Saving Taiwan's Forests from the Treetops

Saving Taiwan's Forests from the Treetops
Courtesy of The Trees Projects

What you need to know

One project aims to spread awareness of the sheer size of Taiwan's highland trees.

If you, like me, are scared of heights, this article may make you a bit dizzy – we are going to the very tops of some of Taiwan’s tallest trees.

Often called the lungs of our planet, trees and tree ecosystems are high on any conservationist’s list. A Tasmanian couple, canopy ecologist Jen Sanger and adventure photographer Steven Pearce, started The Tree Projects to give an extra push to forest protection by doing something few before had done: photographing and videoing the very tops of tall trees. Last year, it was Taiwan’s turn.

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Courtesy of The Tree Projects

“We chose Taiwan because not many people outside of Taiwan know that such wonderful and impressive trees grow there,” Sanger told The News Lens. The trees she’s talking about are Taiwania cryptomerioides, a type of Cyprus. The Taiwania are like giant Christmas trees, huge bushy conifers that grow in central Taiwan and a few other places in Southeast Asia and China. According to the IUCN, they are also called a coffin tree or Taiwan cedar. They are very long-lived but has a “vulnerable” status because of logging for timber.

“We chose this tree as it is one of the tallest tree species in Taiwan. It is quite special as there are not many places in the world where you see a tree this size growing at a high elevation,” said Sanger.

The Tree Projects got lucky and found three especially lofty Taiwania that were fairly accessible – the "Three Sisters," standing between 50 and 70m tall in a forest in Hsinchu. While the seemingly constant rainfall in Taiwan delayed the project a little, the team got some amazing tree portraits as you can see from this video:

Its not just the height that’s a factor in how they choose which trees to ascend and document. According to Sanger, “We like to choose trees that are tall, but also ones that are interesting and beautiful. It was very easy to choose in Taiwan as the Three Sisters which we photographed are unique and beautiful.”

The climbers use professional gear to reach the canopy, so the entire process is very safe, though it does a take quite a while to set it all up. In Taiwan they had a team of 20 people, mostly climbers, to help them with their equipment. This was their third tree portrait; the two first were in Tasmania and New Zealand.

We asked Sanger what it’s like so far up in the canopy. “It is a wonderful experience. When we are in rainforests, the forest floor can be very dark and wet, but up in the tree tops it is another world. It is warm and sunny, sometimes it is more like being in an open field than in a forest. There are also lots of different plants up there as well. Also, the view is wonderful. I really enjoy looking down on the tops of smaller trees.”

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Courtesy of The Tree Projects

Their Taiwan Tree Project also captured images of some very rare plants and flowers.

“There were many different types of plants up there called ‘epiphytes’ – plants that grow on trees. We were lucky to be up there when some of the orchids were in flower. They were very beautiful,” Sanger said.

The Tree Projects, launched back in 2015, was partly an offshoot from Sanger’s graduate studies.

“My husband and I climbed a lot of trees for my PhD research and we wanted to share the experience of what it is like to be in the canopy of a rainforest. Most people only get to see the forest from the floor so we really wanted to show people what it was like in the canopy. We also wanted to get people to look at trees in a new way. Often when you stand at the base of a big rainforest tree and look up, it is impossible to get a full sense of the scale of the tree. By creating the tree portrait people are able to see how tall these trees really are.”

Pearce, who is a professional photographer, edits all the images they collect and used in magazines and exhibitions to raise awareness about tree conservation. Late last year, their Taiwan project was featured on the cover of the Taiwan and Hong Kong editions of National Geographic magazine.

The images can help in conservation efforts, insists Sanger. “People will only save what they understand, so helping people to realize how beautiful our forests are is a big step towards conservation.”

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Courtesy of The Tree Projects

As a final word, we asked her what simple things can you or I can do to save trees.

“There are many things – buy products that are certified as sustainable rainforest products, donate money to environmental charities, or support carbon offsetting schemes that support rainforest conservation or tree planting. Spread the word to friends and family about the importance of trees and forests to human health and wellbeing.”

If you would like a giant reproduction of one of their Taiwan tree images, you can order one from the Taiwan Environmental Information Association. Half the proceeds will be donated to the association.