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BAROUK, Lebanon (Reuters) - Sturdy cedars perched high in the mountains stand for many Lebanese as symbols of their fractured land's survival. But some environmentalists worry that the trees face a new threat from global warming.
"The biggest challenge now for the cedars of Lebanon is climate change," said Nizar Hani, scientific coordinator of the Barouk Cedar Nature Reserve in the Shouf mountains.
Only murmuring insects and breezes rustling through cedar branches disturb the stillness of the sanctuary, about 90 minutes' drive from the frenzied bustle of Beirut.
The cedar's natural range is now 1,200 to 1,800 meters (4,000 to 5,900 feet) above sea level, Hani said. A warmer climate would mean cedars could only prosper higher up.
Cedars once covered vast swathes of southern Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, but their timber and resin has long been in demand, as indicated by the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in the second millennium BC, and by the Biblical tale of King Solomon importing Lebanese cedar wood for his temple in Jerusalem.
Valued by Phoenician shipwrights, Egyptian builders and many others, the forests shrank over the millennia. Ottoman Turks axed many of Lebanon's surviving cedars. British troops used cedar wood to build the Tripoli-Haifa railway in World War Two.
Now cedars cover only 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) in Lebanon, clinging on in just a dozen high-altitude redoubts.
Almost all these are protected. The Barouk cedars are thriving and regenerate naturally. Their larger, older cousins in a walled grove near Bsherri in the north are more famous, but only a few remain. Some are thought to exceed 2,000 years old.
The longevity of the cedrus libani, or cedar of Lebanon, does not make it immune from climate change, argued Rania Masri, an environmentalist and assistant professor at the University of Balamand in north Lebanon.
Cedars are comfortable at a certain altitude and like moist, well-drained soil with a certain level of humidity.
"These are aspects that climate change could very much impact, especially in this region," she said. "There could well be a decrease in humidity, a decrease in rainfall."
Cedars form part of an environment in Lebanon subject to multiple man-made stresses not limited to climate change, she added. "I'm as worried about threats to the cedars as I am about most other environmental situations in Lebanon, but not more."
A decade ago, insects were devastating cedars at Tannourin in northern Lebanon. Researchers linked the infestation of Cephalcia tannourinensis, a wood wasp, to changes in temperature and soil moisture. The outbreak was eventually controlled.
Nevertheless, Nasri Kawar, a retired professor at the American University of Beirut, who played a leading role in that effort, said he did not have enough firm scientific evidence to predict how badly climate change would affect the cedars.
"Global warming is not a matter of overnight, it's a matter of many years. We have not yet seen any serious deterioration in the cedars over the years, besides this insect," he said.
"To me the cedars are the symbol of Lebanon. They show the country's fantastic endurance," added Kawar, 75. "I hope my grandchildren will be able to enjoy them. I think they will."
Efforts to preserve the cedars of Barouk, an official nature reserve since 1996, have been led by Walid Jumblatt, a Druze politician and former militia chief whose fiefdom is the Shouf.
The reserve covers 160 square km (62 square miles), 1.5 percent of Lebanon's territory, and contains a quarter of its cedar forests, said Hani, the scientific coordinator.
Lebanon's cedar, which adorns the national flag, grows into its distinctive wedge shape only after it has reached a height of seven or eight meters (23-26 feet), he explained.
"Then the head dies. This is a natural condition, not a disease, because the underground water reservoir can only feed the tree to that height," Hani said. "This is the difference between the cedrus libani in Lebanon and in other places.
"If you plant a cedrus libani in a place with more water and more snow, you cannot see this shape, the flag shape."
Barouk is a haven of biodiversity, with 524 plant species and a rich variety of birds, reptiles and mammals, said to include wild boar, wolves, red foxes, jackals and hyenas.
Lebanon's political troubles have undercut efforts to attract visitors to the reserve, despite its peaceful beauty.
Numbers hit a peak of 28,000 in 2004, but dropped to 21,000 in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Only 17,000 people came in 2006, the year of Israel's war with Hezbollah guerrillas, and 14,000 last year.
"The situation in the country is still not quiet, not 100 percent," Hani acknowledged. "We hope the next few months will be calmer and people will come here to enjoy nature in Lebanon."
Editing by Janet Lawrence