Podocarpus angustifolius is a tree endemic to two localities in the Guamuhaya Mountains of Cuba and currently categorized as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. This dioecious species can reach up to 23 m in height and plays a key role in the dynamics of rainforests. During our 2017 and 2018 population studies we found 575 individuals, only 174 of which were reproductive adults. Fortunately, most of the remaining individuals occur within two protected areas (Topes de Collantes and Lomas de Banao), which has facilitated our work to restore the species.

Individual of Podocarpus angustifolius with the reproductive structure. Left: Jorge Gutiérrez, Right: Luis R. González-Torres.

Today, most of the habitat suitable for this species is devoted to coffee plantations. The main cause for the decline of P. angustifolius is the clearing of rainforests for agricultural use. These rainforests are among the most biologically diverse habitats in Cuba and the Caribbean. They also provide crucial ecosystem services to lowland communities by capturing rain and humidity, and controlling soil erosion, runoff and flooding.

Habitat of Podocarpus angustifolius in the Guamuhaya Mountains in central Cuba. Photo: Alejandro Palmarola

In 1998, conservation technicians of the Ecological Reserve Lomas de Banao began their work to restore Podocarpus angustifolius. A decade later, similar work started in Topes de Collantes. In 2017, our team from the National Botanic Garden (University of Havana) and Planta!, in partnership with local government, farmers and the community, worked to restore P. angustifolius and other threatened endemic plants of the region, such as Magnolia cubensis subsp. acunae, Tabebuia sauvallei, Erythrina elenae and Aralia rex. The partnerships we fostered with local actors have facilitated the implementation of conservation actions, supported the sustainability of the programme, and made it resilient to the crisis caused by COVID-19.

Part of the conservation team involved in the conservation of Podocarpus angustifolius and other endemic trees in the Guamuhaya mountains. Photo: Planta!

Of the two Podocarpus angustifolius subpopulations, the one at Lomas de Banao is the healthiest, with more individuals and high germination rates. In this subpopulation, a high number of seeds fall and germinate under the mother trees, but the seedlings do not develop into saplings because of competition. Our strategy has included transplanting these seedlings to local nurseries. Once the saplings reach c. 50 cm in height, they are returned to the rainforest. Between 2017 and 2020, we grew 5,408 seedlings of P. angustifolius in the nurseries, and 440 of the resulting saplings were used to reinforce the subpopulation in Lomas de Banao and 1,226 in Topes de Collantes.

Conservation strategies for Podocarpus angustifolius: collecting seeds and saplings, sowing in local nurseries, and population reinforcement. Photo: Planta!

Our work with P. angustifolius has taught us three main lessons that could be applied to other species conservation projects. Firstly, in the absence of resources for genetic studies, reasonable levels of genetic diversity can be secured by collecting seeds or plant material from as many individuals as possible. Once healthy subpopulations have been identified they can be used as a source of individuals to reinforce less healthy subpopulations, thus preventing further degradation of the genetic diversity of small subpopulations.

Left: Local nursery in Topes de Collantes, with saplings of Podocarpus angustifolius, Tabebuia sauvallei, and Magnolia cubensis subsp. acunae. Right: An individual of Podocarpus angustifolius from a local nursery which grow in the field. Photo: Planta!

Secondly, entrusting local communities with appropriate and specific conservation actions fosters their engagement and contributes to the sustainability of conservation actions. In our case conservation rangers in Lomas de Banao have been in charge of collecting the seedlings, of maintaining the nursery and reinforcing the population. In Topes de Collantes, local people manage the nurseries and reinforce the subpopulation. Farmers are also responsible for the reintroduction of the species on their farms. Our role has been limited to assisting with the collection of seedlings to ensure the diversity of each year’s cohort. This partnership and collaboration between local government, community, farmers, and academia reduced the cost and time required to implement the recovery strategy and has secured a close and sustained oversight of the plants in the nursery, in the wild and on farms.

Thirdly, we recommend setting clear expectations to secure the continued support of stakeholders, conservation actors and supporters. The conservation of long-lived tree species requires patience and constancy.

The article Title of your article: Conservation status and recovery of Podocarpus angustifolius: a threatened tree of Cuba is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Ernesto Testé is a PhD student at National Botanic Garden (University of Havana), and Institute of Ecology, Systematic and Evolution (University Paris-Saclay). He is interested in the ecology, conservation and recovery of endemic trees, and is secretary of the Cuban Plant Specialist Group (IUCN/SSC).

Luis Roberto González-Torres is Professor at Douglas College, Canada. He is interested in the ecology and conservation of plants in extreme habitats, and is chair of the Cuban Plant Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, and of Planta! – Plantlife Conservation Society.