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Saving cancer-treating yew trees in Nepal

By Kumar Paudel, CLP alumnus and 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 mature trees left in the wild. My team and I at Greenhood Nepal are currently on a mission to safeguard the future of this very special tree.

Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei) is critically endangered in Nepal, with only a few hundred mature trees left in the wild © Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal

Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei) is critically endangered in Nepal, with only a few hundred mature trees 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 very little consideration of its conservation status.

The problems facing Maire’s yew are of particular interest to Greenhood Nepal, an NGO I founded in 2012 with six other friends. From the beginning, our goal was to empower people across Nepal to respond to emerging conservation challenges to better protect and manage our natural resources.

In 2018, with CLP support, Greenhood Nepal began the first-ever population survey of Maire’s yew tree in Central Nepal, revealing very sparse numbers across its 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.

This very special tree is being driven to extinction in our country, by our hands.

Not to say that the 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

“Giving back to whom it belongs” was the central principle of these community forest initiatives, which sought to empower local communities to manage and use forest resources for their own benefit. Decision-making was handed over to local users, giving them an incentive to ensure sustainable forest use and be responsible for its management (under the supervision of government authorities).

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 our community forest users prepare management plans only every 5-10 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 and 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 need to 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.

Find out more in the video below:

About the author

Kumar Paudel is a conservation scholar-practitioner based in Nepal. He conducts research to understand species conservation problems and develop interventions on the ground. His work is mostly focused on wildlife trade, pangolins, plants, and conservation policy. He recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Conservation Leadership and has now returned to Nepal to continue to work for Greenhood Nepal.