October 2020
Written by: Sebastian Rotter

The most important tree you have never heard of: The Almendro Tree – its scientific name is Dipteryx oleifera (formerly Dipteryx panamensis) – is one of several members of the Dipteryx genus. It is commonly found in tropical forests in Central America, especially in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia and typically grows to a height of 40 to 50 meters. The Almendro is the only species out of the Dipteryx genus that has been listed on CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. With that, it became one of the 32,800 endangered plant species that this list encompasses. As an international agreement between 183 governments, it aims to ensure that the international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species. The Almendro tree was put on the CITES list for Costa Rica in 2003 and for Nicaragua in 2007. It is listed in Appendix-III, which means that it is protected in at least the country listing it and that exports of it are controlled. What makes this tree so special that it was put on this list?

A Keystone Species

The Almendro tree is considered a keystone species. A keystone according to the Cambridge Dictionary is the most important part of a plan, idea, etc. on which everything else depends. In Architecture, a keystone is the middle stone that is put in the top of an arc as the last piece in order to hold all the other stones in position. Hence, a keystone species is what we call a species – plant or animal – that is vital to the functioning and survival of a whole ecosystem. Without its keystone species, an ecosystem would look extremely different and might not be able to adapt to environmental changes if their keystone species ever disappeared. The Almendro tree is one of the keystone species in its endemic regions of Central America. This is mostly because of its fruits, which grow once the tree is 11 to 12 years old. The large quantity and especially the availability of the fruits during the dry season – which typically lasts from around December to April – makes the Almendro tree a key aspect in the survival of many animal species living in the surrounding rainforests. It was observed that sixteen species of mammals and approximately 100 species of birds directly rely on the fruits of the tree during the dry season. On top of that, the movement of those frugivorous species also leads to more species, e. g. their predators, moving their hunting grounds closer into the vicinity of the Almendro trees. We can therefore see that the Almendro tree is the first link in this natural chain of survival of the ecosystem.

The Great Green Macaw

One of the most prominent beneficiaries of the Almendro tree is the Great Green Macaw.

The Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus) is a very large parrot, typically at 85 to 90 cm long. It is estimated that there are around 2,500 individual parrots in Central America, with its subspecies – the Ara ambiguus guayaquilensis – only at an estimated 30 to 40 individuals in Ecuador, which makes it one of the rarest parrots in the world. The colorful appearance of the bird made it a popular pet in the past. Many individuals have also been killed for their feathers or simply been shot by farmers who saw them as an agricultural pest. It has been listed by CITES as a worldwide Appendix-I species in 1985, which means that it is threatened by extinction. In 2016, the Great Green Macaw was put on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species in the category endangered (the second highest before becoming critically endangered and then eventually extinct). However, the biggest threat to the survival of the birds is the destruction of their habitats – particularly the disappearance of the Almendro Tree. During the dry season, the Great Green Macaw relies on the fruits of the tree to account for up to 80 percent of its diet. Furthermore, it uses the natural cavities in the tree for nesting purposes. Without the Almendro tree, the Great Green Macaw, and countless other species, will likely not find enough food during the dry season and lack appropriately protected nesting spots.

The Downfall of the Almendro – Why is it Disappearing?

As species naturally evolved over thousands of years, the Almendro tree has found a way to protect itself from natural hazards. Unfortunately, exactly this development has caused its most dangerous and most recent predator to take an interest in it: humanity. The wood of the Almendro tree is extremely dense – one of the hardest woods in the world – which makes it very resistant not only to insects such as termites, but also to fire and water on top of a high shock resistance. Because of its density, it used to be difficult to saw and work with until the mid-1980s. However, new chainsaw technology made it possible to cut down the trees and work on the wood with much more ease. It has since become very popular for heavy construction projects such as railroad and bridge building, the manufacture of sporting goods or simply for home use in the form of furniture or decking material.

Costa Rica banned the use of its own Almendro trees from the wild in 2008, however, it is still the biggest importer of Almendro wood in the world, importing it mainly from Nicaragua - the biggest exporter. Outside of Central America, the US is one of the biggest importers of Almendro wood. Although Nicaragua has acknowledged the importance and increasing scarcity of the tree by listing it as an Appendix-III species on CITES, this does not make the export illegal but merely requires the control of exported amounts. However, it is safe to assume that most exports, not only from Nicaragua but also from other home countries of the Almendro tree such as Panama and Colombia, come from wild populations and are traded illegally.

What can we do?

After having understood the importance of this particular species of trees, it is important to ask oneself: is there anything that can be done to prevent this tree from disappearing from its former home and with it possibly whole ecosystems that rely on it?

Certainly we should aim to stop the trees from being removed from their natural habitat in the first place, as this will enable the natural processes of pollination to let the tree population recover and expand. In practice, this proves very difficult as without any laws in the respective countries, there is no legal base to stop the logging of the trees, and even if we had any laws in place, they need to be enforced as well.

Thankfully, there are initiatives by environmental organizations that aim to save and repopulate the otherwise lost Almendro tree. One such organization is Planet Rehab with its Just One Tree campaign. The idea of the Just One Tree campaign is to grow Almendro tree saplings on their Green Acres farm in Panama until they are ready to be transplanted into bio-sensitive regions out in the rainforests of the area. They will continue to be cared for and protected until they are grown to full size and will provide food and shelter to all the different species of the area just like their wild counterparts. More information on the initiative and means to contribute by sponsoring a tree can be found at