Chilean scientists bring near-extinct tree back to Easter Island

Thousands of the virtually extinct Toromiro tree are being cultivated on mainland Chile and will be planted on the isolated island, their original native territory.

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Chilean scientists are cultivating a near-extinct tree indigenous to Easter Island with the aim of reintroducing it there next year.

Due to changes in the island’s ecology, the Toromiro (Sophora toromiro) flowering tree no longer exists on Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited lands in the world, located 3,256 kilometers from Chile’s mainland.

But a team from the Universidad Católica de Chile and Forestal Mininco, a forestry development and conservation company based in the Chilean city of Concepción, were able to identify a few remaining trees growing elsewhere in Chile, a task that required sorting them out from within the Toromiro family and hybrids.

Seeds collected from the trees in Chile are being used for a propagation program that aims to reintroduce around 3,000 trees to the island, called Rapa Nui by the indigenous Rapa Nui people, in November or December 2011.

Patricio Arce, associate professor at Universidad Católica and head of the Toromiro project, said he believes there are fewer than ten Toromiros left in the world.

“I have some recognized trees that are very old, and maybe in the future they will not produce more seeds,” he said.

Professor Arce keeps around 100 of the seeds collected from the Chilean trees in a jar sitting in his office at the university’s downtown Santiago campus.

“For me, this is gold,” he said. “This tree is not present now, but the Rapa Nui people like it that we reintroduce the old tree that their grandfathers knew.”

Professor Arce plans to cultivate the trees in Santiago before planting them in Easter Island. The soil conditions there are not ideal for growing the trees, he said. But he believes the project will be successful, largely because of the interest from the inhabitants, descendants of Polynesians, to support it.

The project idea is “one Rapa Nui, one Toromiro,”, he said, explaining the project’s plan to eventually have around 5,000 of the trees to equal the population on the mystical island.

This post is also available in Spanish