilderness of Central Laos, get ready to follow us to Vietnam as well on the second part of our National Geographic expedition, where our team is engaged in a long-term effort to survey, analyze, and ultimately restore the critically endangered Chinese swamp cypress (Glyptostrobus pensilis). (Catch up on earlier posts.)
This old-growth giant once covered vast swaths of East and Southeast Asia, but in 2006, after centuries of depredation, it was added to the IUCN Redlist.
The wood of the Glyptostrobus pensilis is a highly practical material resource for local people. The tree, commonly known as the Chinese or Asian swamp cypress, is one of the keystone species of an important forestland that provides protection for a diverse array of other plant and animal species—many of them endangered as well.
And lest we forget the tree’s more global significance: Glyptostrobus pensilis forests are powerful agents of carbon-sequestration, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking the carbon away in the bodies of plants and animals, and the soil itself.
View From a Lao Tree Climber
A truly crucial part of our team is the men from local villages in Central Laos who have been climbing these tall trees for generations. They usually climb to gather honey and wax produced by bees in hives built high up in the old-growth canopy.
Our team photographer, David McGuire, fitted out two veteran tree-climbers, Meud and Deng, with Go-Pro cameras on their hats. Below you can watch the first-person point-of-view video of what it is like to climb Chinese swamp cypress in Laos.
Meud and Deng climb barefoot to maximize their dexterity and grip; they use the liane vines that grow around and up the tree trunks as their foot- and hand-holds. For Meud and Deng (and their brothers in tree-ascent), this is everyday stuff. But for us—and for most people—this video is a unique window to an awe-inspiring feat of strength and skill. (It’s worth opening up to full-view if you can!)
We also couldn’t do this work without the villagers who use slingshots to loosen cones from tree tops. These folks provide the main methods by which we will collect foliage and seed samples on this expedition, since the cones only appear near the top of the canopy. In the video above, the canopy starts at a height of 100 feet (30 meters), but often it starts three times as high.
Our goal is a genetic analysis of tree stands in Laos and Vietnam. We have known about the stands in Vietnam for a long time. Unfortunately, we also know that, for a long time, they have not been regenerating, and scientists have not been able to help grow seedlings. Our hope is that these healthy Lao stands might be successfully propagated and used to help restore stands in Vietnam.
The Lao stands were only discovered by the international conservation community in 2007, when I first visited the Nakai Plateau on a wetland survey preparing for a large hydroelectric dam project (see my earlier blog posts for the backstory).
In addition to genetic sampling, another major goal of this project is to train local and international interns and students to measure trees and to sample soils. Finding other areas where the soil has suitable moisture, texture, and pH conditions will be critical for restoring trees to the wild.
One clue we look for is the presence of carnivorous pitcher plants in one of the stands near the village of Ban Theung, because they indicate that the soil is acidic.
We are also creating an instructional video for the Lao Department of Forestry. It will be used by foresters and scientists to build the capacity of the Lao government and academic institutions to research and manage the forests over which Glyptostrobus pensilis reigns.
Progress in Saving the Trees
As I mentioned earlier, my discovery of previously unknown Glyptostrobus pensilis stands in the PDR of Laos happened when I was working on a wildlife habitat survey in preparation for a major hydroelectric dam in Central Laos. This has a surprising connection to one of the most promising developments for protecting the trees.
The Chinese/Asian swamp cypress—as the common name might suggest—thrives in riparian, swamp areas. Such areas are not only rich in biological diversity, but are also very promising sources for low-impact hydroelectric power generation.
Rivers generate a tremendous amount of kinetic energy that we can easily translate to electricity. While some large dams are necessary, it is also true that in more outlaying rural districts, there is a very promising technology known as “microhydropower,” which appears to be the wave of the future in rural Laos and other similar regions (including in the United States). Very small turbines, used all over the planet, can be set in rivers and streams without interrupting the flow of water and wildlife, and they can send energy to batteries and/or generators.
Below, you see a photo of a microhydroelectric power generator which is now running in the area of Central Laos where we are working to resuscitate the Glyptostobus pencilis. We really hope we can spread this model of microhydropower very far beyond the focal point of our own conservation and restoration zone.
As you can see, this is a very small, but extremely efficient mechanism, fitted onto the side of the river. It does not interrupt river flow or organisms’ reproduction systems. Fish, plants, microorganisms, water: all flow as they would normally.
However, by harnessing the waterflow, a small village can stop burning wood.
Less cutting down of trees, less burning, less particulate matter in the atmosphere.
Instead, this village will use this hydroelectric generator to cook its food.
In our next post we’ll introduce more of the team and the work for this season.