Protecting the Yakutanegoyo

White pine trees among symbols of Yakushima

YAKUSHIMACHO, Kagoshima--The late Fumiko Hayashi wrote in her novel "Ukigumo" (Floating Clouds) that it rained "35 days in a month" on Yakushima island, 60 kilometers south of Kyushu.

The island is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous for its rainy weather and yakusugi cedar trees that are more than 1,000 years old. But, according to a leader of a local volunteer group, Yakushima also is home to other symbolic trees.

These are yakutanegoyo, a species of Japanese white pine, which only grow in the wild on Yakushima and Tanegashima islands, according to Kenshi Tezuka, leader of the volunteer group overseeing the white pines on Yakushima.
However, yakutanegoyo are in danger of extinction. Because of pest damage and excessive logging after World War II, the number of trees has declined to about 2,000 on Yakushima and 300 on Tanegashima.

The volunteer group led by Tezuka, 58, was formed in 1999 to share information about yakutanegoyo and promote their protection.

Since then, in cooperation with its counterpart on Tanegashima, the volunteer group has been trying to record the location, diameter and height of every single yakutanegoyo tree on Yakushima. The group has also been labeling each of them and mapping their locations.

On Yakushima, the white pine trees grow naturally in only three areas between 300 meters and 1,000 meters of elevation. These areas are rubble-covered ridges and rocky cliffs.

"[Yakutanegoyo] grow slower than red and black pines," said Seiichi Kanetani, a chief research fellow at the Kyushu branch of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute. "Since the flora on Yakushima is diverse, they probably lose out to other plants in the growing process and can only grow naturally in places where there are no other plants."

Kanetani, 42, studied yakutanegoyo in graduate school at Kyushu University. He met Tezuka, and they formed the volunteer survey group. A total of 948 group members participated in 118 surveys and located the 1,896 pine trees on the island. The survey data has been utilized at the research institute.

"The end of the distribution survey is already in sight," said Tezuka. However, he is concerned that a significant number of the white pine trees at higher elevations recently died. He suspects the deaths might be directly related to cross-border pollution from China.

"I will keep asking the government to designate [yakutanegoyo] as a national natural monument and will try to clearly have it recognized as another symbol of the island," Tezuka said.

(Sep. 21, 2011)