Race to save ancient Italian olive tree engulfed by wildfires

Scientists in Sardinia are hoping a thousand-year-old olive tree nearly destroyed by recent fires can be saved, mobilising volunteers to stand guard around the remains of the ancient tree.

Race to save ancient Italian olive tree engulfed by wildfires
An olive grove in western Sardinia destroyed in the recent fires. VALENTINA SINIS / AFP

“The Patriarch”, as it is known, was a massive wild olive tree on the west of the Italian island, with a trunk about 10 metres around and 16.5 metres high.

But it was nearly completely devoured by flames that ripped through the area last weekend, when over 20,000 hectares burned in the worst fires seen on the island in decades.

READ ALSO: ‘A disaster without precedent’: Sardinia wildfires ravage west of Italian island

The blaze destroyed homes and killed livestock as it ravaged thousands of Sardinia’s olive trees, along with juniper groves, cork trees, oaks and pines.

After an examination of the tree earlier this week, experts said they hoped there might be signs of life in the root system and the side of the trunk that was spared the worst burns.

An olive grove destroyed by the fires around the town of Cuglieri, Sardinia. (Photo by Valentina SINIS / AFP)

The community of Cuglieri has organised volunteers to stand guard to prevent people from walking on its fragile root systems on the advice of experts, including botanist Gianluigi Bacchetta of Cagliari University.

“Keeping this tree alive means keeping everyone’s hope alive,” he said of the specimen, which registered on Italy’s list of monumental trees.

Bacchetta said after an examination of the area on Wednesday that water added to the soil around the tree had helped lower its temperature.

READ ALSO: What to do and what to avoid if you see a wildfire in Italy

Another scientist who surveyed the damage, University of Sassari botany professor Ignazio Camarda, wrote on Facebook that all that was left of the mighty tree were “miserable remains that lie on the ground and a few blackened stumps, as well as a section of the base”.

But he also noted “a glimmer of life from which a new sapling could emerge”.

Firefighters were still on the ground in western Sardinia on Friday, extinguishing new outbreaks and clearing areas, even as scorching temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius and winds mean that the risk of fire remains high.

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Theft of sand from Sardinia’s beaches on the rise again – despite fines of up to €3,000

With the return of mass tourism this summer came a new increase in the theft of sand, pebbles and shells from Sardinia’s protected beaches, environmental campaigners say.

Theft of sand from Sardinia’s beaches on the rise again - despite fines of up to €3,000
A beach in Sardinia's Porto San Paolo. Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP

A campaign group called ‘Sardegna rubata e depredata’ (Sardinia robbed and plundered) estimated that at least six tonnes of sand had been taken from the island’s beaches this year alone, mostly by foreign visitors.

In 2017, it became illegal to remove sand, shells and pebbles from Sardinia’s beaches as they were classed as protected resources. People breaking these rules face fines of between €500 and €3,000 – and anyone caught attempting to take larger quantities risks a prison term.

But it seems that many visitors haven’t got the message, as sand theft – and the number of fines being issued to those caught stealing – has risen again this summer with the return of international tourists.

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing to protect its coastline?

In July alone, customs officers at Sardinia’s Alghero airport seized 1.4 kilograms of sand from the island’s beaches during systematic bag searches, the Ansa news agency reported on Tuesday.

Items found in the possession of departing passengers at the airport last month reportedly included numerous plastic bottles filled with sand, 743 sea pebbles, 43 shells and a rock weighing 1.2 kg. 

All passengers caught with the illegal souvenirs were fined, police said.

Campaigners said most culprits are foreign tourists who usually “don’t really have a motive”. 

“Perhaps to arouse the envy of friends and relatives, or to recreate the feeling of the holiday in their living rooms, or even to decorate a home aquarium,” the group wrote on its Facebook page.

“Some do it probably because there is such a sense of discomfort in having to leave the island. They try in a desperate way to take it with them, in their hands, instead of keeping the memories in the heart,” the group said.

In rarer cases, the motive for the theft appears to be profit – with reports in Italian media that bags of precious pink sand from Sardinia’s protected beaches are being sold online to “collectors”.

A couple of French tourists last year were caught trying to board a ferry with 40kg of sand in 14 large plastic bottles in the boot of their car.