A gnarled specimen of Abies cilicica on Mt Lebanon

SOS for the fir trees of Lebanon

Even dating back to the time of the Pharaohs, Lebanese conifers were over-exploited mainly for their valuable timber. Today this pressure is even greater, especially for the Cilician fir (Abies cilicica). Recent illegal logging in the protected area of Karm Chbat has further reduced the small popualtion of this threateed fir.

Fir trees SOS!

Lebanon's natural heritage comprises a rich biodiversity that sadly has been subject to continuous exploitation by mankind since ancient times. From the time of the Pharaohs to the present day, conifers have especially been subject to various anthropogenic pressures, mainly for their valuable timber. Inhabitating a variety of vegetation zones, conifers especially those of the high mountain ecosystem such as fir, cedar and juniper, were exploited by ancient Levantine Civilizations. As a result of this exploitation conifers such as the Cilician fir (Abies cilicica) now occupy only 1 % of the total vegetation cover of Lebanon.

Abies cilicica populations in Lebanon
Abies cilicica populations in Lebanon.

The Cilician fir is endemic to the Eastern Mediterranean and has its southernmost distribution in low and high elevation glacial microrefugia on Mount Lebanon. During the Ancient Egyptian New Kingdom, some 3500 years before present, fir trees of Lebanon were considered a sign of Pharaoh’s power. Ancient Egyptian texts and mythology show the prominent utilization of its timber in shipbuilding, and in the construction of temples and Barques, such as the Barque of Amun. Other texts attest the use of its timber during the rule of Hiram, Phoenician king of Tyre, during the Assyrian and Babylonian rules over Phoenicia, and more recently during World War I. Sadly, today the majority of Lebanese Cilician fir forests are not afforded any sort of protection and are therefore threatened by a illegal logging and overgrazing. However, even in prtoected areas such as the nature reserve of Karm Chbat recurrent illegal logging targets the Cilician fir trees as well as other conifer species. Recently, almost four tons of conifer wood, particularly that of Abies cilicica was felled for firewood use. This fir population harbors most of the genetic diversity of Abies cilicica in Lebanon, while the species as a whole in Lebanon retain low genetic variation and is endangered. Recently, seed collected from this population has been sent to the International Conifer Conservation Programme at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh as part of an ex situ conservation programme under an agreement with the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute. Abies cilicica in Lebanon merits special attention with a focus on safeguarding the remnant populations through the implementation of effective conservation measures.

Further reading:

Awad L, Fady B, Khater C, Roig A, Cheddadi R (2014) Genetic Structure and Diversity of the Endangered Fir Tree of Lebanon (Abies cilicica Carr.): Implications for Conservation. PLoS ONE 9(2): e90086. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.009008

Awad L (2014) Dynamique des forêts de sapin de Cilicie au Liban et changements globaux : apports des analyses palynologiques et génétiques. Montpellier : 2014. Université de Montpellier 2 : thèse de doctorat, Evolution, Ecologie, Ressources génétiques, Paléontologie.

Posted on behalf of Dr Lara Awad who is a lecturer at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut and the Lebanese International University